Lilian Thuram is listed among the best defenders of his generation, with a record number of appearances for France, a World Cup, European Championship and nine major domestic honours in his glittering career.
And when his professional career ended in 2008 with Barcelona, he created a foundation helping to educate against racism, and he has since written several books on the subject, campaigned against sexism and homophobia, and advised the French government on social integration.
Now he has a new book entitled White Thinking: Behind the Mask of Racial Identity, and has detailed how racism should be challenged.
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"If we are to talk about racism, it’s with whites that we have to talk," said Thuram. "It’s like with sexism, the people who need to be educated are men and boys. What I’m trying to say is: ‘Right, there is racism: why? And why do we say there are white people and non-white people? Why do we say there are people of colour?’ If you don’t know the reasons, you won’t be able to understand why prejudices exist. People need to know the history of the racialisation of the world.”
“No one is born Black or white,” he says. “It is important that people who are said to be white understand what it is to be white. We all need to be aware that history has led to us wearing skin-colour masks and in the book I invite people to remove those masks. To remove them, you have to know the history of these identities linked to skin colour, the social hierarchies that were devised. When we understand history, we understand that racism has always been a scam. It has always been a political construction designed to smash the ties of solidarity between human beings in order to exploit certain people so that a minority can get rich.

Alberto Malesani e Lilian Thuram ai tempi del Parma

Image credit: Getty Images

“To be able to change we have to lift ourselves out of categories: men, women, black and white, and so on. We have to promote the idea that we are human beings before anything else. Generally speaking, the majority don’t want change because they have settled into their habits. So a minority has to be able to instigate change.”
Premier League footballers have continued to take the knee this season, despite the protests of sub-sections of fans inside and outside stadiums. And while some players have questioned the ongoing merits of the act, Thuram says it is still important for players to take the knee to condemn injustice and encourage reflection.
"It’s very important that players continue to take the knee before matches, to condemn the injustices that affect people of colour,” he says. “English football has to be congratulated for continuing to do this; they are really pioneers in developing awareness, at least in football. What they are doing encourages people to reflect.”
“Very often players who are targets of racism are asked: ‘What should we do about it?’ That is very hypocritical because it suggests it is up to them to find solutions as if they are the problem. It is up to white players, who are usually in the majority, to refuse to play on. Then the powers-that-be will be forced to take action. Because otherwise their business will suffer.”
Thuram spent a decade of his career in Serie A with Parma and then Juventus, with whom he won two Serie A titles.
And speaking from Italy, Thuram was disappointed to see that, in the 24 years since he arrived in the nation, the authorities have done little to tackle racism inside of stadiums as it continues to prevail all over the nation on matchdays.
“Change never comes at first from the authorities. If you want to bring about change, you have to do things so that the authorities are compelled to change. For example, I am talking to you from Italy, where people often ask me: ‘Are the authorities doing enough to tackle racism?’ And I say: ‘No. I arrived in Italy in 1997 and there were racist chants in stadiums. Now it’s 2021 and there are still racist chants in stadiums. That means the authorities have not done their job.
All I’m doing is taking a photograph of the reality. Since they have not generated change, we need another strategy. Historically, it’s individuals who oblige systems to change. I’m talking about individuals of all colours who force the system to evolve. That’s how things have happened in history, whether it’s in the fight for gender equality, sexual equality or whatever."
And while Thuram has praised English football, he wants to see more white players speak out and take responsibility as part of the solution.
"When I see the Liverpool captain, Jordan Henderson, speaking out against racism, I think it’s fantastic. Because it means that he has understood that racism affects him too.
“He was not neutral, he realised it was not the responsibility of the minority of people who are targets of racism to condemn it. Players like him set an example. The more people who call out racism, the closer we get to equality. To say nothing is to endorse the violence that is racism. I wrote the book to help people understand how things are organised, that racism is a trap. You have to understand that.”
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