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,
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.