What are white folks to do? From Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown

In the wake of the Ferguson verdict I feel a swirling cocktail of grief, anger and outrage, but nothing I'm feeling compares to what people of color are experiencing.  

Claudia Horwitz
26 November 2014

Credit: Loavesofbread/Wikimedia Commons: some rights reserved.

Trayvon Martin was a 17-year old African American high school student who was shot and killed on February 26th  2012 by George Zimmerman, who was later found not guilty of his murder. Martin was unarmed. Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law - which enshrines the right to self-defense even when lethal force is used against someone who doesn’t have a weapon and where there are no witnesses - played a prominent role in Zimmerman’s acquittal.

Michael Brown was an 18-year old African American just out of high school who was shot and killed on August 14th 2014 by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in the town of Ferguson, Missouri. Wilson also claimed he shot in self-defense – at least six times. Brown was also unarmed. A Grand Jury ruled against Wilson's indictment in a verdict delivered on November 25th.

I originally wrote this piece last summer after Martin’s death. The tragedy is that it could have been republished any number of times between then and now. Indeed Eric Garner, a 43-year old African American man died only a month before Brown was killed in Ferguson - this time from a “choke hold” applied by a white policeman on Staten Island.

One young man of color killed by police is one too many, but in the USA we seem to be amassing a long and horrific list of such events. The pattern has become so blatant that it can no longer be denied or overlooked by the mainstream media or by politicians.

These deaths continue to elicit shock, but perhaps not surprise. Today I feel the same swirling cocktail of grief, anger and outrage as I did when the verdict in Zimmerman’s trial was announced. And amidst it all, I feel a deep sense that nothing I am feeling could compare to what people of color are experiencing.  

No matter how much I’ve worked to keep developing an analysis and a practice that combats oppression; no matter how skillful an ally I try to be; no matter how much I struggle to live into a posture of solidarity, it is simply not the same. 

I’ve noticed in multiple arenas how us white folks want to be seen as “down,” as the good-smart-conscious white people, as those on the right side of history. And while understandable, this yearning can easily become our downfall, because it gives us a route out of self-inquiry and the kind of investigation that is called for at this time. 

Now is the opportunity to put ourselves through some honest reflection and let that process lead us on to thoughtful action - which we need to do if we are going to keep working to dismantle a system of white supremacy that permeates every corner of our legal, economic, political, relational and cultural lives.


Image: Loaves of Bread/Wikimedia Commons: some rights reserved.

Here are some steps to consider, but it’s not a linear process.

Listen and read:

Take in as much wisdom, information and reflection as you can from outside of the mainstream media.  A few things to start with are listed below. This includes progressive and radical media, as well as what folks of color in particular are saying – to you personally, on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere.

Don’t let the feeling of being overwhelmed be an excuse. It pales in comparison to the anguishing questions that are being asked right now about the viability of our legal system, attempts to make people of color invisible, and the entrenched predilections of citizens and the media to see young Black men as dangerous. Pace yourself as needed; stop, listen and learn what’s already out there.

Notice how you feel:

The body and breath reveal more to us than we are ever able to use.  This is a good time to allow your whole being to process what’s going on around and within you. As you read and listen, notice what happens to your breath.  It may get shorter, smaller, or faster. Mine gets stuck in my chest when I’m facing into something I wish wasn’t happening.

What happens if you breathe more fully into the belly?  Can you create a bit more space for what’s arising?  Can you notice tension in a particular place in your body?  Is this normally where you hold it? Can you ease that tension a bit by breathing?

Manage your reactions:

People of color in your life may or may not want to hear your thoughts about these cases and their implications.  Check that out before you let loose with your opinions and your anxiety. Talk to other white people. Write about how you feel.  Stay as open as you can and speak your own truth. This is skillful anti-racist behavior in general. 

Pick your doorway:

There’s a lot of work to be done, especially with other white people and in institutions and organizations that are steeped in the dominant culture of white supremacy. This historical moment is already galvanizing a new chapter in the fight for racial equity.  What’s needed includes work to transform realities in and around our legal system on everything from Voter ID and Stand Your Ground laws to police brutality and the school-to-prison pipeline that marks out young men of color for life.

It also includes the work of examining every nook and cranny of the systems and institutions we come into contact with daily, and rooting out oppression wherever we see it. It includes the work of transforming hearts and minds by creating spaces where we can tell our stories, engage in ongoing dialogue, and help heal some of the wounds of the past. 

Above all, white folks must commit to a posture of solidarity in the work for racial justice. There are roles for us to play and work for us to do. If we listen carefully, take direction and stay engaged when things get hard or messy, we can reclaim and redefine what “stand your ground” really means.

Some useful further reading:

Mother Jones

 The Root

 Black Girl Dangerous

 New York Times


 YES! Magazine

Dame Magazine

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData