A few years ago I was doing a course on computer hardware to try and improve my employability. It was split between a number of teachers – some talking about systemic structures, some talking about linux devices, and one teacher talking about physical hardware and cabling. This teacher was a tiny American ex-naval man with a brustly walrus mustache and a host of interesting stories. Broadly speaking, I thought of him as an okay guy, the first time I met him. I mean, okay, yes, I know full well I say some damn Anti-American things like maybe millionaires have too much influence on important political process or I’m not sure being #37 in health care counts as really being number one, but I’ve met some other Americans and they were okay and didn’t invade any of my unrelated countries.
We had in this class, a South African student. She was first-generation Australian. She was also quite, quite black. Not ‘light skinned dark’ that you might be able to confuse for, say, a middle eastern heritage or a mixed-race part-Aboriginal but outrightly African skin tone, very dark. She didn’t attend all her classes – I think she got a job during the course and had to leave.
The first class we had with this teacher, that student wasn’t in the class. While we were talking about proper hardware usage and the protocols used for cables in different countries, he off-handedly mentioned to my classmates that Apartheid was actually pretty necessary to sustain South Africa. And then without really pausing he went on to mention that the savages in the jungles with bones through their noses were deliberately trying to destroy ‘the white economy.’
That set the tone.
After the class, myself and about five other students all walked away very, very carefully and talked about it. Did he really do that? Did he mean that? What the hell- and such like that. What ensued around that teacher was a class that was an equal mix between useful tips on operating hardware, and bouts of conspiracy theories, racism, anti-‘liberal’ sentiment and plain out misinformation. I learned so much from this teacher. I learned that for example, the penny was necessary to keep the US government from stealing money from them. I learned that every country that instated socialised healthcare had collapsed into barbarism ‘within twenty years,’ which was news to me in Australia. At one point, he drew a Glenn Beck diagram on the board to describe how ‘anarchist’ Barack Obama was. I still think back on this and wonder how the hell this actually happened.
Every time I was in this class, I couldn’t shake the song in my head. It was always the same song, Your Racist Friend by They Might Be Giants. It was always that echo in the back of my mind that while he had authority over me, I couldn’t be rude to the guy – or I’d risk being cut off from the course, and cut off from the unemployment benefits that were at the time feeding me. When we were in his class, I actually became more active and engaged, trying to make sure our conversations were always about things. I asked really, really stupid questions about objects, or asked him about boats he’d been on, because at least he could discuss those without usually saying something horrible.
It was this strange, strange situation. I was at that point, an unemployed person with no actual redress against this teacher. I remember reporting his behaviour to other teachers, but I don’t know if anything came of it.
But when we finished up the course and left, I didn’t shake his hand.