Behind the mask of racial identity: White Thinking by World Cup winner Thuram

By JON BATHAM, SJA committee member

Lilian Thuram’s ‘White Thinking’ is a challenging, complex, academic and at times distinctly uncomfortable read, just as the writer intended it to be.

The Guadeloupe-born footballer, a World Cup winner with France in 1998, uses his latest offering to explore both the roots and some of the consequences of assumed ‘white privilege’ and while the focus of his ire is predominantly France, it is clear his thoughts are designed to be universally applied to the powers of white western society in the 21st century.

My review comes in midst of the scandal engulfing Yorkshire CCC in the wake of Azeem Rafiq’s testimony of racist bullying during his time at the club, not to mention football clubs and those in other sports continuing to take a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement spawned from the death of George Floyd at the hands of white police officers in the US.

I feel I should also explain I come to review this work as one half of a mixed marriage to the best Jamaican women ever (notwithstanding, as my father mentioned on meeting her, her appalling taste in men) and therefore often have the opposite issue to Lilian of being ‘The only white man in the room.’

Thuram, though would take issue with that very phrase, claiming ‘People aren’t born white, they become white.’ So, the question is what does that mean? and why does it matter?

The former Juventus and Barcelona defender, who formed the Lilian Thuram Foundation in 2008 to educate against racism, traces the origins of White Thinking’ throughout history. He claims: ‘White thinking views history through the prism of the myths it constructs, and it always casts itself as the good guy.’

He cites the way we always find ourselves cheering on the likes of Gary Cooper in the cowboys and Indians films of yesteryear; how those like Alexander the Great are lauded for conquests carried out under the pretext of subduing the enemy rather than displacing the indigenous population for economic gain; and how the slave trade is justified by those who carried it out on the basis they were civilising those enslaved for their betterment.

Thuram says this insidious learning creates in the construct of the ‘white’ man the sense he is ‘normal’ with the implication that others of any other race are not, so justifying his sense of entitlement. One of the payoffs of this world view is he claims white people’s opportunities are perceived as without limit, while other races and black people in particular are shoehorned into certain roles and excluded from others seen to be the preserve of the white elite.

He’s not buying the meritocracy argument either, as for merit to truly win out the playing field of opportunity needs to be level and it palpably is not.

Euro 2008 (Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Not that Thuram wants ‘whites’ to feel false guilt for the wrongdoings of our forefathers, but rather to admit we are a by-product of such history and as such we may well subconsciously or otherwise perpetuate such thinking.

For instance, the historical suppression of indigenous populations during colonisation now means white western powers hold a hugely disproportionate amount of the world’s wealth and even where other nations have the natural resources, those same western powers exploit them for minimum outlay.

Similarly, the recent COP26 Conference on climate change saw those same white western powers making, or in most cases not making, commitments in the knowledge it was poorer, non-white, nations who would suffer the most from their dithering.

Thuram asks for those who have suffered under ‘White Thinking to be given the chance to air their grievance and for those of us who have regarded our white privilege as somehow normal to remove our masks of whiteness that we might hear those so aggrieved.

In fact, he goes further than that, asking in his conclusion people of all races to remove their colour mask and embrace the truth ‘I is us’.”

Any call for greater inclusion is laudable, so why on one level does this thought disquiet me? I think perhaps because, as someone who married into another culture, I have been enriched by embracing its customs and traditions. Therefore, my concern is, in embracing inclusion – as we must – we don’t lose sight of the richness of diversity. If that happens, in ditching white, black, asian, native american or whatever, we may simply end up with grey.

White Thinking by Lilian Thuram. Published by French Ministry of Culture/ Centre National Du Livre