Addressing the Costly Whiteness of AIDS Service Organizations in the South

Francisco Luis White
Francisco Luis White

We've recognized for quite some time that rates of HIV/AIDS transmission are exceptionally high in the U.S. South. Black and Latino men who sleep with men, as well as black transgender and cisgender (non-transgender) heterosexual women, are severely impacted. Care networks in cities such as Atlanta and here in Charlotte are clearly struggling in their prevention and treatment efforts, with many factors to consider in determining how to best defeat the epidemic in these affected communities. However, an uncomfortable and not confronted truth of the matter, both throughout the South and nationally, is that the leadership of AIDS service organizations (ASO) usually does not reflect the communities that need care most.

While competent professionals who identify closely with the people they serve often staff direct client services, their lack of representation at higher management levels is evident in programming and outreach. The culture of many of these organizations has actually become a barrier to care. Those who are most impacted -- queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) and black cis-hetero women -- are often served incidentally but not intentionally. This is due to an inability of white leadership to fully comprehend their experiences and needs.

In any field, but especially HIV care services, in which the stakes are so high for QTPOC and black women, it is not enough for white leaders to make diversity commitments for which they cannot be held accountable. We've seen such commitments often amount to little more than progressive, politically correct gestures. Even when the commitment is genuine, however, it must be followed through with action to fill crucial roles in the HIV fight with individuals who have a level of cultural competence that can only be acquired through lived experience. There is a clear need for QTPOC and black cis-hetero women, especially those who are living with HIV/AIDS, to be groomed and recruited into ASO leadership. Furthermore, financial support and capacity building is essential for the creation and survival of necessary POC-led organizations whose missions are to serve QTPOC and black women primarily.

When Care Providers Can't Even Say Black

In October, I was invited to lead a workshop for care professionals at the Carolina Conference on Queer Youth in Charlotte on how to provide effective outreach and adequate services to queer and trans youth of color. The 90-minute workshop, Proving Black Lives Matter in Our Network of Care, ultimately became a gauge of cultural incompetence and lack of intention among a large group of social service and health care professionals, including executive directors, from across the South. When asked, none of them could tell me about their organization's policies and strategies around diversity or cultural competence. Among the executive directors present, not one was a QTPOC or black women. Only a few said there was true diverse representation on their board of directors. Local ASOs were represented, but not one white executive or management-level leader from any ASO was in attendance. Although I was there specifically to address the needs of queer and trans youth of color, none of the white care providers would even say "black" when speaking about the youth they serve.

What has been most difficult for me to accept, even before the conference, is the lack of accountability for this state of affairs. When a room of 100 organization leaders, social workers, clinicians and other "helping professionals" are admittedly incompetent in outreach and service to POC, there is no one requiring that they do better. In the South, where this cultural incompetence is proving especially costly in the HIV/AIDS fight, blame can no longer be assigned to those of us fighting for our own lives within a system frankly not designed to ensure our survival. Though we expect white ASO leadership to get it, we cannot afford to continue waiting for that change happen on a large scale.

Space and Opportunity to Save Ourselves

From speaking to former clients and several of my colleagues, I know that people of color are aware that we have to take more initiative and control to save ourselves. We've been saying this to each other in hushed tones at the water cooler and in those safe spaces we've formed, but that saves no one. We're eager to and capable of truly leading the HIV/AIDS charge in our community. And when there is space and opportunity to lead -- which so many ASOs do not provide us -- due to our lived experience and ability to relate we are indisputably more qualified to lead than those now occupying leadership positions.

Entities like Black AIDS Institute and AIDS United, recognizing the dire need for capacity building among QTPOC and black women in the HIV service sector, are demonstrating their commitment to empowering us with the tools and funding required. The interest of current white leaders in offering us seats at the table is questionable. The need for us to build our own tables, especially in the South, has never been more glaring. I'm hopeful we'll have a lot of allies in that necessary work.

Francisco Luis White is a writer, speaker and HIV advocate residing in New York City who has contributed to various publications and blogs, primarily at