Discussion of Racial Justice, Privilege and HIV Includes Call for Action

Protester outside the residence of the governor in Saint Paul, Minnesota, on July 7, 2016, following the police shooting of Philando Castile by a police officer, just hours before the webinar on Why Race Matters: Women, Intersectionality, and HIV
Tony Webster, tony@tonywebster.com

The webinar on "Why Race Matters: Women, Intersectionality and HIV" had been scheduled far in advance -- but by the time it occurred on July 7, there had been reports of police shootings of young black people in the United States on each of the proceeding three days, bringing a particular passion to the conversation.

And while dialogue, such as that on the webinar, will not stop racist killings, it can be a first step in addressing the issue, said co-moderator Olivia Ford, a consultant with the Well Project. The Well Project sponsored the event with support from Positive Women's Network-USA and TheBody.com.

Race is a social category, not a biological one, explained Tonia Poteat, Ph.D., of Johns Hopkins University in her presentation on racism and health disparities. There is no genetic marker for race per se and the concept of race is fluid, with categories varying across time and cultures. Understood as a social category, race explains how people are treated and the opportunities they have or restrictions they face based on how they look. One example of this, she noted, is the practice of banks "redlining" certain geographical areas containing people of color to which they don't provide mortgages .

Poteat quoted Paul Farmer's definition of health disparity as "the biological expression of social inequalities." Such inequalities are not only based on race, but also on gender, education, income level and other factors. Social determinants of health that are themselves affected by inequity include poverty, lack of education and racism. To this end she cited stark statistics: Transgender women around the globe are 50 times more likely to live with HIV than the rest of the population; African-American women and Latinas comprise fewer than one-third of women in the U.S. but 80% of U.S. women living with HIV; and the HIV rate among black transgender women is three times that of their white or Latina counterparts.

Such disparities are due to structural factors, not biology, Naina Khanna from Positive Women's Network - USA emphasized. In her presentation on the impact of social identity on HIV services and advocacy, Khanna said daily experiences of racism constitute a form of trauma. For example, systemic racism is perpetuated in media narratives that focus on the arrest of people of color and then portray them in police mug shots while showing well-groomed school pictures of young white men who have been arrested for the same crime.

Race, however, is only one of the aspect of our identities. The ways in which we perceive ourselves or are seen by others are also based on gender, class, education, immigration status, age, sexuality and other factors. As a result, we can be simultaneously privileged -- e.g., due to our race -- and oppressed -- e.g., due to our HIV status. This intersectionality of our various selves was a topic of interest during the 1960s when black women started to question the white feminist movement's single focus on sexism to the exclusion of racism, Khanna explained.

Anti-racist advocacy is more than a person's individual behavior, it means actively seeking out and listening to those most affected by an issue, as well as recognizing one's own privilege and using it to speak out about discrimination, she said. It also means stepping back and letting members of the affected community express their needs, then acting upon those rather than upon one's own preconceived notions of what should be done.

A reminder of what life under racism is like came from Rebecca Dennison, founder of WORLD. She shared her fears for the African-American teenager she is parenting when he went to look at Christmas light displays in her parent's mainly white neighborhood, and the fact that she never had to be afraid for her white children's safety in the same situation. "Privilege is this ocean we swim in," she said.

Privilege means reaping unearned benefits solely because of one's membership in social groups that have power, explained TheBody.com's JD Davids in his presentation on the nature of privilege and how it can be used. It is often easier to recognize oppression than privilege. Not having to think about race or gender on a daily basis means freedom from the "micro traumas" suffered by people of color and is a form of privilege. Another is the fact that white communities are not policed as heavily as black communities. White teenagers are therefore less likely to be arrested for drug use, and therefore not subject to the potentially life-long consequences of an arrest record on the ability to find work, housing and other matters that contribute to social drivers of HIV.

"The factors that exacerbate HIV and underpin the disparities in this country and around the world are oppression, capitalism, lack of racial justice, gender bias," Davids said. To change the conditions that give rise to HIV, allies in the struggle against racism must continue the work over the long term, be responsible for their promises of action, make amends when they err and recognize that social media battles may not be worthwhile, he said. Drawing from the work of Southerners on New Ground (SONG), Davids pointed to their model of white allies having an "accountability buddy" -- another white person who can help them consider their actions as they work for racial justice both within and outside the HIV movement. One way to do so is to join ShowingUpForRacialJustice.org (SURJ), a network of white people who work for racial justice.

You can go here to view the webinar, and to this page to see slides and associated links.