A Shining Example of a Woman Overcoming Adversity, China White Opens Up About Being Beaten Down But Never Broken, and How HIV Helped Her Follow Her Dreams
by Chip Alfred
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Jack Ferlise Photography
Her name is China, but you would never describe her as fragile. She has survived domestic violence, homelessness, an AIDS diagnosis, and years of self-doubt and shame. Today, at forty-eight, the resilient China White oozes self-confidence and optimism. “The sky is the limit now,” she says. “HIV prevented me from becoming the person who looks back at their life and says, ‘I wish I had….’ Instead it made me go out and do it all!”
Born in Philadelphia to teenage parents, White was off to a rocky start on life. Her mother was abusive and never really wanted her, except when it meant collecting a welfare check. Her dad was a heroin addict who was in and out of jail as White was growing up. “My father realized from the beginning that he didn’t have the resources to raise me,” she says. “He turned to his parents for assistance and they responded by becoming my primary caregivers.” Encouraged by her grandparents, White enrolled at The Art Institute of Philadelphia after high school. There she discovered her passion, but it wasn’t fine art that nourished her soul. It was music. White realized she was destined to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a singer, but the event that ultimately launched White’s career as a vocalist was anything but a high note.
In 1994, after a trip to West Africa, White returned to Philly with unexplained bruises all over her body. After a barrage of medical tests, her doctor gave her the news she was HIV-positive. “I felt that I was going to die, and that it was a complete disgrace to my family,” she tells A&U. “I was so depressed and distraught. I felt that God had left me.” Then twenty-five, White didn’t think she’d live to see forty. Suddenly, with an assumed expiration date on her life, her mind was racing with all the things she wanted to accomplish. At the time she thought, “You just don’t know what’s possible until someone looks at you and says nothing is possible now.” So she started auditioning for singing gigs and forged a successful career touring internationally with musical groups and productions. “If I didn’t have HIV I probably never would have done it,” she acknowledges.
After a few years of touring, White settled into a steady job in customer service. At thirty-three, she married a man she describes as “a perfect storm.” He had a long history of incarceration, violent behavior, and mental health issues. She not only lost herself in the relationship, but also her self-esteem. The injuries she suffered from being beaten by him left her with permanent nerve damage in her arms. As for the emotional wounds from the trauma, she says she is “still healing.” Looking back now, White feels like she lowered her expectations to be in a committed relationship. “At first my HIV status made me value myself less. I thought that I’ve got the worst thing going, so how can I judge anyone else?” Now, she has a very different outlook. “When I share my story, I want people to take away that when you are diagnosed with HIV, you should never lower your standards and never accept less than you deserve.”
After she divorced her husband, White ended up in a homeless shelter. A case manager there suggested she check out Philadelphia FIGHT. Very cautious about disclosing her status, White found a community of kindred spirits in a women’s support group there. Instantly, her life took a turn for the better in a safe space where she didn’t have to hide anymore. “Too often we live in isolation with HIV, and the secrets you keep can eat away at you,” she remarks. In the group, she was welcomed with open arms by the other members, who sincerely wanted to connect with her and help her find resources. “I was in a room full of people like me. It was really comforting.”
Today White works at Philadelphia FIGHT as a peer educator, a job she calls one of the best things that’s happened to her. “Every time I go out in the community and tell my story to someone else, I see this freedom in their face. They look at me and come in a little closer and think maybe it’s going to work out.”
She has become a leading advocate for women living with HIV as a regional co-chair for Positive Women’s Network-USA. The challenge for so many women, she asserts, is that they are the caregivers and often put themselves last. “When a woman takes care of herself it’s not selfish; it’s self-preservation. If you’re not here, you can’t take care of anybody.” White is also passionate about supporting programs for women who have encountered intimate partner violence. After living in silence for so long, White encourages others to speak up to stop the cycle of abuse. “When you talk to other people, you discover there are many who have experienced the same thing,” she explains. “You really can overcome it by saying it out loud. When you do, you release yourself from the shame and the blame that defeats you.”
White has come a long way in her twenty-two years living with HIV. “When I was first diagnosed, I said, ‘I don’t want to be a poster girl for HIV,’” she shares. “At this point in my life I do. It says that I’m a fighter. It says that I would lay down and die fighting for this. It says that I won’t give up.” Being a part of the HIV community, she believes, is “like being in a club with a lot of unexpected perks. If we can get past our differences, there is so much power and diversity in the room being with people who share the same experience and goals.”
This woman’s number-one goal now is to check off everything on her bucket list. “I have so many things I want to do. I still feel like I’m running out of time even if I live to be 100.” She’s currently studying psychology with her sights set on writing books to help parents maximize their child’s potential. Despite all that she’s been through, White is grateful for all the opportunities that have come her way. “I have experienced such extremes of highs and lows, comebacks and setbacks,” she admits. “I’ve done great things, and sometimes I didn’t know when I was going to eat, or where I was going to sleep.”
The one thing nobody can take away from China White is hope. “I didn’t know I would be here this long. I didn’t know it was going to get this good.” The woman who at times wanted to end it all now plans on sticking around as long as she can, and she’s ready for whatever might happen next. “You don’t know what’s up the road waiting for you. Something absolutely fantastic could be ahead, so why would you want to die a day short of that?
See more of China White’s story and video diary at www.fight.org/fight-stories/china-white.
For more on the photography of Jack Ferlise, visit: http:jackmando.wixsite.com/photography.
Chip Alfred, an Editor at Large at A&U, is the Director of Development & Communications at Philadelphia FIGHT.