Home Thinking about Black men and HIV


In the early 1990s, an African immigrant who settled in southwestern Ontario was charged and prosecuted for failing to disclose his HIV status to a series of white female sexual partners.6 A post-mortem of his body (he died on the eve of his Ontario Superior Court ruling), in addition to evidence from the trial and stories in the media, revealed ‘shocking facts’ about him that would

later be reported in a popular rendition of his case and may have validated what many people suspected all along.7 He may have disregarded the wellbeing of his lovers; but, based on racialized codes transmitted from another era, this disregard was rendered potently “African” through a racist construction of his erotic endowment. Since then, other Black men in Canada have been charged and jailed or deported. Black men appear to be over-represented among those charged with the various offences related to non-disclosure. Their cases and the stories of their sexual partners have been sensationally reported in the media.

Of course, men do not infect women with HIV because of their penile length or erectile durability. Nor are Black men perversely endowed in those characteristics. But ideas and images that caricature Black men as “violent”, “oversexed”, and reckless” have a long and complex genealogy that permeates contemporary ways of understanding Black men.8,9

Our response to HIV among Black communities in Canada requires us to rethink how we understand Black men. In other words, we need to reflect carefully on how we think about Black men, masculinity and gender. This involves being open to reconsidering categories, modes of thought, and practices which we have deeply internalized. In relation to Black men, it means being attuned to the categories buried in Black male iconography which shape commonsense knowledge and discourse about Black men. We are referring to those ideas we have about Black men that rarely get questioned, or that we take for granted because they seem consistent with what we think we “know” (e.g., Black men are incapable of turning down sex or practicing safe-sex, cant/dont talk about health, etc).

Black men are generally interpreted through racist and sexist frames of reference that reinforce, or naturalize, the commonsense ideas society has about them.10 For example, we often hear that Black men endorse dangerous behaviours and attitudes that have grave consequences for the transmission of HIV in Black communities.11,12 Critical race theorists would argue that, to understand how categories and discourses frame dominant thinking about Black men, we must understand how and why those discourses are taken up by Black people themselves.13

One way of imagining Black identity is to picture it as working along a script.14 Of course, there is never quite one script, but instead multiple scripts and subscripts.15 Figuratively speaking, scripts appear to collectively frame Black identity and make it culturally meaningful and intelligible. They also make us feel like we “know” Black men and thus can predict their behaviour. Our objective must be to get “beneath” and “beyond” Black identity scripts. We must heed the advice of critical theorists and look for ways of destabilizing and denaturalizing these scripts and appreciating the power relations that underscore them.

In more concrete terms, we must recognize the following: first, Black mens behaviour cannot be separated from the multiple ways in which men, in different social circumstances, cope with vulnerability;16 second, while Black men handle their vulnerability strategically they do not always engage their vulnerability productively (in fact, sometimes mens coping strategies are very counter- productive);17 and third, Black men do not always possess the resources to negotiate and challenge cultural and social scripts in the same way that White heterosexual men do. We have to forego debates about whether Black men are responsible or not. Generally speaking, no group or community is either inherently responsible or inherently irresponsible. Instead, we should try to understand what constitutes responsible’ behaviour, how social relations determine, mediate or affect what is considered responsible’ (or privilege some classes of people or some behaviours as more responsible than others), and how social relations challenge or enable the practice of responsibility.

The story of how the sexual behaviour of one African immigrant was racialized reminds us that old ideas never quite get old, but instead find a way of infusing and co-existing with democratic principles like “justice”, “equality” and “fairness”. HIV has reinvigorated a paradigm of difference that compels us to mine our concepts and categories and rethink how we understand Black men and can meaningfully support them. What we hope to demonstrate is that, despite their vulnerabilities, heterosexual Black men are also thoughtful and resilient, and this complexity should inform how service providers, researchers and policy makers engage Black men in the organized response to HIV.