French football legend Lilian Thuram tackles the scourge of white thinking in new book


French Lilian Thuram slips away from Italian player Stefano Fiore during the France vs Italy Final of the Euro 2000 soccer championhips in Rotterdam.
EFE-EPA/Michele Limina

David Murphy, University of Strathclyde “People aren’t born white, they become white.” This realisation dawned on the former French footballer, World Cup winner and anti-racism activist Lilian Thuram while he was engaged in talks with the white French organisers of a proposed exhibition on racism. As he recounts in the introduction to his new book, White Thinking, Thuram told those around the table that, instead of focusing on the victims of racism, the exhibition

should instead focus on those who profit from this discrimination, often unconsciously and unintentionally.

He was referring, of course, to white people. However, the idea that an exhibition on racism should focus on the problematic nature of whiteness was almost incomprehensible to them.

It was this failed dialogue around the nature of racism that prompted Thuram to write White Thinking, of which I am one of the English translators, alongside Aedín Ní Loingsigh and Cristina Johnston.

Thuram’s first book, My Black Stars: From Lucy to Barack Obama, published in 2010, sought to challenge the white version of history and culture that he had learned in school in France by telling some of the black stories denied him in his childhood.

Now, in White Thinking, he has come to the realisation that this white story and the white thinking that underpins it need to be overturned.

The book was first published in France in late 2020. It provoked both acclaim and heavy criticism. Elements of the right-wing press in particular lambasted the book for its “frequently racialising discourse”. Many journalists and politicians on the right politically, as well as conservative Republicans, viewed the book as “anti-white racism”.

This was a charge that had been levelled at Thuram in late 2019 when he gave an interview in Italy about the racism present in football stadiums, which he argued was representative of a wider racism in Italian and European society more generally.

There was, however, significant praise from liberal and left-wing publications, such as Libération and Télérama, which recognised that the book delivered often unwelcome but necessary truths about ongoing racial inequality.

Thuram’s book is hugely ambitious, an attempt to trace and examine the origins of white supremacy, understood in its widest sense. This is not simply a study of vile racists but of an insidious, unthinking form of racial hierarchy, whose origins can be traced back to slavery and colonisation, and which still shapes our understanding of the world today.

Indeed, white thinking, Thuram argues, is not limited to white people. He cites two examples from his frequent visits to Africa. In Ouagadougou, a man he encounters in the street tells him that

White people come second only to God.

When he tells this story to the mayor of Ouagadougou, he’s told:

It’s not surprising. We have a saying here: “God is great but the White man is not small”.

This, Thuram argues, tells us all we need to know about the pervasiveness of white thinking.

Challenging French universalist ideology

Thuram was born on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe in 1972 and moved to the outskirts of Paris at the age of 9. An elegant full-back and centre-half, with Monaco, Parma, Juventus and Barcelona, he won a record number of caps for the French national team, won the World Cup in 1998 (scoring the winning goals in the semi-final) and the European Championship in 2000.

Thuram began his transformation from athlete to activist while he was still a competitive sportsman. In the mid-2000s, he spoke out against politicians such as Nicolas Sarkozy, the tough-talking minister for the interior, and later president. Sarkozy had demonised youngsters living in the poor, marginalised and multi-racial high-rise estates in the suburbs, many of whom were children of immigrants from north and sub-Saharan Africa. In 2005, he infamously stated that he would clear out the “louts” from the suburbs, which should be washed out with a power hose (Karcher).

Thuram had grown up in just such an estate. So had many of his fellow players in the French squad.

In 2008, when he retired from playing, he created a foundation to provide a platform for his fight against racism. The Lilian Thuram Foundation for Education against Racism is particularly concerned with anti-racism outreach work, often targeted at schoolchildren.

For many, Thuram will still be best known as a member of the multiracial French team that won the World Cup in 1998, and were famously celebrated as representing “la France black, blanc, beur” (black, white, Arab) in a play on the red, white and blue of the French tricolour flag.

Thuram believed the team did indeed constitute a celebration of the nation’s diversity. But he was perturbed by an emerging media and political discourse that sought to celebrate the team as embodying the success of French “integration” policies.

French universalist ideology typically imagines a nation made up of equal citizens and, within that framework, France has long given refuge to outsiders on condition that they are willing to be integrated into the dominant, secular Republican culture.

Or, to put it in the starker terms of a popular saying: immigrants and refugees can become French, as long as they leave the baggage of their foreign identity at the door.

Conclusion

The three translators of White Thinking were faced with the challenge of rendering in English slippery concepts such as “integration” for a British audience more accustomed to multicultural, hyphenated notions of identity. For example, how do you find a pithy way of explaining for the general public the French Republican antipathy towards communautarisme? It’s a term often used to describe as a threat to French universal Republican values any attempt to assert a particular, communal, minority identity or experience.

The translation experience brought to mind the work undertaken by Johnny Pitts in his pioneering study, Afropeans. Pitts seeks to explore both the particular nature of the black experience in various European countries and the commonalities that are all too plain to see when you take the time to look closely.

So, yes, we need to understand the specific nature of French Republican debates about race and citizenship. But, fundamentally, is there a major difference between the French discussion of integration or communitarianism and British debates about the “good” immigrant who respects “British values” and the “bad” immigrant who doesn’t?

Having worked with the Thuram Foundation on various projects over the past two years, I have been struck by how much Thuram’s words and ideas find echoes in the increasingly confident public proclamations on race (and other social matters) by young black British footballers such as Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Tyrone Mings.

However, there remains a reciprocal lack of awareness of the black experience across national boundaries within Europe. And it is still far more common to look instinctively to the African American context for models of how to resist and bring about change.

In that context, the publication of White Thinking is perhaps another small step towards building that Afropean sense of identity envisaged by Johnny Pitts.The Conversation

David Murphy, Professor of French and Postcolonial Studies, University of Strathclyde

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Nobel winner Abdulrazak Gurnah’s fiction traces small lives with wit and tenderness


Abdulrazak Gurnah captivatingly draws readers into the experiences and vivid lifeworlds of his characters
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Tina Steiner, Stellenbosch UniversityFor those of us who have read and reread, taught, and written about the fiction of Abdulrazak Gurnah, the Nobel Prize in Literature committee has confirmed what we knew all along. His superb writing deserves much wider recognition and readership.

Gurnah was born in Zanzibar, the archipelago off the Tanzanian coast, in 1948. Then still a British Protectorate, Zanzibar gained independence in December 1963, only to be thrown into the turmoil and violence of the Zanzibar Revolution of January 1964. These are historical events to which he returns in his fiction repeatedly.

He left for the UK in 1967 and has lived there ever since, except for a short teaching stint at Bayero University Kano in Nigeria in the 1980s. He taught in the English department at the University of Kent in Canterbury until his recent retirement.

Even though he has lived most of life in England, all his novels – except for Dottie (1990), which is set entirely in the UK – are set either fully or partially on the Eastern African Swahili Coast or in Zanzibar. To date he has published ten immensely readable novels and many short stories. These are written in clean and uncluttered prose. It makes him a master storyteller, captivatingly drawing the reader into the experiences and vivid lifeworlds of the characters depicted.

Connecting people and geographies

The work of the imagination to follow the storyteller’s attention creates connections that in their intangibility might seem elusive. And yet any reader will know these to be powerful and potentially transformative. As Ben Okri, a Nigerian writer, reminds us, such threads, which interweave stories and life, are deeply significant. This is because stories “can infect a system, or illuminate a world”. The ambiguity in Okri’s description of the effect of stories captures the way in which stories potentially open up the world and contest narratives that circumscribe and preclude mutuality. It also talks to the danger of stories when they participate in and serve as justification for structures of domination, exclusion and violence.

Gurnah, the storyteller, probes the efficacy of stories to connect people and geographies. Yet at the same time he is acutely attentive to the divisive nature of stories of certainty: of colonial domination, of patriarchal scripts, of racism, of xenophobia towards strangers from elsewhere. His work points to the way in which such certainties furnish people with a belief in the rightness of the violence they wreak on others, in the destruction of other people’s lives which they deem to matter less than their own.

Instead, Gurnah’s work asks the reader to consider stories as provisional accounts that cannot claim closure or complete knowledge. Ambiguity, multiple viewpoints of the same events, complex focalisation, self-reflexive irony and narrative wit are some of the features of his writing. They make his writing so incredibly compelling. It elides narrative certainty. The narrative mode is often oblique. Perhaps we can imagine it like this, or perhaps it happened otherwise. This mode is particularly apt to illuminate the itinerant lives of people who find themselves on the move and who do not seem to belong anywhere.

Migration and other forms of displacement, as Gurnah’s stories suggest, are common occurrences in Africa and across the globe. Therefore, it is important to see others in relation to ourselves, to perceive their right of abode even if they cannot claim national belonging. However, it is precisely the humanity of the stranger that is at stake once the status of citizenship is in question. Hospitality is revealed as conditional in the current hostile immigration climate. The asylum seeker, the refugee and the migrant are hardly afforded the dignity which the recognition of a common humanity would demand.

It is this refusal to recognise the humanity of the other and its terrible consequences that Gurnah’s stories explore in detail. He crafts carefully delineated juxtapositions between hostile, implacable environments in which his characters find themselves with little room to manoeuvre, and pockets of hospitality that gesture towards alternative social imaginaries where kindness and joie de vivre become possible.

In contrast to an essentialist view of a citizen as someone who is described in terms of appearance or ancestry, Gurnah sets the complexity of centuries of intermingling along the East African shores of the Indian Ocean. In this way his stories question ideas of purity and difference. They emphasise the cultural and linguistic heterogeneity of East African coastal regions and their place within the continent, the Indian Ocean world, and the globe in order to stress a common humanity.

Empathetic storytelling

Across his oeuvre, which traverses settings in Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam, Bagamoyo, Mombasa, Lake Tanganyika, Nairobi, Muscat, Bahrain and several locales in England, Gurnah traces a long history of transnational and transoceanic movements. His work references the Eastern African slave trade and indenture, German and British colonial oppression and less legible but equally destructive forms of social exclusion to do with economic precarity and migration. While his characters are often caught in violent and unequal plots not of their own making and beyond their control – since Gurnah’s stories tend to focus on people whose lives are deemed insignificant and small – his empathetic storytelling subtly points to the importance of social connections, however unexpected, that offer reassurance and warmth.

In this way, his novels also cautiously celebrate the polyglot cosmopolitanisms and generous forms of accommodation that emerged on the Swahili coast within broader structures of ambivalent encounter in the monsoon trade and imperial conquest. In a passage in By the Sea, Gurnah’s sixth novel, published in 2001, seven-year-old Saleh Omar, one of the protagonists and narrators, describes his first encounter with a map of an Africa embedded in the wider world of the Indian Ocean:

As [the teacher’s] story developed, he began to draw a map on the blackboard with a piece of white chalk: the coast of North Africa which then bulged out and tucked in and then slid down to the Cape of Good Hope. As he drew, he spoke, naming places, sometimes in full sometimes in passing. Sinuously north to the jut of the Ruvuma delta, the cusp of our stretch of coast, the Horn of Africa, then the Red Sea coast to Suez, the Arabian peninsula, the Persian Gulf, India, the Malay peninsula and then all the way to China. He stopped there and smiled.

This moment of the unbroken chalk line is pivotal, not just in relation to this particular novel, but perhaps to Gurnah’s oeuvre as a whole. It makes visible the ocean on which so many of his stories float. And I suspect that this teacher’s smile is also the soryteller’s. It is the subtle humour which suffuses his writing that give his stories a lightness of touch, despite the harrowing aspects of the narratives. It contributes enormously to the pleasure of reading.

There is the acerbic sarcasm which exposes racial aggression and renders it absurd. And there is the self-deprecating humour of the migrant in the face of an immovable and indifferent environment, which staves off self-pity and sets in motion processes of disalienation. The dry wit of the narratives allows Gurnah to forge a bond with readers, who come to appreciate it as a mode of interaction that can liquefy ossified social categories by opening up spaces of irony and ambiguity and remind us of the fragility of the human condition we all share.The Conversation

Tina Steiner, Associate Professor in the English Department, Stellenbosch University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.