Thuram, a life against racism02 December 2005

TURIN – Lilian Thuram, you have lived in Italy for ten years now and have always been at the forefront of the fight against racism. Will Zoro's protest achieve anything?
“I don't know, it's difficult to combat some people. And you can't gag everyone.”

Unfortunately it's all too easy to jeer you just because you're black.
“Besides the racism it's the lack of respect for other people, however different they may be, that depresses me. These people don't understand that they are sometimes the ones who are 'different'. What happens then? It's very difficult for me even to begin to describe these people.”

Would you like to try anyway?
“Simply calling them stupid doesn't seem enough for me. Uneducated, maybe, even though I believe they know very well what they're doing. The basic problem is one of culture, of education. It's a social problem.”

It's down to bad educators, then?
“Yes: not enough respect is being taught. What do these 'jeers' mean?”

They're supposed to mean that black equals monkey. Correct?
“Correct, and that's because we were once taught that black people are animals, not people. That was the only way they could justify the slave trade. Now, those in power respond simply by filling people with fear.”

“After September 11 anyone with a bit of a beard and slightly darker skin is viewed with suspicion. People are frightened, and those in power can provide what people want, i.e. security. In the name of security you can do what you want. If we were to teach people respect instead of suspicion, the world would be a different place. But all I see now is more and more bad educators.”

Whom do you mean by that?
“I read in the paper that an important cardinal has advised against marriage between people of different religions, say between Catholics and Muslims. What kind of logic is that? I thought there was a commandment that says 'thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself'. I'd really like to know how, in this cardinal's opinion, Jesus saw his neighbour. Does he understand how dangerous his words are?”

How dangerous are they, then?
“Those four idiots, or uneducated people, who abused Zoro so badly didn't influence the whole crowd because the majority are against this kind of attitude. But the speech by that cardinal can indeed influence, condition and convince people.”

So Cardinal Ruini's words really did have an impression on you?
“They're words that incite division rather than encouraging reconciliation. In this way we will go on looking at each other with mistrust. Do you see how we are returning to the basics, i.e. to education and upbringing? If this is the state of education you can hardly expect anything other than intolerance.”

This week every match will kick off five minutes later. Is that enough, will it achieve anything?
“It isn't enough, but it will achieve something because the Italian FA are making a statement against racism. The problem is that not even I know what the solution is. Five minutes is certainly better than nothing.”

Have you often been a victim of racist attacks?
“The usual chants, which I don't hear any more anyway. Fortunately I came to France as a Frenchman, albeit from overseas, and that was always a help. I already spoke the language and knew the culture, two important things. Shall I tell you something?”

The last thing that happened to you?
“Exactly. I was in Paris last week. I went to a restaurant and asked if I could go in because I had arranged to meet someone there, but one of the people in charge gave me a dirty look and started bombarding me with countless questions, such as: Who are you? What do you want? Who do you have an appointment with?”

And then?
“At this point a couple of the bouncers recognised me, but I asked them not to say anything. I wanted to understand why I was mistrusted so much and see how far this guy would go. The fact is that after a long discussion he eventually let me in. I went to my table but I couldn't stand it there so I left.”

“Because I had the nagging feeling that the mistrust he showed for me had something to do with the colour of my skin. It's terrible being plagued by this doubt, it's absurd. But what's worse is that for the others it isn't doubt, it's certainty. But that wasn't the end to the evening.”

What happened?
“I went to another place where a bouncer and a person with Arab features started to fight. They didn't want to let him in, he protested and there was a scuffle. And everyone said, 'You see? Arabs are violent.' So I ask myself: And isn't it violence to humiliate someone just because we wrongly associate his facial features with something threatening?”

What do you think of the wave of violence in the banlieues?
“Something else that in my opinion we should be shouting out loud: the casseurs behaved like criminals, it was wrong. But they were French criminals in every respect; they've been French citizens for generations. But in the eyes of the public they were 'just' Africans – Africans, of course, you need to be afraid of.”

Don't you think it's wrong that immigrants in Europe are trying to form their 'clans' again?
“But that's a natural, physiological response. If an Italian meets another Italian abroad, they come closer. It's a kinship, culture, language thing. Sometimes the other players in the team make jokes about it, they say, 'Lilian, you foreigners are always in a group.' And I say, 'And you aren't? Just because there are fifteen of you and only five of us, are you not a group?' It should be the bigger group that opens up to the smaller one, but that isn't the case and there hasn't been any integration. That's why there are young people living in the banlieues who have never seen Africa but are still not seen as French citizens. And that causes another problem.”

Which one?
“No one has ever understood that someone who emigrates does so for one reason: he's searching for a happy life. He leaves his own country because he can't work, eat or live there. The same reasons, then, that saw the Italians emigrate to the USA. The western world has never had room for these people. And in any case, the politicians have only ever looked after the interests of the rich.”

You have two sons. One of them is called Chefren. Why?
“I gave him a pharaoh's name because I want the people to learn that Africa has a history, a culture and a past, too. For many people Africa only started to exist at the time the slaves were carted onto the ships. The species 'man' originated in Africa – but I don't want to go as far as that. All I want is for people to remember that ancient Egypt was always in Africa and that the people who founded that extraordinary civilisation had a dark skin. I ask myself how many people know that.”

Mr Sarkozy, for example?
“I've already given him an answer. I grew up among people he refers to as 'scum'. But he also said some rather interesting things, a few days ago, for example, when he attacked Italy and Spain, who in his opinion have let in too many foreigners. They are dangerous words as well, just as any prejudice is dangerous.”

When it comes to religion, too?
“Yes. Some time ago I gave a beggar some money and he asked me whether I was a Muslim. I was offended and almost took the money back, but then I said to him, 'My friend, what difference does it make what I am? I'm a person, the same as you. Nothing else matters.”

Are you suspicious of the church?
“I fear that religion, every religion, is primarily a centre of power. It was like that in the Middle Ages as well, if I'm not mistaken. I believe that everyone in this world wants to lead a happy life with their families, but those with power, be it political or religious, are only interested in conditioning people's minds with one sole objective: to control them.”