What the Trayvon Tragedy Can Teach Us About Being White

A week like this hasn’t been an easy one for conducting ourselves in the work-a-day world while Trayvon’s soul calls us to think deeply and long about healing and justice.

The Trayvon Martin case shows once again how white people and people of color live in very different universes.

Many of my Facebook friends have turned their profile pictures blank following the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case.

Many of my Facebook friends have turned their profiles black.

Many of my African American friends on Facebook have turned their FB profile pictures to a black blank to reflect the widespread feeling that, as one FB friend posted (her emphasis):  “This verdict was ALL ABOUT how a BLACK life has NO VALUE in this country, and this country REINFORCES that fact DAILY. And dares you to complain.”

As a white person I cannot do or say the same on my black friends’ behalf. In other words, I cannot put myself in their place.

Empathy is about identifying with and understanding another’s situation, feelings and motives.

Basically, the definition of white privilege

Basically, the definition of white privilege

As a white person, I can hurt and apologize for the on-going grave injustices leveled against them. But I am immune to feeling the deep aching and enduring insults – physical, mental and psychic that my black friends shoulder.

By turning my FB profile blank I’d only mire myself in the quicksand of trying to be an empathic white person – and come off as well meaning but misguided.

Yet there are other ways to channel my personal resolve toward healing these deep wounds.

If you’re white and you haven’t read it, the piece, “That Doesn’t Mean it Stings Any Less” by hip-hop musician Questlove, who’s also the musical director for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, is worth your time.

His eloquent heartfelt commentary offers us a flavor of contemporary black life in a white world.

A Menacing Vibration

Any white who hangs out with African American friends sees the daily injustice or insults.

I was with a black girlfriend this spring in a resort town on the Gulf Coast of Florida. The two of us strolling down the quaint cobblestone sidewalks packed with white tourists in Hawaiian prints, Burmuda plaids and seersucker pucker.

A bi-racial couple appeared on the other side of the street. “I want to run over and hug her,” my friend kiddingly (desperately?) said of the black woman walking hand-in-hand with her white boyfriend.  “I’m not alone!” my friend sighed, again feigning a lightness lined with heavy metal.

To me, in this scene, there was no evident threat to her personhood – as a typical white person I was oblivious to the absence of a welcoming vibe.

But from her perspective, the crowd was a sea of body language and facial expressions that, yes, included friendliness – but also ranged from benign to hostile.

It’s like a menacing vibration where the frequency can only be heard by People of Color and especially, I believe, African Americans.

Where are All the White People?

If we are intent on moving into an advanced age of racial understanding it rests on us whites actively working to shift that vibration.

For example, earlier this year a well-respected Afro-centric Detroit school was vandalized. I learned about it through my friends on FaceBook.

A fundraiser talent show was hurriedly organized at the Wright Museum. For $20 there would be a showcase of dancers, vocalists, drummers and spoken word poets, many from the school.

I showed up as a member of my community in solidarity for supporting this school. The beautifully appointed auditorium of the Wright Museum holds about 300 people – it was filled near to capacity.

Scanning row after row, I was the only white face in the crowd (I was hopeful for a moment when I saw a light shock of hair in the crowd but it was a sister with an Afro bleached blonde.)

Like my friend in Florida, I was looking for “my kind” and resonating with her need for inclusion.

Unlike her, however, I felt peacefully accepted and outwardly welcomed in this sea of black faces. 

Some months later I attended Black Women Rock in Detroit, poet Jessica Care Moore’s project to focus more commercial attention on women of color in the artistic community.

I arrived late but, again, in the packed auditorium, I appeared to be the whitest face in the room. And, again, I felt included and welcomed; we had a raucous good time.

Try This On

My invitation to white people who studiously stay within their white comfort zones is to venture out and make it their mission to extend a ‘welcoming’ vibration.


I’m riffing here with a few ideas:

  • Make black friends on Facebook and then take it off the Internet to real life
  • Join organizations that are led by African Americans
  • Attend cultural events that you ordinarily wouldn’t
  • Go out of your way to smile and acknowledge all those different from yourself. Yes, African American, but also other people of color, sexual orientation and those with disabilities
  • Take it upon yourself to understand what ‘white privilege’ means

I’d like to hear yours.

As white people, let’s avenge Trayvon’s death with a kindness that’s revolutionary.

If you liked this, you might also appreciate:

What Trayvon Martin Means to Me and Should Mean to You


About Becca

A transplant to Detroit, Becca Williams is wondering what's all this fuss about Detroit and its metro area? Eight mile, suburbs, lots of 'zebras,' pitting who against whom? She just says, "Let's get the women together and we'll figure it out." So here it is: Shetroit.com: Women Dreaming Detroit. And another thing, she comes from Chicago where the whole metro area was referred to as 'Chicagoland.' It's a big hug that says, "We share a land. We're community." From now on, Detroitland. Click here to read more about Rebecca

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