Soccer Legend Lilian Thuram Tackles Racism and Human Zoos

Lilian Thuram is primarily known around the world as an elite soccer player. Now 40 years old and retired, he played for the French National Team and professionally for Barcelona and Juventus, two of the most powerful clubs in Europe. His two goals in the semifinal of the 1998 World Cup gave Les Bleus a win over Croatia and a spot in the final match (which they won, defeating Brazil 3-0). Thuram played defense; those two goals were the only he scored in 142 appearances for the French National Team.

Thuram is a sports hero for the French—and now, with his Education Contre le Racisme (Education Against Racism) foundation, he could become a cultural hero for victims of racism and the legacy of colonialism. His aim is to fight racism by helping young people understand how it comes to exist; Thuram's foundation reaches out to children from nine to 18 years old, and seeks through various activities to analyze the construction of racism, in order to avoid repeating harmful mistakes from the past.

"Who doubted the humanity of Native Americans?" Thuram said, during a recent conversation in Paris. "Who decided the norms? Who gave the racist speeches? Racism has always been a political construction, originated by the political and religious power."

The foundation is currently curating an exhibition at the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris, “Exhibitions: The Invention of the Savage” (on display through June 3). It presents historical photos, artifacts, and publicity materials associated with the once-common phenomenon of "human zoos," where native populations from all over the world were displayed as exotic and inferior; humiliated; ridiculed; and treated as animals or curiosities.

Click here to see a gallery of images from Exhibitions: The Invention of the Savage.

Poster for Exhibitions: The Invention of the Savage

Poster for Exhibitions: The Invention of the Savage

Thuram is general curator of the show with curators Pascal Blanchard and Nanette Jacomin Snoep.

In what way does this exhibition relate to your foundation ?
My foundation, Education Against Racism, teaches that one is not born racist, but becomes racist: racism is an intellectual construction and we have the power to deconstruct it by explaining its mechanisms. The exhibition shows how prejudices were established in society, and the way scientific racism of the 18th and 19th century was spread through the exhibitions of human zoos.

How were you inspired to create the foundation?
By my own life story. I was born in the Antilles, in the West Indies, and I arrived in Paris at nine years old. At the time, there was a cartoon, "La Noiraude" (The Blacky). The story was about a black cow, who was stupid, and a white one, who was intelligent. I was always called "Blacky," and I and wondered why. I asked my mother, but she was unable to answer me. Growing up, and later in life meeting with anthropologists and historians, I learned about the process of racism. And in 2008, when I was playing for Barcelona in Spain, a man named Juan Campmany inspired me to create the foundation. I remember, when I was young, we used to hear, "No to racism! We are all equals!" But I think that is not enough. Awakening the awareness of racism goes beyond slogans. It is necessary to acquire a historical, scientific knowledge of social beliefs. That is why we want to deconstruct racism, by explaining it through books and exhibitions. We want to demonstrate how it was built, and became a cultural racism.

What specific activities does your foundation do?
Our scientific committee produces tools to deconstruct racism. When I visit schools, kids tell me what they know about different races and different skin colors. We give them tools, so that they understand that we've come to believe things that aren't true because of the way history is taught. It is my first project for an exhibition; but we published a book Les Etoiles Noires, (“black stars”), and a manifesto. Then I have some TV programs planned, and so forth. Because it is important that this message is delivered in the culture.

A portrait of an American Indian by the prolific artist and showman George Catlin.

A portrait of an American Indian by the prolific artist and showman George Catlin.

Is this exhibition strategic, given the coming elections in France, and certain political issues?
No, I had been thinking about it for two years. But I hope that this exhibition will stimulate reflection. Because in today’s political situation it is important to alter our mentalities, so that we all participate in the changing society, and we all recognize ourselves as French. Those issues should be addressed in every place of the world where multiple cultures are present, and notions of superiority of one over another are questioned. Our goal is to challenge today's society, by interrogating our past, to project ourselves into a better future.

What is your knowledge of Native Americans?
Well, as a native of the West Indies, the land of slavery, I was aware, very early, of Native populations. The slaves replaced the Natives, who were destroyed by 80 percent after Christopher Columbus‘s arrival. Why so many deaths? What did Christopher Columbus want from those lands? Colonization is a way of exploiting the people and stealing their wealth. So, indeed, I have been thinking about Native Americans. And I know that there are many tribes—during my visit to Canada, I went to the very interesting Canadian Museum of Civilization, where a guide gave us a speech on Native Americans. But I have no specific knowledge of all those tribes.

Did you ever experience racism as a professional athlete?
Yes, in Italy. I was playing football, and when black players would touch the ball, some of the supporters would imitate a monkey’s sound. I experienced it, but, luckily, I did not suffer from it. I was able to understand that this is a psychological mechanism that is triggered. I tried to understand why they would do that: It is because our culture transmits those messages. So I did not stigmatize the people who were expressing themselves in that manner.

How do you relate to this exhibition on human zoos?
I've always investigated the issues of slavery, colonization, and the beliefs in the superiority of the white race—the damages those beliefs do in excluding certain populations. I read Pascal Blanchard’s books, met him, and became curator of this exhibition. I think that it is important to avoid victimization, in order to understand prejudices, and the way in which they were inculcated in the society. And it is necessary to understand the visitors of that time, discovering those populations: What was the effect on them of seeing those thousands of people inside cages? And what was going on inside the cages—jails, really—with the “savages”? That was how feelings of “superiority" were built.

Did your celebrity help you in your activism ?
It made it easier, of course; as I am known, and there is an issue of trust. But what really matters is serious work. For years I have been educating myself on these issues, meeting with various people and experts. I went to Monaco at age seventeen, and finished high school by correspondence, and then became a football player at nineteen, which I did until 2008, and I won the World Cup—so yes, I wish to transmit messages through my personal success; because I feel concerned by those issues. Speaking about racism used to be taboo, but I consider it to be necessary. That is why today I dedicate my time to the foundation: because the worst thing is to be a victim of racism. And with knowledge, it is possible to acquire the right position on that matter.

What does an exhibition about human zoos, at a museum in Paris, have to do with American Indians living today in the United States ?
In 2012, the people want to know the history of the world. And that is what is told here: the story of the dominant and the dominated, and the prejudices associated to the status of submitted. When I visit the schools, I often get into a debate on the "red race" with young French children, who know little about the existence of such a race. And that is probably because there are fewer cowboy movies these days.

What sort of exhibition would you like to see about Native American history?
The first time I saw an exhibition about Native Americans was in Ottawa, and I came to understand that there are many tribes. Thus, it would be difficult to speak about "Native Americans," as it would be of the "Africans," who also have various customs, languages, and tribes. But that being said, my feeling is that there should be, in the United States, a museum dedicated to the Native American massacres. I do not have the impression that many Americans are aware they're living on a land from which 80% of the original population disappeared! When a society can confront its history, then it starts to grow up. That is why, to me, it would be important that people know how America was built on a genocide. I say this, even though I am not Indian. But I imagine it would be beneficial for all, and humanity would grow, with an egalitarian vision. Because we have been misled by political speeches, speeches that made us believe in a hierarchy that is just made up in order to exploit the native populations. When you have a museum showing the real history, that is a sign that we have all grown up. Together.