Ex Barça player Lilian Thuram calls for ‘revolution of the mind’ to combat racism and sexism

Former footballer turned anti-racism campaigner spoke at conference on sport’s use as a tool for social inclusion

Former footballer turned anti-racism campaigner and author, Lilian Thuram (by Guifré Jordan)
Former footballer turned anti-racism campaigner and author, Lilian Thuram (by Guifré Jordan) / Cillian Shields

Cillian Shields | Barcelona

March 24, 2022 03:32 PM

Lilian Thuram, the French World Cup winner who spent the last two years of his playing career at FC Barcelona, believes that society is in need of a “revolution of the mind” to combat problems like racism and sexism. Thuram says that issues such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and other prejudices are a “question of political will,” and rejects that they are natural.

The former footballer turned anti-racism campaigner, author, and philosopher was speaking on Thursday morning in FC Barcelona’s Auditorium 1899 as part of a conference organized by Catalonia’s Public Diplomacy Council (DIPLOCAT) and the Barça Foundation on the role of sport as a tool for social inclusion.

For Thuram, racism has throughout history been closely interconnected with politics and the global economic system. “There was slavery, it was thought black people were inferior. This narrative was constructed and it was said that [black people] could be exploited,” he points out, adding that narratives like this were used to justify such atrocities. 

Narratives such as that go beyond racism, Thuram says “it’s the same between men and women, people buy into it and assimilate it,” before pointing out that Europe and his native France has had “racist laws” for hundreds of years, giving a legal framework to discrimination and maintaining power structures. During and after colonialism, “there were laws stating indigenous people were inferior to white people and we have this burden on us,” Thuram explains, drawing a parallel between racism and sexism and the power structures at play – “some people find advantages in doing this.” 

Racism and equality - a political will

Through the Lilian Thuram Foundation, the former football aims to educate by showing the connection that links racism, sexism, homophobia, religious prejudices and all kinds of discrimination. “Frequently we do not see the link between them, it's as if there were walls between these things, but there's actually a political will, equality is a political will.”

Thuram believes that to help usher in a serious change of attitudes, anti-racist policies and legislation needs to be introduced. “Inequalities have been growing, policies of redistribution of wealth should be done, there’s no other way. We have to express our solidarity.”

The global capitalist economic system is one that “promotes consumption, promotes getting richer, promotes exploitation,” Thuram says, and links climate change to the same system of global economics. For the athlete-turned-author, slavery falls into the exact same category, another structure of the economic system that sought to exploit in order to enrichen. 

“Economic systems never explain the violent side, you only hear the good things. Racism is linked to economics and the social system. I can speak as a European footballer but also as a black person. If we want to change things, first we need to question the economic system that we’re living in. What’s at stake is the survival of human beings on this planet.”

“Revolution is to want change,” Thuram explains, holding up the struggle of women for suffrage as an example of the “greatest revolutionaries in society.” “They've suffered male dominance for a very very long time, and since women have historically demanded change, we used to kill them, we burned them.”

“We need a revolution of the mind against this kind of violence, that we don’t accept this situation,” Thuram implores. “Why do so many people accept this situation? I was a footballer for many years and sometimes I heard monkey chants coming from the public. Teammates and club managers would say, ‘that’s not serious.’ I was concerned. I was convinced we need a mental revolution. We need to be considered as human beings. Yes we need a revolution, a revolution of the way we think.” 

Barça Foundation

Thuram credits FC Barcelona for trying to help him in his efforts in teaching people about the intertwined power structures of politics and racism. He decided to create his Lilian Thuram Foundation, focused on educating in order to tackle xenophobia and dismantle racist prejudices, while he was still playing at Barça. 

As his playing days were nearing their end, he already knew he wanted to “change the world” – “I would like to explain that racism is not a natural attitude, homophobia is not a natural attitude, they are habits passed down from generation to generation.” 

In the Barça dressing room, he started speaking about these issues with teammates, and eventually club president Joan Laporta became aware of his social work and asked the player how the club could help. 

The club have worked alongside Thuram’s foundation for many years, helping to spread his educational message of tolerance. “Barça is more than a club, it’s something in DNA of the club, they want to try contribute to change mentalities,” Thuram said. “Barça helps me a lot and they’ve invited me here today.” 

The World Cup winner “believes in the power of self-reflection” and says he often tells his children that he believes the modern world “doesn’t help with reflection.” For thuram, contemporary society is “superficial, narcissistic… but Narcissus ends up being wrong. It’s good to reflect and go back to this discussion.”

Sport as a tool for social inclusion

Thuram was speaking at an event that also featured roundtable discussions on the role of sport as a vehicle for social inclusion. Also speaking were UNESCO official Philipp Müller-Wirth, Floor van Houdt fromo the European Commission, the Catalan government’s secretary general for sport, Anna Caula, Marta Segú, Henry Gilham, and Alex Roca of the Barça Foundation, Federica Minardo from the Cooperativa Prospettiva, Amina Moustafa from Sport against Racism Ireland, Oriol Parés, a sports technician in the Brians 2 prison, vice-president of FC Barcelona Elena Fort, and Catalonia’s foreign affairs minister, Victòria Alsina. 

The speakers discussed the various ways that their entities looks to break down barriers and use sport as a vehicle for change, to promote values of peace and non-violence, and to help vulnerable communities. All speakers agreed that sport can be the “starting point to ignite a conversation about complex issues.” 

Anna Caula, secretary general of sport in the Catalan government, spoke about how sport can open new perspectives for people and be used as a tool for transformation. “Sport is everything; competition, leisure, health, an economic engine.” Caula says that she works with municipalities that use sport as a tool, “that’s how we move forward.”

“So many people partake in sport. That’s what we have to use as a building block to determine how we look at the world. Most of what I am comes from the world of sport, you learn how to work in a team, you learn solidarity, sporting values, you need the help of your colleague and you’ll do the same because you need a strong team,” the government official says. “It’s a simple message but a powerful value in society.” 

Marta Segú from the Barça Foundation spoke about the origins of the organization, which was founded in 2006. One of the first pieces of work the foundation undertook was the agreement between FC Barcelona and UNICEF. 

Segú also spoke about the various “comprehensive projects to transform the lives of marginalized young people” that the foundation works on. “We use sport as a magical tool, and we want to use sport as a way of conveying healthy messages, to reduce school absenteeism, and of course social inclusion.” 

The Barça Foundation collaborates with councils across Catalonia to work on issues such as gender equality, and help unaccompanied minors acquire social skills. “For those people deprived of freedom, they use sport as a way of gaining hope for the future.”