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Don't Racialize AIDS Discourse -- Our Needs Don't Define Who We Are

12/05/2013 12:28 EST | Updated 02/04/2014 05:59 EST

World AIDS Day marks one of the most gripping health epidemics in human history. With all eyes on AIDS, this day is an opportunity to acknowledge milestones achieved, and more importantly, to remind us that it's not over.

Over the weekend I read Sarah Liss's article, "The Second Coming of AIDS" and found it moving and exciting. It covers the changing course of the movement and reminds us of the importance of outrage, strength and activism. I was particularly excited to see a racialized person at the forefront of a mainstream article who was well-represented and drove his own story.

Reading Liss's article made me think about how racialized communities and people are represented in broad HIV/AIDS discourse. And the short answer is, not well. To clarify, our racialized bodies are represented lots, but not well. We are the PR and marketing pundits' go-to in order to ensure diversity; we are the face on the brochure to indicate how inclusive a program is and, in international discourse, we are the image of a people in need.

Representation means something. When a racialized person is on the front cover of a global health report, the audience has received a message before they even read it. And the message is a clear one: here are the people who need our help, here are the people we need to save.

Beyond HIV/AIDS, health development discourse in general often promotes a two-dimensional dynamic between those who 'need help' and those who are going to 'help them.' People who access services are labelled as 'marginalized,' or 'in need,' and perceived as powerless and those providing services are labelled as the people with the 'power' and 'knowledge' to save. Racialized women and children, especially from the Global South often become the face of health issues as their faces (literally) are plastered on the websites and brochures of global health organizations. Their images usually accompanied by indicators of poverty and rural geographies and are offered to an audience as the subject of research or as the justification for much needed programs.

This two dimensional view of development essentially draws from racist colonial discourse that pathologizes racialized bodies and tasks the West with their rescue or development. And while it can be a struggle to find positive representations that paints racialized bodies with strength and power, they do exist and they are possible. People living with HIV are at the forefront of charting new discourse that is not only focused on needs but also on strengths and resiliency.

Working at an AIDS Service Organization that primarily serves racialized populations, we are always cognizant of the words and the images we associate with our communities. We face racism, HIV stigma, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, but we are also activists with our own ideas and solutions. In truth, nothing is two dimensional about our work, we all need a little saving and we all have something to offer to affect positive change.

Some of my favourite famous words by Australian Aboriginal Elder Lilla Watson were said to challenge people working in social justice, "If you've come here to help me, you're wasting your time. But if you've come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."

This blog is part of a World AIDS Day series produced by the Interagency Coalition on AIDS and Development (ICAD) in recognition of World AIDS Day (Dec 1). The series runs from Dec. 1-7, 2013 and will feature a selection of blogs written by our member and partner organizations. Each day of the week will address a specific, yet broad topic area, and offer different perspectives and insight on what must be done to achieve the UNAIDS campaign of "Getting to Zero." Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog series are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of ICAD.

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