White thinking

by Lilian Thuram

Black and white thinking (Issue II/2022)

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The professional soccer player and author Lilian Thuram. Photo: Basso Cannarsa / opale photo / Raif


The first encounter with white* thinking I remember, happened in my home country, Guadeloupe. As a child, I was on the beach with my siblings. Tourists took pictures of us. We couldn't understand why and later our parents told us not to let ourselves be photographed again or to accept any money for posing. It was only much later that I understood why my parents were so angry. The white tourists didn't ask us, or our parents, if they could take our picture. After all, what were they doing with those pictures? Why did they want to pay us for them? Were those same tourists taking pictures of white children back home and offering them money for that? Even today, when I think back on that, I still find it incomprehensible.

And I first experienced racism, as a form of hate, when I arrived in France in 1981, in a municipality called Bois-Colombes on the outskirts of Paris. I was nine years old at the time. At the primary school there, the other children called me a “dirty black”. I like to say that was really the moment when I became “black”. In Guadalupe I'd simply been Lilian, whose mother called him Lico. It wasn't until we got to Paris that I realised that black was not a positive description and that it was far better to be white. The supremacy of “whiteness” is the very foundation of racism. And just like sexism, racism is a product of culture.

I spent my youth in the Les Fougères neighbourhood in Avon, near Paris. People from every imaginable corner of the world lived there - Portugal, Zaire, Italy, Pakistan, Thailand, France. And we all played football together. But when I changed teams to play for Fontainebleau, a much more bourgeois town, I got the feeling that some of the other children were looking at me strangely because I lived in a place where they thought poor people came from. To them, anybody who was poor couldn't be a decent person and most likely violent too. Some of them were scared to come to my neighbourhood. That really made me feel very insecure at the time.

“I came to realise that the police behaved very differently with white people, than they did with people of colour“

I always remember a time back then, when I wasn’t even 17 yet. I was sitting around with friends near the Cité high rises. Some police came and asked us what we were doing there, then demanded to see our identification. The bigger kids protested. “Why do you need to see our papers?”, they asked. “After all, you know us and you know we live around here.” But the police thought of us as potential troublemakers, the sort of people they should keep an eye on at all times. From very early on, I felt I couldn't trust the police. Additionally my mother had already told me that if there was a problem and somebody called the police, I should try and disappear as quickly as possible. It was only when I was older that I came to realise that the police behaved very differently with white people, than they did with people of colour.

Through playing football I learned about other aspects of white thinking. Our trainer was of the opinion that white and Black players were not equally gifted. Back people had natural abilities but were lazy by nature. One couldn’t trust them because they wouldn’t train hard enough to develop their “innate abilities”. Every day we had to deal with that sort of reductionist prejudice. Our talent was natural, our weaknesses attributed to a lack of will. We Black players were stigmatised. We were always told that white players were more reliable.

When I turned professional, but was not yet very well known, I wanted to have lunch with my fiancée in a luxury hotel in the middle of Paris. I had the money I needed to eat there but people thought I did not. Why? You're always looking for the reasons for such a rejection, for such contempt. Racism is often the last thing on your mind because there is nothing more hurtful than being judged for the colour of your skin. First, you think maybe I'm too young, or I'm not rich enough.

“Racism is often the last thing on your mind because there is nothing more hurtful than being judged for the colour of your skin.”

Being rejected simply because of the colour of your skin hurts. Those who have not been, can never understand how brutal it feels. You need to be courageous to stand up against this kind of white thinking. When I was younger, I didn't dare to and was always looking for other reasons within myself for that sort of rejection.

When I was a young footballer, we were told that Black players didn’t have sufficient concentration to be goalkeepers or defenders and would make a mistake eventually. I often wonder how many talented young Black footballers were handicapped in their careers because of that kind of prejudice. Black footballers were accepted in attacking positions though. They were considered fast and talented at improvisation. They were creative. But Black defenders – they couldn't' concentrate. Black players were also often given animal nicknames, like cheetah or panther. Not to mention the many white players who often said things to me like, “imagine if I had your physical strength and my intelligence, I would be unbeatable!“

When I was playing in Italy, I was also frequently confronted with white thinking. Journalists would ask me what should be done about racism. As if it was my job to find a solution, as if it was the victim's job to fight racism, as if the white players didn't have anything to do with defending white supremacy. Yet again, white people were the winners when it came to racist ideologies. Even today, I am still confronted with racism. For example, I went to Brussels to take part in a discussion with university students. I was met at the train station and we want to a restaurant. It was one of those fancy restaurants where you have to ring a doorbell at the entrance. I went to the toilet there and as I was coming out of the bathroom, a woman approached me and told me, “this is not a public toilet”. I looked at her and said this must be a misunderstanding. But she simply repeated, “this is not a public toilet” and was impolite to me.

I turned to the bar keeper there and demanded to speak to the manager. He recognised me and just looked embarrassed. The woman disappeared. So I went back to my fellow diners and they suggested we simply leave. At first I didn’t want to, but eventually we all decided to go. Nobody on staff apparently thought it was worth apologising about. White thinking basically never has to apologise.

“In a society that doesn’t admit racism is a problem, there's no priority placed upon anti-racism.”

It's always difficult when you encounter racism. It's often a he-said-she-said sort of situation and the person who said something racist will never admit to it. I also found my own reaction to this conversation in the restaurant interesting. First I pretended not to notice and acted as if it wasn't that bad. I didn't want to bother anyone or cause some sort of scandal, because in the end they might have accused me of starting it all. In that way, I have internalized white thinking. In a society that doesn’t admit racism is a problem, there's no priority placed upon anti-racism. You see these problems all over the world, just not in your own country. And because the existence of racism is denied, people of colour continue to suffer it.

There's another more recent anecdote too. My wife, my eldest son and I left a restaurant around midnight. We went to the taxi stand to get a cab. But the first taxi driver gave us a signal. Not me, he motioned to the next taxi in the rank. We were a bit surprised but did as he said and went to the second taxi. The second cab driver also gave us a “no” signal and indicated we should go back to the first driver in the queue. I started getting annoyed. “Let's leave it then”, my son said. But I went to the third taxi in the line. “Oh, Mr Thuram, the others just didn’t recognise you”, the third driver said. You see, he knew what was going on and that this was not an exception. It was commonplace. As a Black man, you experience this sort of affront regularly. You are continuously being shown that you, as a Black man, are a potential risk. You are automatically filed in the negative folder.

White thinking is a political ideology that still wreaks havoc in each of us, to this very day.”

On February 7, 2022, a day after the game between Senegal and Egypt, I met a young man on the street. He spoke about Senegal's victory and told me how he had been sure that Senegal would lose, if it came to a penalty shootout. “But why?” I asked him. “Because I always have my doubts when Black players have to do a penalty shootout”, he replied. “Taking a penalty is only a  question of technique. You either can or you can't”, I replied. “It's not a question of skin colour.” But he insisted on his point. He still had his doubts about Black players shooting penalties.

White thinking is a political ideology that still wreaks havoc in each of us, to this very day.    

* The word „white“ has been italicised by the author deliberately to indicate that it is a social construct with which privilege is associated.

Translated by Cornelia Wend and Cathrin Schaer



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