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The NFL protests got white people to argue with white people

That’s why they have been successful

A black family member of mine, while the Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacy protests roiled in August, discussed the ordeal with a white co-worker. The white co-worker said the counterprotesters never should have been there and if they weren’t, Heather Heyer would not have died in the vehicle-ramming attack. My family member responded that those counterprotesters had every right to protest and that the white supremacists should bear the total responsibility for Heyer’s death. The white co-worker offered no response and just left the cafeteria. Afterward, with the white co-worker no longer around, the other white co-workers who overheard the discussion approached my family member, crediting the family member for being right. My family member asked me the key rhetorical question: Why didn’t they say it to the co-worker?

White folk who suffer less from explicit and implicit racial biases need to improve, through dialogue, those most afflicted. For America to improve on race, white people, simply put, need to start arguing with white people.

I credit the NFL protests for nudging this sort of healthy intraracial dialogue among white folk. This is, I think, the biggest success for the players who have participated.

I’ll admit — I’m extrapolating much of my belief that white folk are arguing more with other white folk on matters of race from social media contexts. I’m assuming, perhaps wrongly, that these conversations had on Twitter and Facebook reflect, to some extent, conversations had in real life. As a black man, I have little way of knowing what white folk say when black folk aren’t around. But, in any event, even if these conversations just happen on social media, they could possibly be the seeds that blossom into a more substantive real-world conversation in the future.

The most frequent white-on-white argument I’ve seen in the NFL protest context has been the idea that the players are protesting the flag or the national anthem. They clearly are not. But this sort of deflection has been invoked to paint the players as unpatriotic. When I see a white person tweeting such an idea, I’ll invariably see a white person respond, rejecting the idea that the players are protesting the national anthem but rather fighting for racial justice.

I’ve even seen white military officers object to being used as a pawn to thwart the players’ calls for racial fairness.

These sorts of debates must take place within white America.

People talk a lot about the problem of white supremacy being kind of a disease and our society needing to locate the cure. But this sort of rhetorical arrangement elides that many white people should be considered anti-racist. They have the cure. What we really need then is for those with the cure to share it with those who still suffer from the ailment. And society would be aided even if white folk who hold some racial biases nonetheless engage those even more saddled with such biases.

This is what the NFL protests have done, likely unwittingly. They have compelled white folk with the cure to try to shove it down the other folk’s throats. Moving forward, I hope that racial justice advocates gear their strategies toward nudging white people to confront other white people on matters of race. I’m wary of how much success people of color can achieve in directly debating racially intolerant folk. White folk, I think, achieve far more success in shepherding lost white folk toward the light of racial egalitarianism than we ever could.

What binds white folk together now is whiteness, a witch’s brew where white identity, white privilege and white unity stew together, creating a toxic mélange upon which American society continually feasts. Until that changes, until the ties that bind white folk together are supplanted with something that doesn’t strangle the nonwhite population, America will forever be cemented inside our national racial quagmire.

So, credit to the NFL players and get to arguing, white folk. Our nation needs it.

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at The Undefeated and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.