It was hard to miss me on the lava-rocked streets of Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, while I was working for a locally led organization, HEAL Africa. I lacked the grace of Congolese women who glided across the tumultuous terrain in high heels while I tripped over the ubiquitous black rocks. I was one of the few white people who walked around the town, rode motorbikes, and spoke Swahili. These factors made me somewhat well known in Goma where everyone knows a little something about everyone else.
There would be days when I would walk to a friend's house after work and no matter which street I was on, people would notice where I was going, what I was doing, what I was wearing, and what facial expression I was making. No attempt would be made to conceal these comments as they were spoken either to the person standing next to them or directly at me. Some of the time, when I was particularly tired, I would be tempted to throw punches at the next moto driver that laughed when I stumbled over a rock.
I just wanted to walk somewhere unnoticed -- I wanted the capability to be invisible or treated like anyone else in the community. This built up in me and I found myself reacting with anger in situations where before I would have never responded in that way.
Then one day it hit me. I grew up in a white, middle-class community, and though it was not limited to that stratum, I was definitely part of the majority. I had no idea what it was like to be treated as a minority and no idea what it felt like for people to make assumptions about me based solely on the stereotyped identity attached to my appearance.
But, for the most part, the comments and attention I received were not derogatory. They were primarily made out of the curiosity of seeing a white person falling out of the traditional, expected role of social isolation from the local community.
I was speaking with a friend from Louisiana about this who laughed a bit and then told me, "Harper, you have just started to taste a little of what we go through."
He is an African American with a southern accent who works at a big international company in Seattle.
You know that every time I get up to give a presentation I got three things working against me. I am a black man. I talk like I am from the Deep South. I am young. I know that I have to prove myself in the first minute of every conversation I have. And that stays with you.
While I let this sink in, he proceeded to tell me that his high school in Louisiana had separate proms. That's right, segregated proms. And this was in 1998. Not too long after, I read an article in the New York Times Magazine about separate proms in Georgia this year, 2009.
In the words of Kanye West: "Racism still alive, they just be concealing it."
After living in D.R. Congo for two years, I started to recapture the memory of America's racialized history. The way history is internalized and memorized is largely dependent on race. And I believe that those of us who have not had to deal with issues of race have taken the posture of a collective amnesia. We know the history of slavery, internments, civil rights movements, and discrimination. We have knowledge about them, but many of us have chosen not to have a memory of them.
This is our nation's past, and if we are to be united and have equal opportunities, then we must view this history as a memory that affects and informs our actions today, and not as knowledge of an era we passed through.
A white, moderate pastor from Texas wrote to Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963 to say, "All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible you are in too great a religious hurry. ... It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth."
Dr. King responded, "Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.