Anti-Racism and White Women Living With HIV

These remarks were presented on the introductory webinar for a new anti-racism curriculum developed by and for PWN-USA members. You can watch the webinar here.

When someone tells me a piece of truth which has been withheld from me, and which I needed in order to see my life more clearly, it may bring acute pain, but it can also flood me with a cold, seasharp wash of relief.

-- Adrienne Rich

Laurel Sprague
Laurel Sprague
JD Davids

About 12 years ago I spent three weekends over the course of six months at a grown-up sleep away camp that I called "anti-racism camp." The real name was even better. It was called "Doing Our Own Work" and it was an intensive reading, journaling, discussion and action program for white women who wanted to be actively anti-racist. Doing Our Own Work was organized by the Rev. Melanie Morrison, who introduced the Adrienne Rich quote at the beginning of the program. About a dozen women at a time would go through the program, committing to learn history, to examine our own souls and spirits, to support each other, and to take action in our community or workplace to address some form of structural racism. I was living with HIV, in school, without even the social security income I'd had previously so they gave me a scholarship to attend. Almost all the women in my group -- and I learned in most of their groups -- were lesbians.  So I felt at home. What felt even better was that for the first time in my life I was surrounded by other white people who expressly wanted to be anti-racist and to challenge racism.

Let me challenge every white person on the phone with a challenge that the program facilitators gave us: spend a week noticing, every day, what it means in each moment to be white. Think to yourself what does it mean to be white right now driving my car? What does it mean in the grocery store? What is my experience as a white person when I go to my child's school? What is my experience when a police car passes me? Most white people in the US are raised with the idea that whiteness is normal -- nothing to think about -- making race and racism invisible much of the time.

Why did I want to attend this camp and "do my own work"? The biggest reason was that I felt alone in the extent to which I felt racism was a deep-seated wrong and that it shaped much of everything social, economic, and political around us ... and that I was afraid to have real conversations with other white people because I couldn't imagine what I could really say. What do you say to people who either don't care or don't believe that racism exists and shapes our society? You can't just jump up and down and say you're wrong ... so how do you make people, white people, even care?

A few years later, I organized a racial justice workshop at the church I attended. A brilliant woman named Jona Olsson came to facilitate -- her organization is called Cultural Bridges, in New Mexico. We had so many people register, mostly white people, that we had a waitlist for the workshop. One woman in the workshop asked Jona the question that I had -- how do you make white people care about racism? Jona turned the question back on all of us and asked, what changed you? If we are white and we care about racial justice, what brought us here? I would of course like to think I was just born this way, but that's a dangerous line of thought because it implies that perhaps others were not. Then there is nothing we can do but be self-righteous and look down on other white people, to just distance ourselves. It is a dead end. However, if we can be brave and reflective enough, then we can start to unravel what happened that turned some of us in a direction that allows us to connect with our sisters and brothers, fellow human beings, of different skin colors and to seek to understand the forces that tried, instead, to pull us apart.

In my experience, it is not easy to face racism in American society when you are white. Everything around tells you to ignore racism, that it doesn't really matter, that it is in the past, that it isn't NICE to bring it up, that you might find out something unbearable about yourself or your family. You fear that you might offend a person of color -- and accept without thinking that the risk of offending through trying to talk about racism is worse than the risk of accepting racism and the status quo. But what if we can be brave like Adrienne Rich?

Segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.

-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Now substitute segregation with racism.

There are many reasons for white people to be actively antiracist. One of them, for me, is my deep gratitude to civil rights activists, across time, who shaped American society to be a little better when I was born and raised than it was before that and before that. That meant that the distorted personality of racial superiority was pushed less on me than it might have been. I have to believe that no one ever wanted to grow up to be a Nazi. In the same way, no one wants to grow up to be a racist. Some of us were saved from that a little more than others because of the racial justice work that became part of our environment before we were born.

Some of us -- of all races -- know too well what it is like to be considered worthless, dirty, and unimportant because we have HIV, because we are poor people, because we are lesbians or transgender people, because we've been drug users and sex workers. We know how vulnerable to violence we are when we society at large doesn't see us as people who matter. For some of us, we can take that knowledge -- I know I feel it in my body -- and the understanding of vulnerability and use it to fuel our own determination that no one else should feel that way. No one else should be mistreated, diminished, no one should be shot and killed -- as we KNOW black families across America face -- because someone around felt that this person did not really matter. We need to say "not on our watch." I believe that is what PWN is doing with the work to fight racism.

So, just what is anti-racism?

It means to actively stand up against racism:

  • In our own selves where it may lodge itself in stereotypes, biases, assumptions, fears;
  • In our families and communities where it may be inherited across generations or newly fueled by hateful political rhetoric;
  • In our social justice connections with women living with HIV and AIDS activists where it might limit our solidarity and connections and impede our sense of urgency against injustice;
  • In our economic and political systems where it systematically underemploys and underpays people of color and allows policies that damage people, families, and communities of color.

It is not enough to be "nice" to everyone, to insist that we "don't see color", because interpersonal niceness does not change deep-seated racial dynamics. Instead, work for racial justice has to be active; it has to be pro-active.

Anti-racism does not mean we ignore other isms, such as those created by classism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia.  Within anti-racism we look at the ways that these other oppressions interlink with racism and commit to broader understandings of solidarity and connectedness.

We invite women of PWN to join together on this journey against racism and for racial justice. We do this work as volunteers, join us, this is a personal commitment for us, by us, for us.

It is not easy to talk about race but silence only supports further discrimination and violence against women of color. We can take inspiration from the poet Audre Lorde who demonstrated this principle in her lifelong activism for civil rights, women's rights, lesbian and gay rights and in many other rights struggles. In her words:

Speak your truth, even if your voice shakes."

-- Audre Lorde

NOTE: On January 17th, PWN kicked off a new anti-racism webinar and discussion series that will run until the end of 2017. The webinar series will be open to all. The discussion groups are designed for white women living with HIV who commit to working to become actively anti-racist. The program was created with the love and support of many of our PWN sisters of color. In the discussion groups, white PWNers will learn and work together together to challenge racism and increase racial justice in ourselves and our communities. The discussion groups will begin in February and end in December 2017. Sign up to join the discussion groups here.