Posted: Friday June 1, 2012 9:17AM ; Updated: Friday June 1, 2012 1:02PM

French hero Thuram working to battle racism in soccer and society

Story Highlights

Lilian Thuram captained France to titles in the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 Euro

Since retirement, Thuram has become an activist focusing on racism in society

Thuram feels players who have been victims of racism should threaten not to play

By Alexander Wolff and Laurent Dubois

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Lilian Thuram's efforts to educate people about racism has taken him around the world, including a West Bank refugee camp.
Lilian Thuram's efforts to educate people about racism has taken him around the world, including a West Bank refugee camp.
Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images

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, 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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