World Cup legend Lilian Thuram addresses uncomfortable questions with ‘White Thinking’

Lilian Thuram speaks with the same conviction and authority that helped her win the World Cup. He understands his position and profile as a footballer – France’s biggest appearance maker and a mainstay in defense for Monaco, Parma, Juventus and Barcelona – and he’s using it to drive social change.

Even before retiring in 2008, Thuram made activism a central part of her life, becoming a key voice in the fight against inequality through the Lilian Thuram Foundation. He’s now also an author, and his latest book ‘White Thinking’, released in English last October, is an incredibly candid and shaken-up deep dive into the makeup of racism, which he says is nothing more than a “political will”.

He tries to get people to see racism through a different lens and understand how the makeup of society plays a role in its continued importance today. “We are all educated through stories,” says Thuram Soccer Mirror . “School is where the story of a country is told to the next generation, so it is eminently political; it is not a neutral space. We need to give space to other stories and other voices, and that’s what my book tries to do.

“We need new perspectives on the world and to question our identities. This is crucial for bringing about change. If we want change, we need more solidarity within politics; we often see a critique of communism and the violence it has had, which is true, but we are not talking about the violence carried out in the name of the capitalist system in which we all live. These are really crucial questions that we need to ask ourselves.

“I talk to black children in schools about these issues and tell them that they are part of a group that is being discriminated against. In France, with the republican ideology, there is an idea that skin color is completely neutral. This is a lie; realize that this is the first step in the fight for equality. When you understand the discrimination that exists, then you can ask what can be done about it.

The continuing conflict in Ukraine after the Russian invasion in late February embodied some of the facets that Thuram intends to discuss. “Racism is an act of political will, and we can see it in the reaction to war. Ukrainians are imagined as “one of us”, they are part of civilization as “us” in Western Europe. Whiteness is a communal identity, and those who don’t belong, who are different, we don’t have to take. Wars in other parts of the world do not belong to the “us” of whiteness.

“There have been episodes with black students having difficulty going out and receiving the same welcome as Ukrainians. I was asked my reaction to the war as a European recently, in Spain. I wanted to answer as a black person, because that’s a different position. I am not part of this white European identity. The white European world has been at war with the black world for centuries through colonialism. People hadn’t thought about racism through an economic and political prism before reading the book; it’s an important part, to make people realize that these things play a crucial role in its persistence.

Lilian Thuram with the World Cup in 1998


DANIEL GARCIA/AFP via Getty Images)

Thuram was born in Guadeloupe in the Caribbean before moving to Paris at the age of nine. It was there that he began to understand and challenge inequality, after being racially abused by his peers. “Looking back, I’m lucky in many ways, which happened to me so young because it got me thinking about identity and how racism works. My journey into activism goes back at this moment.

The discomfort white people face when confronting their own identity is a key theme Thuram explores in the book. While he makes it clear that individuals should not be blamed for their race, he says awareness and accountability must lead to more questions in a larger context. “White people don’t want to question their own identity, they feel comfortable there. Whiteness is seen as something completely natural; there is no desire to start asking questions about it. You have to face centuries of violence; violence against people, but also the planet.

“The Western-dominated capitalist system has done terrible damage to the world we live in. We must question this model because of the exploitation of people, but also of the planet, which makes it uninhabitable. When we speak of white identity, it is not an attack on an individual, it is an attempt to understand a set of social and political structures; it’s so important to step out of those identities and see them for who they are, and for people to see themselves as human beings. This is how we move the conversation forward.

Change takes time, and Thuram cautions against naivety in understanding this. While taking the knee has become a constant sight in English football, some black players, including Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha, have stopped participating due to a lack of progress following the gesture. He also says white allies have an important role to play, while professing admiration for Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson in particular.

Jordan Henderson has been a powerful figure in the fight against inequality


POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

“If we look at colonization, it was there until the 1960s, apartheid in South Africa in the 1990s. The structures behind them don’t disappear overnight; I’m 50 and in 100 , racism will always exist. People will fight to keep the privileges they have had and this is the phase we are in.

“Taking the knee is symbolic and change often begins with these symbolic moments. It’s been common in the Premier League for a few years, but if you look at football more broadly, how many leagues and players are involved in it, how many accept that racial equality is something we need to be concerned about, it’s not as universally accepted as that. People can get tired of symbolism when they think there’s no real change behind it, but symbolism is a very important first step.

“White allies are really important in this fight. As a black person complaining about racism, you can be accused of exaggerating the impact and its prevalence. White support can help get the message across; it’s important that white people see racism as a problem for them. Often they see themselves in a position of neutrality on issues of race; that neutrality is not really an option because silence is a defense of a system that benefits them.

France’s triumph as hosts of the 1998 World Cup came at a politically difficult time for the country. The diversity within the team was seen as a representation of French society and a beacon of hope in raising awareness of racial equality. Thuram admits success is why he has the profile with which to influence the discussion.

“It was a wonderful victory; he gave birth to the idea that the French team could encompass all this diversity while remaining perceived as French. There is a real debate in France on diversity in all sectors, in parliament, in the senate. It gave legitimacy to certain ideas; I wouldn’t be here today, with this book published, if I hadn’t won the World Cup.

France’s multicultural World Cup triumph came at a politically difficult time for the nation


Jerome Prévost/TempSport/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

“It is important to differentiate political discourse from public discourse, a collection of ideas within society. If you look at the team’s victory in 2018, which was also a very diverse team, there were no voices to say that it wasn’t a real French team. That’s something that has changed in the 20 years between those two World Cup victories.

Progress can be made toward racial equality if quotas are put in place, Thuram believes. While American football’s “Rooney Rule”, which ensures that a black or minority ethnic candidate is always considered for a position, tries to level the playing field, he fears it does not go far enough to combat the perceptions.

“Black people have the fewest opportunities, that’s just a fact. We need to change that; the Rooney rule is based on the idea that at least there is a chance to be heard. In France, we’ve gone a lot further for women and we’ve put quotas in. There’s still a perception that black people don’t have the qualities to lead, you have to change mindsets, and the first way to do that is to introduce quotas Because these perceptions still exist, simply giving them a voice in an interview will not change anything.

The road is long, but Thuram is engaged. For him, the answer to improving all forms of inequality is solidarity. “We have to keep talking about these issues, the prejudices that exist. Solidarity is the key; seeing others as our equals.

“This is what everyone who has fought against racism has done; to care for those who are discriminated against, poor or left behind in society. Politics is increasingly directed towards everyone who cares about themselves and individual interests. That’s what we have to stop.”

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