UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
Soccer

French hero Thuram working to battle racism in soccer and society

Five years ago, to illustrate the development of mankind, scientists at the Musée de L'Homme in Paris chose three human skulls: the fossil of a generic Cro-Magnon; the cranium of philosopher René Descartes; and a facsimile of the strikingly active and wide-ranging brain of Lilian Thuram, the Guadeloupe-born defender and longtime captain of the French national soccer team.

Thuram helped lead France to its first World Cup title in 1998 and the European championship two years later. If it's possible to become even more prominent after exploits of that scale, Thuram has tried his best to do so since stepping down from Les Bleus in 2008 as the most-capped player in French history. Now 40, Thuram is an activist, educator, public intellectual and philosopher. He serves on France's Council on Social Integration. His Fondation Lilian Thuram has developed a curriculum for anti-racist education. His '10 book, Mes Etoiles Noires: De Lucy a Barack Obama (My Black Stars: From Lucy to Barack Obama) is part of his larger effort to bring the stories of black role models to francophone readers. Most recently he curated an award-winning exhibition at the Musee du Quai Branly, the ethnographic museum in Paris, called Human Zoos: The Invention of the Savage, which runs through June 3.

Thuram's description of soccer as "the language of happiness" has taken its place alongside Pele's "the beautiful game" as an iconic coinage about the world's most popular sport. Unfortunately, soccer has been blighted recently by a succession of racial incidents that were neither happy nor beautiful, and half of Euro 2012 will unspool in a country, Ukraine, with racist gangs notorious enough that the families of black England international Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have chosen not to risk traveling there to cheer him on."

With Euro 2012 set to begin on June 8, SI.com caught up with Thuram to discuss his anti-racism initiatives and get his take on the state of race relations in the game and beyond. In a conversation with Duke professor of French and History Laurent Dubois, author of Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France and editor of the Soccer Politics Blog, and SI senior writer Alexander Wolff, Thuram touched on a range of issues: coach Laurent Blanc being caught on tape seemingly condoning quotas on the French national team; Luis Suarez's racially-charged comments to Patrice Evra during a Premier League match; the pending racial abuse charge against former England captain John Terry for comments similar to Suarez's; the significance of anti-racism campaigns like FIFA's Kick It Out and the English FA's Show Racism the Red Card; and the varying degrees of progress on racial issues in sporting cultures around the world. Thuram was everything you'd expect him to be: instructive, philosophical, provocative, hopeful and, as during his playing days, fearless.

SI.com:What are the origins of your foundation and its principal goals?

Thuram: The foundation's basic principle is that people aren't born racist -- they become racist. And they become racist the same way one becomes socialized as a man or a woman -- that is, through conditioning. When I talk to children I can tell they have no notion of differences based on skin color. To explain racism is, above all, to explain that it's a construction -- an intellectual and political one.

If we want to understand why racism exists today, we have to explore its ideological foundations -- the ideologies of European scientists of the 18th and 19th centuries. The argument was that the "white" race was superior to others, and that "black" people were "missing links" between monkeys and humans. You can see this also with Native Americans, who were exploited and massacred and lost 80 percent of their population. And the slave trade was put in place to provide labor to cultivate land in the Americas colonized by Europeans.

You can then connect that period to what happened after the end of slavery, with the colonization of Africa and Asia, which was also justified by the ideology of racial inferiority. French colonies had something called the "Code de l'Indigenat," which placed indigenous people in an inferior legal position, subject to particular laws. This kind of ideology was similar to that of Nazism, which argued that there was an Aryan race superior to others. You can see the contradiction: Many of the very countries that fought Nazism, like the United States and France, practiced their own racial segregation. What they didn't like about Nazism was that it created racial hierarchies among whites. After the war there were the Nuremberg trials and the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man, but the very countries that had fought Germany continued to accept colonialism and apartheid in South Africa, while racial segregation continued in the U.S. In fact, the open acceptance of ideologies of racial hierarchy continued until very recently. Apartheid only ended in the 1990s.

So with the foundation our goal is to explain that racism has a very long, deep history that is also extremely recent. Not that long ago, the idea that whites are superior was actually taught in schools. What we need to do today is teach the opposite -- to undo the long history of racist education with anti-racist education.

SI.com:You've traveled a lot in France and around the world to educate about racism. What have you learned from those travels?

Thuram: This construction of white superiority exists all over the world. That's not surprising, since Europe was, until recently, a colonial power on virtually every continent. Decolonization was essentially begun in the '60s, so there's evidence of the racism born out of colonialism everywhere.

With slavery, there's an important difference between the U.S. and France: Slavery existed on the same territory in the States, whereas with France it was largely in colonial possessions in the Caribbean. Also, the history of segregation in the U.S., with the doctrine of "separate but equal," led to the development of African-American institutions -- businesses, universities, churches -- through which people developed strategies for battling injustice. What surprises me in the U.S., though, is that there seems to be very little memory of what happened to Native Americans. For instance, there's no large museum that explains how, in effect, much of the development of the country's political structure and identity is the result of a genocide.

It would be great to have more public discussion of these kinds of issues, in the States as well as France. Not to make some feel victimized and others guilty, but simply to better understand the societies in which we live, and figure out how to construct a better society that would move beyond all this.

SI.com:The show you curated at the Quai Branly explores the long history of racist thinking, from the conquest of the Americas to the colonial exhibitions and blackface performances of the 20th century. Why did you take on this project and what have been the reactions to it?

Thuram: I got the idea for the exhibit about two and a half years ago, after reading a book by the historian Pascal Blanchard about "human zoos," in which colonial subjects were put on display in Europe as live ethnographic curiosities. Blanchard and I went to the president of the Quai Branly Museum and pitched the idea of an exhibit, and he was really taken with the project.

Again, the idea was to explain that racism is an intellectual construction. People don't realize that not so long ago, in the U.S. and Europe, it was common for visitors to go see Africans, Native Americans and people from Oceania in exhibitions that were like zoos, where they were actually locked in cages or fenced in, or featured in performances. By telling that story we can see how the superiority complex of some, and the inferiority complex of others, was created. People were put on display as if they were savages, and visitors who weren't familiar with these populations went home convinced that such people were different -- that they were savages. This took place during the time of colonialism, and the construction of the inferiority of others buttressed the policies of the period -- justified colonialism as something good and necessary. Whether with Native Americans or Africans, these were political constructions introduced to facilitate the exploitation of particular groups of people. This gradually installed a kind of racist discourse, which ultimately impregnated all of society until these attitudes became a central part of the culture.

You have to remember that the last colonial exhibition, which included these "human zoos," took place in 1958. My mother was born in 1947 and my grandfather in 1908. So two generations of my family lived in the midst of this open prejudice. Given this very recent history, it's totally understandable that prejudice persists today. But we have to educate future generations to supersede these problems.

When I go to schools, I ask children: "Do you know why people in different parts of the world have different skin colors?" They don't know, so I explain to them how, when homo sapiens left Africa, he had to adapt to new climes. And when you live in a place where there isn't as much sun, you develop fairer skin to get more vitamin D, which triggers growth. And the kids say, "Oh!" We simply need to give them ways of understanding what we are, and how and why we've created these different groups. I also tell children that in many places -- notably in the U.S. -- people often and too easily use the notion of "race." But I tell the children there's really only one race -- homo sapiens.

SI.com:In your book, My Black Stars, you write about many different individuals whose history you think young people need to know. Why did you write the book?

Thuram: This book was written for all readers, and its aim above all was to alter our imaginations. I particularly wanted to give young readers a more positive image of themselves. I think that's crucial, because the greatest gift you can give a child is a positive image that will allow them to accomplish things and overcome obstacles.

One thing that interests me a lot in the U.S. is "Black History Month." We don't have anything like that in France. I think it's really important, because all of a sudden the entire population participates in intelligent reflection on the black population and breaks down the assumed connection between black skin and slavery. I also wrote about the great African civilizations, to help people avoid falling into reductive clichés -- as [outgoing French president] Nicolas Sarkozy did when he gave a speech in Dakar, Senegal, in which he said that Africans had never entered into history.

SI.com:For many years you've been a vocal critic of Sarkozy. In one interview you noted that many in France were preoccupied with the impact on society of outspoken anti-immigrant French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, but that they should be just as alarmed about the ways Sarkozy affected language and ideas around race and immigration. Please explain?

Thuram: Actually, what I've tried to offer is not so much criticism of Sarkozy as analysis. For many years we've seen clearly that Sarkozy stigmatized certain parts of our population, especially Muslims. He successfully seeded certain kinds of messages into society, and today we hear more and more people say things like "certain civilizations are not compatible with one another," or "the biggest problem in France is that there are too many halal butchers." But there again, to really understand Sarkozy's discourse you have to look at what's happening more broadly in Europe, and everywhere people are using Muslim Europeans as scapegoats. And since I'm speaking to a U.S.-based website, I should point out that this is also what has happened in the States. In fact I'd say that the shock wave of this kind of prejudice actually started in the U.S., with the first war against Iraq, and then after 9/11, when a major U.S. intellectual talked about a "clash of civilizations." Here again, there's a link between the intellectual construction and a political construction, and you can see how images of Muslims have gotten more and more negative.

SI.com:Last summer the French online magazine Mediapart acquired a recording of a meeting at the French Football Federation during which high-ranking members of the organization -- including national coach Laurent Blanc -- discussed the need to limit the number of "black" and "Arab" players coming up through the ranks of training academies in France. (Laurent Dubois analyzed the revelations and scandal at the Soccer Politics Blog.) Should we be surprised that this kind of racism exists in French football, given the contributions made by players like you, Zinedine Zidane and many others over the years?

Thuram: Sport doesn't exist at a remove from society. If in society people are spreading negative images about certain groups, obviously that's going to show up in sport. At the same time, there's less of a chance of finding this in sport, because in sport you're constantly confronted -- happily -- with people from many different backgrounds. Plus, in sport, if you want to win, you have to have the best players, where in other parts of society you can perhaps pass over those who are most talented. I think in the U.S., in general, people want to have the best in order to move forward. French society doesn't completely function that way. It often functions through a system almost like a caste system. In French sport there are fewer problems of discrimination than there are in the broader society, because what ultimately matters is the final result. It's not a coincidence that things have evolved faster in sport than in other parts of society. You can see that very clearly in the U.S., where Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and since then African-American athletes have achieved great success.

SI.com: There's long been a debate in the U.S., one also going on now in Europe, about how there's a great deal of diversity among players, but coaches and managers remain overwhelmingly white. In the U.S. we have policies in place, such as the NFL's "Rooney Rule," to try to rectify that situation, and the English FA is considering similar measures. Would that sort of approach make a difference in France?

Thuram: The U.S. is definitely light-years ahead of France in that regard. But that's because a part of civil society is much more attentive to and active in making sure there's equality. In France, if you say, "There's a problem with white domination," it shocks people. People find it really easy to talk about "blacks," or "Maghrebins," or to identify people as 2nd, 3rd, 4th generation immigrants -- even as 15th generation! (laughter) -- but much harder to accept that people with white skin profit from the current system, that they gain advantages from the social structure in place. But things are going to evolve in the coming years. There's a longer history in the U.S. of people struggling to change the racial order. It's no accident that there's a president who's considered black in the States, while we have a long way to go before we get there in France.

SI.com:Lately there has been a striking number of major controversies involving racism between players, most notably those involving Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra, and John Terry and Anton Ferdinand. It seems as if Great Britain has taken the lead in addressing these problems. And there's a definite contrast between what happened, for instance, when Marcel Desailly accused Hristo Stoichkov of using racist language during a game in the 1996 Euro, and what happened in the Evra case. Scotland has passed a law criminalizing sectarian abuse at matches, and Welsh police recently jailed a student for a racist tweet after Fabrice Muamba collapsed in action. Are you pleased with the kinds of action the English have been taking?

Thuram: Definitely. I think that in football, as much as in society at large, we have to adopt a zero-tolerance stance with those who use racist language. So it's a very good thing that the English Federation is taking this kind of behavior seriously. It suggests that English football is moving toward a certain maturity -- which isn't the case in France, unfortunately. When you see what happened in the case of the French Football Federation, and the discussion of "quotas" aimed at diminishing the numbers of "black" and "Arab" players, it's totally scandalous. Nothing happened: The people who said these things are still in their positions. From that you can see that our society remains a place that accepts certain kinds of racism.

It's a matter of respect. What happened showed a lack of respect toward people with dual nationality who have played on the French national team. If there were a minimum of respect, a little decency, a clear sense that you simply can't express yourself in such terms, the French Federation would have made very different decisions than the ones they ultimately made in this case.

SI.com:And you think the way they're dealing with it in England is better?

Thuram: From what I've seen from afar it is, because the issue is taken seriously, and they're not trying to stifle it. They're trying to resolve it. While in France they try to stifle it.

SI.com:Do anti-racism slogans and symbols from the soccer establishment during international competitions make a difference?

Thuram: It's important to spread the message that racism is unacceptable. But things could progress much more rapidly. Let's go back to the question of what happened with the French Federation. Imagine if every living player with dual citizenship who has ever played for the French national team said, "This is unacceptable." Imagine if all the dual nationals in the French professional leagues said, "So you don't want us? Well, until you've taken some action we refuse to play." Imagine if all those players on the French national team today declared that, until something is done about this case, they'll refuse to wear the jersey. You'd see things get worked out very quickly.

Rosa Parks left a mark on history because one day she, and African-Americans, said: "We can't sit in any seat we'd like? Well, then we won't get on the bus." If players did the same thing, the French Federation would take the problem of racism in football much more seriously.

SI.com:You're obviously very vocal about these issues, and some other players are too. But why won't more speak up?

Thuram: Well, what Patrice Evra did was very important. He did what all victims of racism should do: Denounce those who direct racism at you. That's the first thing we have to teach children. When you're victimized, you have to denounce the act of racism.

SI.com:It takes courage, though, doesn't it? Isn't there a culture within sport that urges players not to rock the boat?

Thuram: But that's not limited to football; it's in society as a whole. All too often people who are discriminated against don't rebel. They say, "It's not serious, that's just the way it is." They're convinced complaining won't lead to any improvement.

SI.com: Do you think athletes have a particular responsibility to speak out, given their visibility and position in society?

Thuram: Athletes are public figures, and they're more likely to be heard if they speak up. That's why I think they need to stand up and say, "If that's the way it is, then you can go on without us." And you'll see, there will be a response. Because at that point you'll be hurting the money men behind sports, and they won't accept it.

SI.com:So when Roberto Carlos or Samuel Eto'o refused to play when they were subjected to racist chants, that was the right thing to do?

Thuram: Absolutely. That's what players should do, so clubs will do what's necessary. And in France, players with dual citizenship should do the same. But they must also persuade other players to join them -- and those others should say, "I stand with you." When there's an issue with racism, people always go to the black players to ask them what they think. But journalists should ask other players too: "Why don't you leave the field when there's racism in the stands?" After all, this concerns everyone.

SI.com:You've always said that if there's racism in the stadium it's only because there's racism in society, and the latter is what we have to address. What do you think of new approaches like those in Britain that target racist chants? If you hear a racist or homophobic chant at an Arsenal match, you can send a free text message and a steward will come to remove the offending fan.

Thuram: Any approach that leads people to denounce racism is useful. The primary thing is to show that the law protects all, and that it can intervene if you attack the dignity of a particular person. People who use racist language in a stadium should suffer the consequences, just as they should in the broader society. But it's extremely complicated when you have -- as you do in France today -- politicians who are openly using racist language.

SI.com:But people's everyday experience, in France or the U.S., can also teach them a more constructive attitude, right? Through sport people encounter different people and can begin to see them in a different way.

Thuram: Yes, because through sport you meet other people. You share something with them. If someone tells you "Muslims are like this," it only works if you've never met a Muslim yourself. Once you know two or three you realize that they're individuals, that they're all different. But too many people aren't in contact with people of different religions or different colors. And if they're educated by the media, all they'll have are the negative images that have been repeated about Muslims for the past 30 years.

SI.com:You're exceptional in sport as someone who has taken on a very public and political role. Do you think there's a chance that more athletes will do this?

Thuram: It depends on each person's sensibilities. For me, because of the life I've led, I feel that reflecting on and talking about racism is important. This isn't about making people feel guilty. Rather, I want to take a photograph of society, to ask myself how I can make things better. And I think all of us, athletes or not, have to participate in that process. We have to aspire toward a more just society, because justice is won through struggle. Take France, for instance. At the beginning of the 20th century very few people in the French empire were considered citizens. The majority were governed by the "Code de l'Indigenat" and women didn't have the right to vote -- they'd only get it in 1944. So equality is actually quite new. And if people learned more about that, maybe they'd be more attentive to the need to continue the struggle for equality.

Athletes are often scared to stand out. But you can never satisfy everyone in life. And when I say that we're in a society where there's racism, where people with white skin are privileged, that's a simple observation. It's obvious that if some people are discriminated against because of the color of their skin, then people with white skin gain advantages from that. But it's hard to change things too. Because if, for instance, you ask for equality between women and men -- for parity -- that means that a number of men who have power are going to have to give up some of that power. And no one wants to give up some privilege. With color it's the same thing. But people have to look at the situation honestly and say, "It's true, I'm gaining an advantage because of the status quo."

SI.com:During a 2006 interview with Cameroonian historian and political philosopher Achille Mbembe for the online magazine Africultures, you spoke of football as "the language of happiness." At the same time we sometimes see football bring out the worst in people. How do you reconcile this contradiction -- that such a beautiful game can also sometimes create things that are so ugly?

Thuram: For me football is above all what happens on the pitch -- the relationship with teammates, with the ball, with opponents, putting together a strategy that will win you the game, simply enjoying the fact that you're there. And everything that happens around football, that's nothing more than a reflection of society.

But I'm still convinced that the racism of fans, like the fans who made monkey noises when I played, is much less dangerous than the latent racism in a society where someone refuses to give a person a job because of color, gender, religion or handicap -- someone who doesn't even known why they refuse, who just has these prejudices. That's a lot more violent than chants in a stadium. And what I'd like is simply that each of us becomes conscious of the fact that we carry within us racial prejudices and that we have to get beyond them.

SI.com:Before we let you go, can you share with us a thought on the Euro? Are you optimistic about the chances of the French team?

Thuram: I'm still optimistic, because I believe that to achieve great things you have to have doubt. Doubt makes it possible to transcend yourself. There's a lot of doubt surrounding the French team today, but I'm persuaded that the team has a lot of players of extremely high quality. Take, for instance, the February friendly in Germany, which was an excellent game. Beforehand, not many people were betting on a French victory. (France defeated Germany 2-1.) When you're a player, that puts you in a situation where all your senses are alert. And that allows you to dig deep within yourself to do something great. And I hope that'll be the case!

Promoted Stories
Comments

More Soccer

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.