Understanding long-term HIV survivorship among African American/Black and Latinx persons living with HIV in the United States: A qualitative exploration through the lens of symbolic violence

Robert Freeman, Marya Gwadz, Leo Wilton, Linda M. Collins, Caroline Dorsen, Robert L. Hawkins, Elizabeth Silverman, Belkis Y. Martinez, Noelle R. Leonard, Amanda Applegate, Sabrina Cluesman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Persons living with HIV (PLWH) are living longer, although racial/ethnic and socioeconomic status (SES) disparities persist. Yet, little is known about the experience of living with and managing HIV over decades. The present study took a qualitative approach and used the lens of symbolic violence, a type of internalized, non-physical violence manifested in the power differential between social groups. We focused on adult African American/Black and Latinx (AABL) PLWH from low-SES backgrounds. Methods: Data were drawn from two studies with AABL PLWH in New York City (N = 59). After providing signed informed consent, participants engaged in in-depth semi-structured interviews on aspects of HIV management. Interviews were audio-recorded and professionally transcribed verbatim, and data were analyzed using directed qualitative content analysis. Results: Participants in the two studies were comparable on sociodemographic and background characteristics. They had lived with HIV for 20 years, on average (range 3-33 years). All were from low-SES backgrounds and most were African American/Black and men. Participants experienced a convergence of multiple social exclusions, harms, and stigmas, consistent with symbolic violence, which contributed to disengagement from HIV care and discontinuation of HIV medications. We organized results into five sub-themes: (1) participants were "ground down"over time by material, social, and emotional challenges and this diminished self-worth and, at times, the will to live; (2) social isolation and self-isolation, based in part on feeling devalued and dehumanized, served as stigma-avoidance strategies and mechanisms of social exclusion; (3) stigmatizing aspects of patient-provider interactions, both experienced and anticipated, along with (4) restricted autonomy in HIV care and other settings (e.g., parole) reduced engagement; and (5) poor HIV management was internalized as a personal failure. Importantly, resilience was evident throughout the five sub-themes. Conclusions: Symbolic violence is a useful framework for understanding long-term HIV management and survivorship among AABL PLWH from low-SES backgrounds. Indeed, forms of symbolic violence are internalized over time (e.g., experiencing devaluation, dehumanization, loss of self-worth, and anticipated stigma), thereby impeding successful HIV management, in part because avoiding HIV care and discontinuing HIV medications are primary coping strategies. Results have implications for interventions in community and health care settings.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number146
JournalInternational Journal for Equity in Health
Issue number1
StatePublished - Aug 28 2020


  • Adherence
  • Disparities
  • HIV antiretroviral therapy
  • HIV care continuum
  • HIV survivorship research
  • Non-persistence
  • Poverty
  • Qualitative
  • Race/ethnicity
  • Symbolic violence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Policy
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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