Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil!

I was recently in a space where someone said that silence colludes with white supremacy and other constructs of oppression. It was a heavy blow for me, not that I'm silent most times, but there have been moments when I haven't spoken up, haven't said what I felt and didn't speak clearly or with audacity. There have been times when I've kept my thoughts, feelings, visions of work to myself and hoped that a moment would present itself to speak. The work that I'm talking about is work towards black liberation, the work to dismantle any system forged by oppression. To make a gestalt about what oppression is wholly, I think: any system that pretends to own narratives of a people; any system that feels that self-ownership isn't a thing; any system that, based on identities, can predict outcomes of health, incarceration, etc. If outcomes are so predictable, then something at the systems' baseline intends for those outcomes.

I read several articles in March about the alarming rate of HIV infections in black and Latinx HIV-vulnerable communities. They say at-risk. They code sexual risk by genitalia, so "MSM" or men who have sex with men statistically could and probably includes people with trans identities and people who are gender-variant or non-binary as well, which is troubling and problematic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report at the CROI conference, held in Boston earlier this year, projected that if new HIV diagnoses persist, then one in two black men with affinity for men will become HIV positive and one in four Latino men with affinity for men will become HIV positive in their lifetimes. These are alarming projections.

Many activists have focused on the non-profit industrial complex, which is a product of white hegemony and therefore has elements that collude with white supremacy. The activism has and does center on how these non-profits, especially ASOs (AIDS service organizations) have benefited from black and Latinx bodies and minds. This I wholeheartedly believe to be true and hope that we can hold these institutions accountable for that. One of the ways that anti-blackness shows up in the context of these institutions is by creating an environment in which black and Latinx front-line staff are often used for their knowledge based on their experience to garner connects to those communities, yet these individuals are often depleted of intellectual resources without credit or equity, and the agencies don't care to invest in them at all.

Another way that this shows up is by creating a culture of policing the speech, appearance and rage of black and Latinx front-line staff. I've sat in meetings where white colleagues can gesture, speak and/or be angry without hesitation or reprimand, and others who are black or Latinx are told that what they have to say, while valid, should be framed differently or that it appeared that the black or Latinx staff person was angry or rageful. Yup, because anytime you disrupt oppression in these spaces, the quickest way the powers that be try to discredit the disruption is by leaning on the pathologies of blackness. Conversations about the communities that are HIV vulnerable must be of that community.

I want to talk about the failure that is innate in HIV prevention. The idea that we are still interacting with HIV as if it were only sexual/behavioral or -- as sometimes people with expansive minds see it -- socio-economic is a barrier. The truth about the epidemic is that it was never a white epidemic; it is just like drug epidemics. When the face is white it agitates a different response than if the face is black or Latinx. Once you address how systemic racism pervades the very systems set up to address HIV with only a public health lens, you disrupt how white supremacy fuels the epidemic.

Anytime you have capital made by vulnerability, you have a very big problem. With all the great advances in care, profit margins were probably thought of with more care than those impacted by HIV. With all the so-called support, the care-continuum and linkages, we still can't figure out why there is a lack of trust of non-profits who do the work. When you only see an individual as necessary for your deliverables, you lose them. Do you want them lost? Any system that perpetuates people's reliance on it isn't here to liberate them. It is here to keep them coming back.

You're told you're at risk before you're told you matter; the HIV vulnerable are addressed as pathological beings instead of complete people. You can't come from a place of deficit and expect the outcomes will net past zero. You can't continue to perpetuate messages, thoughts and feelings about black and Latinx people that tell them you see them only as a potential number for a contract to meet deliverables when you don't think of these people as real.

Honestly, I've sat in many trainings where these ideas were propagated. These scientifically proven interventions are used to engage communities of vulnerability and in these cohorts the instructors/facilitators with passion identify MSMs or trans individuals as these psychosocial anomalies. We are othered in ways that make it impossible to engage with those communities. Sometimes when I read client profiles provided as tools, I can't help but think I'm reading a character history. It angers me that even in the curriculum we allow for these pathologies to continue being made the experience of all we intend to help.

Last, I want to speak about the ways these orgs use poz communities to elevate their legacies. Stop tokenizing poz community members by using their narratives to further the legacies of an agency. Stop trying to control the narratives of poz community members, and stop using the pretense of awards to have poz community members speak their experience rather than supporting them to find voices independent of an agency.

#nonprofits #HIV #BLM #BBWC