I maintain a certain amount of authority while serving in my little, rural municipality. My office is my castle and if I don't like your language, or if I'm threatened, or if I'm insulted, I'll simply throw you out.
It doesn't happen often. I work for a truly caring, generous and mostly respectful community. But every now and then racism rears its head, or a finger gets pointed perilously close to my face, or the business becomes entangled with the personal. You will not use the n-word in my office, or complain about "those" people implying all kinds of stereotypical traits depending on where in the world the neighbors you are complaining about came from, or suggest that I can [insert verb] with my [insert noun]. You will be locked out.
So, years ago, when the old geezer came stomping into my office with all manner of righteous indignation and fury, I stood. As a woman, I've found that being seated is a disadvantage when facing anger. He demanded to know why I would allow them to bus kids in from a neighboring municipality to play basketball at our township park.
I knew the kids playing B-Ball that afternoon. And that's when I made my big mistake. I assumed he was a racist. The kids were mostly black...and brown and tan. My son was among them.
I needed to make him come clean before I could justify tossing his sorry old butt out the door. "Why do you think they are being bused in?"
"Because my family has been here for generations and I've never seen these ones before."
"Did you actually see the bus? What makes you think they are from __ (the name of the neighboring municipality isn't relevant)?"
"Nope. Didn't see the bus. But I've never seen these ones here before."
I was about to become stern when I realized this particular old geezer wasn't shaking with fury - more like shaking with old age. "Sir," I said quietly, "you are wrong."
His eyes opened wide. He obviously wasn't accustomed to being corrected.
"Those are our kids over there. One of them is my own son," I said.
He had to think about this for a moment. "Those are our kids?"
"Yup. We don't have any public transportation here and we're a big township. They can only pool rides to meet there to play basketball once or twice a week. They're mostly sophomores in high school and I can vouch for every single one of them."
He was still stunned. "Those are our kids?"
He sat down and thought about this for several additional moments. "Our kids, huh!"
I don't think he had even thought about their race. We talked for several more minutes, and I never got even an inkling that his concerns were about skin color, race, ethnicity, religion or any other type of bias. I couldn't tell if he was more upset that he didn't know these kids, or that he had, himself, wrongly accused them of the terrible sin of being from out of town. He actually had me point out where some of these distant subdivisions were that forced them to car pool to the park.
He was mad that kids he didn't know, perhaps kids from another municipality, were taking advantage of our park. It wasn't about race. It was about territory. I didn't have the heart to tell him that it was a public park, and it really didn't matter where they were from. He got up to leave and I realized the shaking was, for sure, old age. Then he stopped at the door and turned back to me. "They're really good at basketball," he said.
And something told me he was on his way back to the park to bet - on the shirts or the skins - whichever.
I'm still forced to have people removed from my office on occasion. But very rarely now. I suppose word about my level of tolerance for certain behavior has made the rounds.
But oh, how I do love being wrong.