Racial bias in HIV Prevention, Education & Outreach is obvious. However, you might not realize how deep and stigmatizing it can be. As someone who has worked in this field for over 10 years now, it took a while for me to even accept the truth about it.
My first manager while working in the Prevention field was Jennifer. This woman had such a passion for the work that she inspired me daily, and not just me, but every member of her team. She treated us with respect, encouraged our ideas and would do whatever it took for the greater good. I didn’t realize that all mangers weren’t like this, so I was spoiled going in to the field. Jennifer did not use race as a playing card in a game, she hired people because of their skill, their talent and their determination. The HIV rates in Austin Texas are highest amongst Men who have sex with men(MSM) of color, specifically black men. The term MSM is used as many individuals do not identify themselves as gay, so we in the business identify them as MSM. We all knew that our goal was to find those at highest risk and provide proper outreach and education to those who would be willing to listen.
After I left Austin and moved to Boston Massachusetts I had another incredible manager, Michael. He also did not use race as a factor when hiring someone for his team. He looked for ingenuity, someone who didn’t accept no as an answer and someone committed to the cause. In Boston outreach was very different from in Austin, there was a much larger diversity in people at all outreach locations. Having to adapt my strategies on doing proper outreach to different communities helped me grow as an outreach worker. To do the outreach isn’t difficult, you just have to show respect. Using a picture of a black man on your outreach flyer isn’t going to be enough to get them to come in, that is a lazy attitude towards outreach, and will prove ineffective. I made friends in different communities, I built rapport with these groups and in doing so I was trusted and welcomed. When men from these higher risk communities came in for testing, and they have never had a HIV test in their life, I felt very proud of my work.
While I was in college in San Francisco I applied for a job doing outreach. I got an interview and walked in to the office, said my name and was asked to have a seat. The waiting room was small and only had 3 chairs in it. As I sat there waiting, another guy walks in says he had a meeting with someone and was asked to sit as well. A few minutes pass and a woman walks out and directly to the guy sitting to my left and says “Hello Kevin, I’m *******,” The guy sitting down says, my name isn’t Kevin. The woman then looks at me in disappointment and embarrassment and I state proudly “Hello, I’m Kevin.” I was somewhat perplexed as I had no idea why she thought that other guy was me, and why the weird face she gave after she found out that I was the one she was seeking. I walked in to the large conference room, a panel of 6 people were waiting for me. The woman who brought me back was the director of the program and sat at the head of the table. I introduced my self and they themselves and then the questions began. After about 15 minutes of questions and answers, the director stopped writing and placed her pencil on the table. She clasped her hands together and asked condescendingly, “How can you do outreach to communities of color?” I answered back that it all depends on my resources, if it needs to be out on the streets, I’ll go out on the streets, if it means online, I can create an outreach profile, if I need to go to the barbershops, I’ll do that. Still looking at me as if I were a 12-year-old who was applying to be a Chief Medical Officer she asked me, “But you’re white, how can you talk to the black community?” I had never been asked such a question before while also feeling less of a person for being white. I went on to discuss in detail my previous outreach work, working with communities of all colors and backgrounds. The entire panel interviewing me were black, and I started to feel like this was just a waste of time. One woman two people from my right jumped in and said how impressive it was that I moved from Texas to Massachusetts and was able to do the work I did and create the connection I had made there. She went on to tell me that she liked my ideas about online outreach and how that was something they have never considered before. The director sat in silence for the rest of my interview. The panel asked me a few more questions and that was it. It all started to make sense to me as I was walking out of the office. The director was looking for a young black man, like the one in the waiting room and was disappointed when she found out I was white. She obviously thought that a white person can not do outreach in the black community. It hurt to be reduced to something as trivial as my skin color, but it’s not as though I have to suffer that every day of my life. Leave it to me to work in the one field where white men don’t have an upper hand.
In all reality people of color do get screwed over time and time again, when it comes to prevention methods. Scare tactics, mistrust, stereotyping are just a few of the problems that these communities face with outreach materials.
We all need to work harder to end HIV. Knowledge, Education, Training, Respect, Understanding, Openness are just a few things that it is going to take to change the way HIV is talked about. We have to start with ending stigma around HIV, When I was younger I was terrified that HIV was just an inevitability….No one should feel that way, Ever. If you have questions about HIV, ask them. There are plenty of counselors, outreach workers, tester and doctors who are always happy to go in to details about HIV.
Last shout out: PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) it’s a once daily pill to prevent one from contracting HIV. Yes it’s real, it’s covered by most insurances, and its proven at preventing HIV. We can be the generation that ends HIV.