Lilian Thuram: ‘Racism is a trap; we must understand history to escape’

In Depth

For all that Lilian Thuram achieved during a glittering football career – a World Cup and European Championship with France, major trophies with Monaco, Parma, Juventus and Barcelona – it seems that he is not all that interested in dwelling upon it. 

There are far more pressing matters at hand.

Instead of looking to the glories of his own past, his focus is on something greater, something deeper and more complex – on how we can use the lessons of history to shape the future.

Since retiring in 2008, Thuram has been heading up the Lilian Thuram Foundation, the purpose of which is to educate people about racism – not only about its ill effects but about its past and the way that the identities that underpin it came to be.

“Racism is a cultural phenomenon,” Thuram says. “It has been constructed.” 

And if we are to deconstruct it, the only way is for all of us to come to terms with the historical processes behind it: “It’s really important that people face up to the truth about history. 

“Racism is a trap that we fall into and to escape that trap, we need to understand who we are, what our histories are, not to become closed within them, but to move beyond them.”

Thuram is keen to challenge and to provoke thoughts, even if those thoughts might at first seem uncomfortable to some. And it is to that end he has written his latest book, ‘White Thinking: Behind the Mask of Racial Identity.’

In the book, in a chapter entitled ‘Race Suicide’, Thuram writes that “society finds it difficult to accept people who want to act differently, people who want to free themselves from behaviours that are imposed.”

But, he believes, that is what we must do if we are to rid society of injustice: “Everybody needs to have this awakening. People of colour and white people. There are preconceived ideas and structures through which we understand the world… We have to become aware of that as the first step towards changing it.”

Thuram’s ideas on this subject started to develop as a child. Aged nine, he moved from a village on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe to the hustle and bustle of Paris.

His mother had already moved some time before, to find work and raise funds for her children to join her. “My big brother took care of us,” he says. “We have a family with five children from five fathers and our fathers were not present.

“[My mother] told us that it was paradise, it was France, it was incredible. For her, it would give greater opportunities to her children.

“When I arrived I went into primary school and there were some other children in the class who called me a ‘sale noir’ [dirty black]. It was the first time I saw myself as black.”

“I got back home and asked the question of my mother. My mother said, ‘That’s what it’s like. People are racist and that won’t change.’”

For Thuram, it was a traumatic but transformative moment: “From there, I tried to discover more by reading and talking to people. But I forgot about those children and their role in it and what it was about them that made them think, ‘We have a white identity,’ which marked me out as different. 

“They had internalised that they were white and that they were better than me. How do you get to nine years old and think you’re better than somebody who’s black?”

Essentially, that question has become the focus of his work. But there were steps on the journey to where he is now. 

At the time he moved to Paris, Thuram was still considering a career as a clergyman. In the village where he lived in Guadeloupe, the Catholic priest was a spiritual leader, the person who brought comfort and absolution.

He adds: “As children in Guadeloupe, there were a lot of ghost stories. It was the priest that could fight off the ghosts. So for me, the priest was a superhero. But when I arrived in France I discovered that priests weren’t allowed to have kids and a family, so I thought, ‘No, that’s not for me.’”

That last sentence brings a chuckle, but soon he is back into his earnest, engaging flow, speaking with the focused intensity that made him such a consistently formidable player. 

Not only did he abandon the idea of being ordained, he says, but he moved away from religion entirely – “I believe in human beings” – something his deeply religious mother does not like to hear of.

“Part of civilisation is religion,” he says. “Unfortunately, I find that religion is a lot about ‘us’ and ‘them’.”

Christianity, he writes in ‘White Thinking’, was also used as a discursive tool to justify slavery and enslaved people were forced to convert. “The religious institutions are very often on the side of power,” he says.

The church’s loss was football’s gain. Specifically, French football’s. In 1998, Thuram would go on to reach the peak of a very different profession, lifting the World Cup in the suburbs of the city to which he had moved 17 years before.

Not only did France win, but they did so with a team described as ‘Black, Blanc, Beur’ – Black, White, Arab. They were held up as a symbol of a nation coming to terms with its multiculturality.

“It was something very important,” he recalls. “Often people say that you should not mix football and politics. No, football is politics. So, the victory of the French team in ‘98 is political.”

It was personal, too: “1998 marked 150 years of the abolition of slavery [in France and its colonies], so the Caribbean players, we remembered that, we were proud of marking that anniversary.” 

He sees that victory as the start of a process that continues now: “It was like a chick coming out of an egg. You can see the shell cracking and something emerging, but you can’t quite see what it is. That’s what 1998 gave rise to, those important questions.”

For a long time, though, Thuram says there were “very few” black players willing to denounce racism. Why? “They understand very well that they are taking a risk. Society will do everything to put them back in their place.

“[Martinican poet and author] Aime Cesaire said it very well: centuries of slavery and colonisation led to fear because of the violence with which they have been met; society is violent with oppressed people. It’s the same with women. In the past, when they stepped out of line, they’d be burned as witches.

“Look what happened to [Colin] Kaepernick. He rebelled when denouncing police violence, and he’s never found a team again. In Italy, there was a referee [Claudio Gavillucci] who stopped a match because of racism, he never refereed again.”

It seems now, though, that we have come upon a generation of players that are taking a stand. Thuram nods. “It is always the young who are going to change society. When, in the USA, they were protesting against Jim Crow laws, it was young people who occupied [segregated] shops or restaurants. Young black people.

“Again today, it is young people who are denouncing racism. For example, [Jadon] Sancho, Marcus Rashford, [Raheem] Sterling, Weston McKennie. 

“It’s also very interesting that Jordan Henderson spoke out. You need a coalition of people that are fighting for equality, it is not just something that concerns those who are discriminated against. It’s just like it’s not women who should be denouncing violence against women, it is men as well.”

We get onto the subject of Josh Cavallo, the A-League player who recently became to only openly gay top-flight male professional footballer in the world. 

Again, Thuram points out his age – 21 – and says: “I found the reaction interesting, it was positive, which shows society has advanced. But we need to have an open discussion about it to make others comfortable, to create new norms [so] that it won’t be such a big deal for the next player that wants to come out.”

If discrimination is to be stamped out in football, Thuram says, then that change will be initiated by the players. Federations and leagues have clearly done little to help, a fact he puts simply but strikingly: “I arrived in Italy in 1996, they were doing monkey chants. It’s 2021, they’re still doing monkey chants.”

He continues: “It is the footballers who have the true power in the business of football. It’s not the television. It’s not club presidents. It’s not federations.”

Thuram cites Rosa Parks, the African American woman who refused to give up her seat to a white person on a segregated Alabama bus in 1956, and points out that, though Parks was the instigator, it was not until the black population of Alabama had boycotted the buses for a year that the bus companies, on the brink of financial ruin, decided to desegregate services.

What is the message? Players need to hit television and federations where it hurts – in the pocket. If more games were stopped, he says, “very quickly a solution would be found.”

We are soon back to wider societal questions and Thuram emphasises that prejudices are insidious and can readily resurface: “It’s very, very deep, the legacy of having established a hierarchy of whiteness in relation to blackness.”

He adds that, in recent years, “we have seen the reactivation of the category of whiteness, but not often saying it out loud that it’s defending whiteness.

“You categorise people as against English values or say that being truly French is to be of a certain religion. They don’t talk about skin colour. It’s not, ‘White people first.’

“It’s like the president of Hungary [Viktor Orban], he defends Europe, ‘our civilisation’. It’s not named, but at its root, it’s the same [racist] discourse. That’s why it’s important to know history, to understand the identities that we have built on skin colour.”

• • • •

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• • • •

Thuram also re-states a point that is a central tenet of the book, that we are not as far removed from the past as we might like to think. 

As recently as the 1960s, French schools taught that the white race was superior. In the 1980s, many European countries considered Nelson Mandela a terrorist. The effects of supremacist ideas persist.

“People who reject the idea of structural racism need to face up to the question of what it means to be white,” he says. “You trace that back and it takes you to a history of violence that was carried out in the name of whiteness, through slavery and colonisation.

“Within French discourse today, all you ever hear about slavery is that France abolished it. It unsettles people to say, ‘We need to turn that history around.’ It causes people to become uncertain.

“[But] once you can face up to that, that allows you to take off these masks of identity that we wear… Neutrality doesn’t exist. Very often, the white person wants to feel neutral in the history of racism. It’s like the men who would like to feel neutral in the face of sexism.”

The idea of masks is one Thuram returns to time and again and it comes from the work of Martinican Marxist-humanist, pan-Africanist philosopher and psychologist Frantz Fanon.  

“Fanon is an idol,” Thurams says. “He is the person who best understood the problem of racism. Fanon was a psychiatrist and I think that racism is really a psychiatric problem. The idea of the masks is that you are in a play and when you put your mask on your role is determined. 

“When you put on a white mask or a black mask, they are not the same, you are not playing the same role. As you have the masks of the man and the woman that aren’t the same. We need to question the roles that are demanded of us, question the identities that we use.”

Fanon was a huge fan of football and of the potentially transformative power of sport. But he railed against its commercialisation.

What would Fanon make of modern football? “I think that Fanon would say that modern football, more than ever, defends the capitalist system. And it educates people to think that [the capitalist model] is the best model.

It’s a view Thuram shares. “I love football, I just look at it critically,” he says. “Football operates as an exemplar of how capitalism works. You say that everyone has an equal chance, but it’s the ones with the most money that win. 

“So if you translate that to how society works, it says that if you’re a failure, it’s your own fault. But it’s not true. 

“The desire of clubs to play in a closed Super League fits with the capitalist ideology, trying to shut it off for a group of wealthy monopoly capitalists who can keep taking lots of money. It’s profit above all else.”

Our time is coming to an end. So, one last thing: what is the most important lesson Thuram has learned from his work educating others? He thinks for a few seconds before reaching a conclusion: “Most people, adults and kids, aren’t aware of the ways in which they’ve been conditioned to think the way they do.

“True freedom comes from discovering how we’re conditioned and that allows us to think freely and to create a new way of perceiving the world. There are all of these things that shape us in society and these categories that we belong to, but the work I’ve done with kids has always tried to make them see that before any of these categories, they are human beings. 

“These things might shape us in other ways, but we must see the common denominator in being human.”

By Joshua Law

White Thinking: Behind the Mask of Racial Identity by Lilian Thuram is out now, published by Hero, priced £18.99.

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