What are white folks to do? Some thoughts on the Trayvon Martin case

Amid the outpuring of protest and opinion around the George Zimmerman case it's easy to feel overwhelmed. Here are some steps for white anti-racist allies to transform feelings into action.

Claudia Horwitz
23 July 2013

Trayvon Martin. Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.

Shocked and not entirely surprised.  Heartbroken and fired up.  A swirling cocktail of grief, anger and outrage.  The recent verdict in the George Zimmerman trial elicited all of this in me, as perhaps it did in you.  And amidst it all, 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 presence that combats oppression; no matter how skillful an ally I attempt to be; no matter how much I work 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. 

While understandable, this yearning can easily become our downfall because it gives us a way out of self-inquiry and the kind of investigation that this time is calling for. 

Now is an opportunity to check ourselves through some honest reflection and let that process lead us 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. 

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

1.  Listen and read.  Take in as much wisdom, information and reflection as you can from outside of 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 other social media. 

Don’t let the feeling of being overwhelmed act as an excuse.  It pales in comparison to the anguishing questions being asked right now about the viability of our legal system, the invisiblization of people of color, 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 out there.

2.  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’re reading and listening, 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 that 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 any tension in a particular place in your body?  Is this normally where you hold such tension? Can you ease that a bit by altering your breathing?

3.  Manage your reactions. People of color in your life may or may not want to hear your thoughts about the Zimmerman case and its implications.  Check that out before you let loose with your opinions and anxieties.  Talk to other white people about it. Write about it. Stay as open as you can and speak your own truth. This is skillful anti-racist behavior in general. 

4.  Pick your doorway.  There’s a lot of work to be done, especially with other white people and in the 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 equality.  

This fight includes work to transform the 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 young men of color out for life. It includes work to examine every nook and cranny of the systems and institutions we come into contact with every day, and to root out oppression wherever we see it.  It includes work to transform hearts and minds by creating spaces where we can tell our stories, engage in ongoing dialogue, and help to 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 the work gets messy or hard, we can reclaim and redefine what “stand your ground” really means.

Good luck. Here are some useful resources to get you going.

Recent commentary:

Black Youth Project 100

Questlove, New York Magazine

Gail Christopher, Blue Heart, Transformation

Makani Themba, Praxis Project

Adrienne Maree Brown

Brittney Cooper, Salon

Resources for action:

Justice for Trayvon Action Kit


Standing on the Side of Love

Within our Lifetime

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