France’s victorious 1998 World Cup side were nicknamed the “Rainbow Team” for their ethnic diversity. How is Lilian Thuram using his platform to talk about racism today?
Hi, I’m Chloe and this is the Playmaker.
One story every day to make sense of the world of football.
Today… breaking down racial barriers with Lilian Thuram.
Lilian Thuram knows what it takes to change society through football.
He was part of the France side that won the World Cup in 1998.
Arguably, that victory, on home soil, was the most culturally significant World Cup win… ever.
That’s because French history, when it comes to immigration and race, is complex and complicated.
And at the time, support was growing for Jean Marie Le Pen, the divisive leader of the far right.
But the national football team – nicknamed “The Rainbow Team” for its ethnic diversity – managed to unite the country.
“The phrase that was coined here in France and instead of the blue, white, red of the French tricolor was black, blanc, beur…black, white and beur…a French word meaning people of North African origin. A real symbol of new, young, streetwise multicultural France. And a successful integration between them all. The victory and the wave of optimism that followed even boosting the French economy for several months.”France 24
Plenty has been written about the cultural significance of what that team achieved.
But that was then. What about now?
A member of that World Cup winning side has never forgotten the significance of what that football team achieved in a social context. He has carried on using the platform it created to talk about racism.
He is Lilian Thuram.
He’s just released a book called “White Thinking.”
And if that title triggers unease, that’s because it’s meant to.
Because it could be down to what’s known as “white fragility.”
It’s a common response, described by sociologist Robin Di Angelo as “discomfort and defensiveness on the part of a white person when confronted by information about racial inequality and injustice.”
“It functions as a kind of everyday white racial control by making it so difficult for people to challenge us on our unaware functions and biases that most of the time they don’t. And so it functions to keep everybody in their place and protect the racial hierarchy.”Guardian
She argues that white people in general, and not just those who are overtly racist, react defensively when confronted by the issue.
“I am the least racist person that you have ever met. I am the least racist person.”CNN
And it’s a response that can prevent the issue being tackled effectively. After all, it occurs when our skin colour becomes bound up with identity… who we are.
It’s this issue that Thuram is addressing.
The subtitle of White Thinking is “Behind the Mask of Racial Identity.”
And he argues that we have to move beyond categories like men, women, black and white.
Instead we must realise we are human beings before anything else.
“You have to explain to children that we are not born racist. We become racist because racism is a cultural thing. I mean that throughout history, we have been shoved into hierarchies linked to the colour of our skin. And so hierarchies are there in all of us to overcome them.”Global Conversation
As a former footballer, Thuram is keen to tackle the problem of institutionalised racism in sport.
He says it’s important that white players speak out rather than to rely solely on black players doing so.
For this reason, Thuram has praised Jordan Henderson for his stand against racism.
“You have got people who aren’t black who are speaking out as well, which I think is really important. I’d like to know why, you know why are you so passionate about this issue? A lot of people would say you didn’t really have a reason to be.”
“Yeah, I think I’ve got to be careful because I am white and I actually, people could say…you don’t know what it feels like to be racially abused you know so…I understand that but at the same time I’ve got close friends of mine to see in which ways I can try and help and understand the history of it a lot more because I am white and I can reach a different audience.”Liverpool FC
So what’s the solution to racism in sport?
It’s a huge question but Thuram thinks that the only way to address it is to confront it. And if that means clubs are fined – as Gillingham reserves were by the English FA recently – so be it.
Because if matches are allowed to continue when racist behaviour occurs, the authorities will sweep the problem under the carpet.
And he supports team solidarity: players – all of them – should refuse to stay on the pitch.
As Lilian Thuram’s World Cup winning France side showed, teams who stand together can bring about genuine change.
In football and in society.
Today’s episode was written by me, Chloe Beresford, and produced by Nimo Omer.