Stigma – The Dark History

Why I prefer to use the word ‘Discrimination’

I am an avid listener of true crime podcasts, and one of my favourite narrators is Bailey Sarian, who hosts Murder, Mystery and Makeup. Bailey launched her new podcast in 2021, ‘Dark History’, which inspired this blog. Her Dark History podcast addresses the historical beginnings of products, purpose, and power.

By Cindy Pivacic.


The topic she addresses in one particular episode is ‘stigma’ a word I prefer not to use in my vocabulary about HIV and AIDS. I will get to the reason why later. 

There is a distinction between the terms “stigma” and “discrimination,” although they are related concepts.

Stigma refers to the negative attitudes, beliefs, and stereotypes that society holds toward a particular group of people. It involves the social disapproval and discrediting of individuals based on characteristics such as, race, gender, mental health, or other factors. Stigma can manifest as societal attitudes, prejudice, or misconceptions about a group, leading to the marginalisation or exclusion of individuals.

The term “stigma” has a dark history rooted in ancient Greece, where it initially signified a physical mark or brand used to identify slaves, criminals, or traitors. These marks were often tattoos, burns, or cuts, visibly designating individuals as social outcasts. This association between stigma and shame persisted through the centuries.

In the context of health the concept of stigma gained prominence in the early 20th century. Psychologist Erving Goffman expanded the meaning to encompass a symbolic mark or social label that sets individuals apart from the perceived norm. Mental illnesses became particularly stigmatised, with sufferers often facing discrimination and isolation due to prevailing misconceptions. 

The AIDS epidemic in the 1980s intensified the stigma surrounding health conditions. Misinformation and fear led to the slander of those affected, deepening societal prejudices. People with AIDS were unfairly branded, further exacerbating their suffering.

Discrimination involves the unfair or prejudicial treatment of people based on their membership in a particular group. Discrimination is the action or behaviour that results from stigma. It can take various forms, such as unequal opportunities, exclusion, bias, or harmful actions directed at individuals or groups due to their perceived differences.

While efforts to challenge and dismantle stigma, its legacy endures. The dark history of the term ‘stigma’ serves as a reminder of the ongoing struggle against societal biases and the importance of fostering empathy and understanding to build a more inclusive world.

As per the above content, you will understand that because the word ‘stigma’ has such a negative connotation, I choose to use the word ‘discrimination’ (I use it in the sense of people being intolerant/prejudiced/blinkered/biased and narrow-minded) in expressing myself, as it is a slightly less offensive terminology. I believe that we, HIV-positive people, are our own worst enemies, and by using the term ‘stigma’, we are perpetuating the negative narrative around our status. 

Before disapproving of someone’s HIV status, try asking relevant, noninvasive questions. Those of us who are open about our HIV status are more than willing to enlighten you on the topic of HIV and AIDS.

Feel free to ask me anything. Don’t be in the dark. Don’t discriminate. It is highly likely you know somebody close to you who is HIV positive, and they may just not have disclosed that to you because of your prejudice. 

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I did!

Disclaimer: The information in this article is intended for educational purposes only.

It is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure, and is not a substitute for professional consultation with a health professional.

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