In 1990 at 18, Anne Harless moved from her home in Kenya into the unknown of Virginia in the United States to attend college.
When Anne took this leap of faith, she said she really knew nothing about the culture and the history of Virginia that she was stepping into. She simply knew that she had the opportunity to go to college and that she needed to take it.
Initially, arriving in the U.S. was very difficult, and Anne experienced culture shock.
“I think everything was a struggle in the beginning. How to wash your clothes. You get here and I had no idea how to work a washing machine. The clothes, I didn’t bring winter clothes, we didn’t have winter. I had no idea how brutal winter was going to be, or how hot the summers were going to be,” Anne said. “Just little things, in Africa people don’t shave their armpits! I typically don’t have hair … so when the kids were shaving I was going ‘what in the world are they shaving? … just little things you didn’t know and didn’t expect and nobody told you! … Things that come naturally to you, but just because you’ve grown up here!”
On top of figuring out cultural differences and not knowing anyone once she got to the U.S., her biggest frustration was learning how to type.
Anne explained that computers had just started showing up in Kenya when she left, so she had never used a typewriter or a computer before. After turning in her first essay handwritten, she was told from then on, she had to type all of her papers.
“So I spent my entire lifetime typing papers,” Anne said. “That was very tough. But eventually I had to, it was just survival mode, because you’re not going to be able to do anything, nobody will accept a handwritten paper.”
In addition to adjusting to U.S. culture in general, Anne was also faced with racial divides for the first time.
She said her dorm resident advisor was from West Virginia and had never seen a black person before she met Anne. People would also be amazed by her hair and would ask to touch it. They would also ask questions Anne said she didn’t expect somebody in college to ask, though overall Anne said it didn’t bother her at the time.
“At that time you were so naive, and just trying to survive and you just really don’t know. … I don’t know what they know,” Anne said.
However, she was living in an area she described as “gun toting country, where everybody had a big gun in their cars.” She said she was also told that if she were to take the train and come back at night, she had to have somebody waiting for her. If she did not, she would have to take the train into North Carolina because it would be too dangerous for her to get off of the train alone at night.
“This is predominantly white southern, very dangerous region, and even for the white girls, they couldn’t go. Because we just didn’t know what to expect,” Anne said. “So that was to me big culture shock where I’m coming from a place where we embrace everybody, regardless of we didn’t really see color in that sense.”
Though this was scary for her in the beginning, she said she just had to adjust. Even today, she said she sees color much differently than other Americans. The culture that she grew up in never had an issue with what color people were, so this underlying attitude of racism was new for Anne, and even today she doesn’t always notice it.
“It still kind of shocks me every time I see it because I’m not expecting it in that sense. It’s not something that’s innate in me, this is something that I’ve had to learn. So even explaining to my child who is mixed is very difficult, because I just don’t know what to say,” Anne said. “Actually my white husband is more aware of it … because I’m really not looking for it. It’s not something that I typically dwell on.”
Prior to her arrival in the U.S., she was not warned of existing racism. It was something she had to figure out through interactions with other people. She said it wasn’t until she realized most of the dining hall workers were black, and that it wasn’t safe for her to be off campus alone at night, that she began to understand.
When she started working in the dining hall, she said the employees began to explain it to her.
“They got to know me and kind of explained everything, because even the food was foreign to me. Everything was different, so that’s how I learned a lot. They educated me, they took me out on excursions, they showed me things. That’s the only way I knew,” Anne said.
However, it wasn’t until someone invited her to their Thanksgiving when she first came face-to-face with being treated differently.
Anne said there was an elderly lady taking classes on campus for enjoyment and had invited her to Thanksgiving with her and her husband at the country club, knowing Anne couldn’t go all the way home for Thanksgiving.
“Little did I know that they actually had to ask permission to bring me, and they had said no, and all of their friends said they would boycott the country club if they did not let me come. But nobody told me all of that,” Anne said. “So they asked me to dress in my Sunday best, and I went with them.”
She said everyone was looking at her when she entered and even those who were serving her were hesitant. She didn’t know what was going on until at the end of it all when they explained to her what had happened.
“There (were) no black people allowed in the country club. Period. Unless you were working there. So those things still exist in places, you just don’t see them every single day. But that was the first realization that I was different,” Anne said.
Since then, she has continued navigating through gaining an understanding of how race is dealt with in the U.S., especially being married to a white man and raising a biracial child.
Even recently, protests and violence centered around race relations have happened in Virginia. The events which took place in Charlottesville were not far from where Anne attended school.
“We used to go to Charlottesville all the time. I don’t know that I was truly surprised, because I know the tension in Virginia that exists, because the second campus I went to was in Lynchburg, Virginia, and it’s named Lynchburg for a reason,” Anne said.
“I’m surprised that we’re still at that level. But I’m not as naive as I was then,” she said.