Virtue Signaling?

17 06 2020

Most people who know me well know that I hate attention! In spite of my job — standing before a crowd of people in worship, week after week, daring to think that I have something worthwhile to share — I do not like being the center of attention. It makes me extremely uncomfortable, and I am usually quick to try and deflect the stares.

But when it comes to racism, and issues of White supremacy and fragility, one of the best things we White people can do is point to ourselves. We need to learn to tell our stories; and not for attention, or to point out how virtuous we are, but so that we might begin to take a critical look at our lives in order to do a better job of recognizing our UN-anti-racist ways.

So, here’s the most recent story from my own life.

I live in a wonderful townhouse community in Northern Virginia, and outside our front door is a small, woody area with way too many trees! It was probably beautiful when the neighborhood was first landscaped 13 years ago, but today everything is too big and overgrown. So I decided to do something about it. My wife asked the president of our Home Owners’ Association if I could remove some of the dead branches on the bottoms of the trees, and he was quick to say “Sure! Go for it! It’s nice to know that someone is interested in the appearance of our property!”

So early one Saturday morning, I grabbed my retractable saw and hedge clippers, put on my Crocs, and began pruning! There were a total of 9 trees, and I trimmed up about 8 feet on 7 of them and removed 2 dead ones altogether. I love working outdoors, and I miss the landscaping that I always did when my wife and I owned our own home. So the work was enjoyable, and I went about it with great enthusiasm.

But as I chopped away, I realized how suspicious I probably looked. I was still in the shorts and t-shirt that I had slept in, and it was clear I had not been hired to do this job. So what would my neighbors think if they saw me?

But then I realized that most likely, none of my neighbors would ever dare to say anything to me about what I was doing. Why? Because I’m a White man! And as a White man in a relatively diverse community, I have the ‘privilege’ of being able to do just about whatever I want, whenever I want, wherever I want. Chances are pretty good that no one would ever question or challenge me. That, in fact, is what White privilege is all about! It’s the ability to do almost anything, without giving it a second thought, knowing that non-White people aren’t going to challenge us, simply because . . . we’re White.

So for the 90 minutes that I was out there, I reflected on this realization, and was actually quite proud of myself for being so . . . woke! All of my reading and reflecting were paying off. I had spotted my privilege and now was well on my way toward becoming a true ally and a real ‘anti-racist.’ And, for the past three weeks, as protests have taken place around our nation’s capital, I’ve put on my clerical collar, marched with my “Black Lives Matter” sign, and patted myself on the back as I’ve engaged with other protesters, and talked with the news media about Christ-followers needing to stand up for and with people of color.

But last week, on my way to work, I came to another realization. And that realization is still saddening me today. For some reason I was once again reflecting on my experience with the trees, and I began wondering what I would have done if I had seen the young Black man who lives across from me, outside, early one Saturday morning, in his crocs and pajamas, chopping down the trees in front of my townhouse?

Unfortunately, I didn’t have to think too long about my response to that question. I have never been afraid to speak up when I need to; and writing letters and sending emails that hold others accountable to MY standards and expectations are things that come relatively easy to me. So there is no doubt how I would have responded to a person of color cutting down MY trees! And my response broke my heart!

Like so many people today, my heart has been heavy for weeks now. But this time, it was not because of what so many of my White siblings are doing to my Black siblings. No! This time my heart was breaking because of what I know that I am doing to my Black siblings . . . way too often, and often without even knowing it. And as this realization settled in, it brought lament to my soul, and repentance to my heart.

Now why do I share all of this? Because again, we White people MUST tell our stories — disturbing though they may be. And we do so not looking for sympathy from our Black friends. We know you are dealing with enough these days; and the tears that we cry cannot even begin to compare to the rivers that you have cried over the past 401 years. Rather, we tell these stories as a form of confession, as a sign of our commitment to learning, and growing, and changing! And we tell them to let our White friends know that we all struggle with the implicit bias that comes with American racism, and that we all need to wake up to it. Because until we learn to spot it, and name it, we will never overcome it, and we will never change it.

In the end, being the change we wish to see in the world today really does begin with us. It begins with me. So now, whenever I look at the pruned trees outside my living room windows, I need to be reminded of my racist ways; and I need to allow my love for my Black and Brown neighbors to force me to reject any sense of supremacy that may lurk in my heart, and to use my privilege to help build a more equitable and just world for all of us.

And we who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ don’t do this because we want to draw attention to ourselves, or because we want to in any way signal our virtue. We do this because we are members of the human race – the only race that matters . . . the only race there really is.


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