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Lilian Thuram: We're not born racist, we become it

Ali Farhat Matt Ford
March 15, 2021

French World Cup winner Lilian Thuram experienced racism when growing up and has seen his son Marcus deal with it in the Bundesliga. But the former defender believes that education is the only way to improve things.

Lilian Thuram
Lilian Thuram is proud of his son Marcus' stance on racismImage: CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images

"When I saw my son do that, my first thought was: 'he's grown up,'" said Lilian Thuram, referring to his son Marcus' goal celebration back on May 31, 2020.

Thuram junior had just scored for Borussia Mönchengladbach against Union Berlin in the Bundesliga, when he went down on one knee, lowered his head and raised his fist skywards. It was a homage to George Floyd, killed six days earlier by police in the United States, but also a protest against police violence and racism.

"When you are a father, you tell your children things but you never really know if they're taking it in," said Thuram senior. "But it's good that [Marcus] was listening, especially these days because the younger generation notice things like that on social media."

Thuram, 49 and a World Cup winner with France in 1998, was speaking directly to that generation during a Zoom call with students at the francophone Saint-Benoît and Pierre Loti schools in Istanbul, Turkey.

The call was part of the "EMICE+" (education in media, information and European citizenship) project, itself part of the Europe-wide Erasmus program which connects young students from across the continent. Thuram himself experienced a very different childhood.

'Someone called me a dirty Black'

Born in Pointe-à-Pitre in the French overseas département of Guadeloupe, Thuram was initially not confronted by issues appertaining to the color of his skin. It was when his family moved to mainland France when he was nine that he first experienced racism.

Lilian Thurm on the ball in World Cup 1998
Thuram scored twice in the semifinal of World Cup 98Image: picture-alliance/L.Perenyi

"One day at school, someone called me a dirty Black," he recalled. "I didn't understand. When I told my mum, she said that's just how it is, it's not going to change. I don't think that was the best response."

Because, for Lilian Thuram, it is possible to change things, providing one remembers one basic fact: "One isn't born racist; one becomes racist." For the former Monaco, Parma, Juventus and Barcelona defender, racism is a socio-historical construct, a "hierarchy to assign people roles according to the color of their skin." It's a categorization that Thuram himself says he experienced in football when he was young.

"I often used to hear remarks from the coaches. If a Black player wasn't working hard enough in training, it was because Black players are lazy. Or the Black players were said to have certain physical attributes due to the color of their skin: if they were physically strong, it wasn't because they had worked hard or were determined to succeed; it was because they were Black. There were many stereotypes. Some were 'positive' — but stereotypes nevertheless."

However, Thuram insists that he never experienced racism in the dressing room as a professional. "When you play professionally, you spend a lot of time with your teammates and you all have the same objective, so even if there are any prejudices, they aren't allowed to get in the way."

But when he played in Italy, he did hear monkey noises made from the stands. "I went back into the dressing room and I was angry. My teammates were saying that it wasn't serious. I understand why they were doing that : they wanted to protect me. But nowadays, I think that every player — even if he's not racially abused — will understand that it's really bad and that must stop."

'A message of hope'

Which is why, after hanging up his boots in 2008, he founded the Lilian Thuram Foundation, aimed not just at denouncing racism, but rather at educating people about it.

Marcus Thuram celebrates scoring for Borussia Mönchengladbach
Marcus Thuram is one of the Bundesliga's rising starsImage: picture-alliance/U. Hufnagel

"We are all products of our history and it's important to know about the history of racism," he explained. "Unfortunately, it's not really taught in schools. And that's why I say that people are not born racist; they become it. They are conditioned without even knowing it."

Today, Thuram thinks progress is being made. To illustrate his point, he returned to football to highlight the recent incident in the Champions League game between Paris Saint-Germain and Basaksehir in Istanbul, the listening students' home city, where the PSG players unanimously walked off the pitch after a member of the coaching staff was subjected to racist language.

"Everyone left the pitch together – that was a message of hope," he said. "Sometimes, the game just has to stop, but it's not always obvious that it will, and the institutions in charge don't always want it to stop. Football is a business after all and business dictates that the match must continue, ignoring any problems."

Asked by one of the students what his hopes were for his foundation in the future, he replied simply: "That it no longer has to exist."

In other words, he hopes for a time when his son Marcus no longer has to take a knee in the Bundesliga.

Interview: Footballer Kingsley Ehizibue