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HIV/AIDS Resource Center for African Americans
Kai Chandler Lois Crenshaw Gary Paul Wright Fortunata Kasege Keith Green Lois Bates Greg Braxton Vanessa Austin Bernard Jackson


This is part of a ten-part article. For other sections of this article, see Table of Contents.

10. Stigma: "We All Have AIDS"

Stigma is often cited by advocates as the leading HIV/AIDS issue confronting the black community, because it is at the root of so many other issues: denial, homophobia, the down low, the black church, late testing, inadequate prevention efforts, myths about HIV and, above all, the silence surrounding the virus.

"I get a lot of invitations to talk on black mental health problems -- but not about AIDS. People are still embarrassed about that," says Harvard University's Dr. Alvin Poussaint. "It's, 'Let's focus on something positive instead.' But that type of thinking prevents education. You have to talk about HIV/AIDS, and throw in obesity and diabetes -- the things that are killing blacks."

Pouissant's mention of obesity and diabetes -- two diseases about which there is very little stigma, despite the fact that they are often related to so-called "lifestyle factors" -- in the same breath as HIV/AIDS illustrates an important point.

Advocates and experts urge society to address HIV as a public health and medical issue, not a moral one. This moralization of HIV/AIDS is based in deep sources of fear. There is the fear of being different, which is rooted in negative judgments about the behaviors that commonly lead to HIV transmission the virus, such as homosexual sex, injection drug use, sex work or incarceration. There is also the fear of contamination, which is rooted in ignorance about the way the virus is actually transmitted.

Carlos Velez
Carlos Velez
Such fears can be overcome by public education and frequent discussion, AIDS advocates say. "We need programs that counter the stigma of HIV in communities of color because all the myths [about HIV] are actually the result of stigma," says Carlos Velez, formerly of the National Minority AIDS Council. "For example, the myth that an injection drug user can never change their behavior. We can all think of [those] who have successfully kicked their habit and become productive members of society."

Fortunately, there have been recent, highly publicized efforts to battle HIV/AIDS stigma in the United States. Viacom and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation teamed up to launch the massive "Know HIV/AIDS" campaign, which features African-American celebrities like Common and Alicia Keyes in radio and TV spots, magazine ads and bus shelters. In 2006, an alliance of leading companies and activists unveiled "Product RED," which has raised over $59 million for the global AIDS fight by selling special branded merchandise. Designer and advocate Kenneth Cole continues to run campaigns aimed specifically at destigmatizing HIV.

In addition, as the targets of stigma, African Americans with AIDS are, in a sense, the experts on it. Thus, they have a key role to play in efforts to counter stigma. They know the harm stigma does to all attempts to stop HIV -- from being open about having the virus to getting tested to seeking treatment.

What you can do: Take public awareness campaigns like "Know HIV/AIDS" to heart. Start by checking out the Web site at, where you can listen to Common, Alicia and many other celebrities talk about HIV, and subscribe to receive e-mail updates and many other free materials.

Read and pass around the National Call to Action and Declaration of Commitment to End the AIDS Epidemic in Black America. Then talk the talk. As journalist Kai Wright says, "Sometimes I think that for every billboard looked at by 20 million people, I would trade one substantive conversation between 20 people about decisions we make and don't make in our sexual and romantic lives."

This is part of a ten-part article. For other sections of this article, see Table of Contents.

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