Some news sites are having WTF moments (The Daily Mail and the sites who cut and pasted the story–like Linda Ikeji) at the comments made by Rachel Dilley, a 48-year old single mother of two who told a British TV morning show about how she was infected with HIV. She had unprotected sex with a man she met on a dating site and claimed she had no idea she was at risk. At the time, she admits she was clueless about HIV and AIDS: “I just didn’t know anything about it – I just thought you got it in Africa. I didn’t know a white person had ever got it.”
Didn’t she hear about the pandemic in the early 1980s US (she’s old enough to have, but may have dismissed it just as easily, and just as ignorantly, as a disease that affects gay men)? You can imagine the comments that followed her admission. Some of the reaction to Dilley was justifiable outrage about her easy designation of Africa as the location of illness: HIV is a horror that would never touch her, safely ensconced as she was in whiteness and British-Europeanness. But some of the criticism was just smuggy-buggy superior.
As much as I want to denigrate Dilley and laugh at her ignorance, so many people are like her; I might venture so far as to say that most people are like her. I can’t tell you how many white South Africans believe this — and they live in South Africa. And that view is prevalent throughout India and Sri Lanka, despite the fact that HIV is becoming more prevalent in the subcontinent (the adult HIV prevalence in India is estimated to be between 0.27-0.30%; this number seems low, until we remember that the population of India alone is at about 1.2 billion, meaning that there are around 2.1 million people living with HIV in India).
Most films and reporting about HIV on South Africa tacitly work with that same assumption, as do media personalities who help spread such views. Remember Justine Sacco who tweeted before she got on a plane to Cape Town: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” One exception was the film, “State of Denial,” in which one of the main characters was a middle class white woman who was HIV-positive. I’ve had men (one an academic) proposition me with the bonus that…since they are white, there’d be no HIV, and no need to worry about using rubbers.
To be honest, it took courage for Dilley to admit to her colossal ignorance on television, perhaps knowing that she would be roundly criticised and ridiculed. Many millions believe as she once did. Yeay for this mother of two that she mustered up the strength to put herself in such a vulnerable position in order to educate us about what the real face of HIV+ looks like.