In the conversations we have about HIV at national and global conferences, the word ‘stigma’ is all too often used to mean ‘HIV-positive people having negative experiences’. When I first began working on stigma as an issue, back in 2008, my goal was to expand our sense of what stigma means. I wanted the sector to adopt a language for talking about stigma that acknowledges that it has different components and works on multiple levels.
In particular, I wanted the sector to focus on how stigma is implicated in social exclusion — people not being welcome in particular social networks or settings — and social participation — people not being able to play a meaningful role within communities, workplaces, sexual cultures, social movements, arts and culture, policy-making, governance and democracy.
Along the way I’ve noticed parallels between the work I was doing around HIV stigma and anti-racist social movements. For instance, stigma can be a productive framework for understanding sexual racism as a stereotype driven process for excluding non-white men as potential sexual partners.*
I am absolutely blown away by this article by Hanif Abdurraqib in Pitchfork magazine, looking at the failure to think about racism, and the way violence may be differently experienced by black people, as drivers of his experience of exclusion and alienation from the Midwest punk community.
Not least because the writing is so damn powerful:
I don’t remember the first time I noticed the small group in the back corner of a punk show at the Newport (one of the many venues that I fell in and out of love with in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio), all of them, in some way, pushed out of the frenzied circle of bodies below, and the alleged loving violence that comes with it. I do remember the first time I became one of the members of that group in the back corner of shows. At 18, I hung in the back corner of the Newport and watched NOFX with the rest of the kids who didn’t quite fit, or at least became tired of attempting to fit. I looked around and saw every version of other, as I knew it. The black kids, the girls my age and younger, the kids most fighting with the complexities of identity. We sat back and watched while NOFX tore through an exceptionally loud version of “Don’t Call Me White”, and watched below, as a monochromatic sea crashed against itself.
In a piece evocatively titled ‘The Rice Steamer’, Australian researcher Gilbert Caluya has described something similar on the gay scene:
During one of my trips to a particular club I must have looked confused or perhaps just out of place because a white man came up to me to offer some help. ‘If you’re looking for where the Asians are you can find them over there’, he said pointing to a group of Asian men. Over the course of the fieldwork it became evident that this nightclub seemed to ‘reserve’ this particular space for Asian men and rice queens who huddled around the bottom of the stairs next the stage.
Caluya uses the concept of ‘striated space’ from Deleuze and Guattari (1988) to analyse how gay community venues are partitioned into zones where people of non-white race can experience more or less microaggressive friction — such as the ‘helpful’ direction he recounts in the quote above.
These two quotes can help us think about how stigma is involved in experiences of social exclusion that accumulate and calcify into social structures that are, in turn, implicated in the inequitable distribution of access to life chances — such as opportunities for love, sex, and social connection; and more concretely, health services like counselling and technologies for health like PrEP and HIV testing and treatment.
* I wouldn’t go as far as Link, Phelan and Dovidio (2008) in speculating on stigma and racial prejudice being the same things.