In his most recent book (La Pensée blanche, ed. Philippe Rey, 2020), the former soccer player and 1998 world champion with the French team analyzes the persistence of a mentality based on a hierarchy of individuals, their identities, and communities.
At the beginning of your book you quote Nelson Mandela’s former comrade, Denis Goldberg, who said, “We cannot be free if others are not.” Do you believe we are all prisoners of what you call “white thought”?
Denis Goldberg was tried alongside Nelson Mandela in 1963-1964 during the famous Rivonia Trial against the ANC, and he was saying that white people were also prisoners of the apartheid system. It is important to understand that what I call “white thought” is not “white people’s thought”. In the end, skin color is beside the point.
White thought is a political ideology that has divided humans into presumed races and established a hierarchy affirming the superiority of white people. And even if you are unaware of it, there is a chance you will incorporate and reproduce this ideology–again, regardless of your skin color.
In the West Indies, when my mother was young, people used to tell her that it was better to marry a man with lighter skin in order to have children with chappée skin. In Creole this word meant skin that had “escaped” from blackness. Unfortunately, that is a world view.
What do you mean by “world view”?
The Western world’s domination of the planet through its colonies did not end until very recently. Up until the 1950s, children in French schools were taught that the “white race” was superior.
This hierarchy based on skin color is very old and ingrained. Like sexism, it still continues to this day.
In soccer locker rooms, black players used to joke around and say, the lighter your skin, the more attractive you are. In Africa and Asia, many people lighten their skin because beauty standards are based on whiteness.
Another example: watch music videos by black or white singers. Very often, the women personifying glamour, beauty and sensuality are white, or mixed-race, but very rarely do they have dark skin. This white thought is present everywhere. These patterns of thinking are deeply rooted.
What do you mean by “world view”?
Absolutely. When I was a young player for AS Monaco, one day some of my teammates drove me to pick up my girlfriend (I didn’t have my license). What a surprise it was for them when they discovered that she was black! At the time, I didn’t make much of their reaction. But with hindsight I see that in their eyes, having a white girlfriend was a sign of success. Frantz Fanon rightly analyzed this phenomenon in his essay Black Skin, White Masks.
Don’t local elites and leaders, for example in Africa, contribute to some extent to the perpetuation of this thought system?
In Africa, as in other continents, white thought is indeed very widespread among elites. From a very young age, children learn that they must follow the example of Western elites and the way they live. You’re taught the right table manners, told how to express yourself, to get rid of that accent, and so on. The large majority of the population must adopt practices prescribed by a minority. In so doing, we maintain and confirm that hierarchy.
Historically, coming back to this hierarchy based on skin color, a minority constructed the idea of white superiority in the context of a system of oppression. This was reflected in the establishment of a system of predation. Today, the responsibility of some elites in the Global North and South is very real, especially when it comes to looting resources: we are no longer in the days of colonization, when an external authority reigned over different countries, but the mechanisms remain the same.
If I understand you correctly, the hierarchy that ranks identities is a social and political issue first and foremost.
Although there is no existing system of control, all over the globe, you can always find elites who are abusing their position. During the colonial era, the main issue was not conflicting relations between people of different colors. It was above all an economic system that created an ideology to legitimize its violence, theft, greed and racism.
That’s why there is such an urgent need to free ourselves from the trap of identities based on skin color–they are a snare and imprison us. I have a story about this. One day, when my son was 5 years old, I asked him if he was the only little black boy in his class. He replied: “Dad, I’m not black, I’m brown.” And the other children in your class? “They’re pink, of course.” You see, it is us adults who maintain these categories–white, black, and others–which are political ideologies.
We need to take a step back and look at the world as humans. We must ask ourselves how we can all live together on this planet, how we can respect each individual and make the sharing of wealth central to political debate. We must refute this idea that it is normal for some people to live in poverty, normal to have wars, normal to have climate change, normal to have racism, etc. In reality, all of these mindsets result from political decisions.
Do you see any positive signs in this area, any changes in perceptions and attitudes–a deconstruction of “white thought”?
We are currently witnessing a genuine challenge to this white thought, this hierarchy based on skin color. Nelson Mandela was put in prison because he denounced white domination in South Africa. In the United States, there was Martin Luther King, in France, Frantz Fanon and many others. We have all inherited this history, just like we have inherited the domination of men over women. We must continue this fight for equality and freedom.
It does, however, seem to me that racism is less prevalent throughout the world. I can take the example of my own family history. My grandfather was born in 1908, only sixty years after the abolition of slavery in France, let’s not forget. My mother was born in 1947, at a time when France colonized several countries around the world and racial segregation existed in the United States. When I was born in 1972, apartheid existed in South Africa. Today, these racist laws based on skin color have disappeared, but discriminatory habits remain. There is no law, for example, stipulating that women should receive a smaller salary than men for the same work. And yet this inequality remains.
For a very long time, people who were discriminated against were saying to white people: “We are like you, acknowledge us.” Now those experiencing discrimination say: “We don’t want to be like you, we are who we are.”
Yet there is still a long way to go. When I do conferences attended by children, I ask them what they think the percentage of white people is in the world. Recently, a young girl answered, “80%”. The idea of numerical minority remains prevalent in our minds.
In a country like France, people don't talk about minorities, there are only citizens. What do you think about this model of a national identity based on the concept of universalism?
In reality, we talk about visible minorities, which would refer to those who are “non-white”. Yet we do not talk about the invisible majority, which would be those who are “white”.
We must first agree on the definition of universalism. During the French Revolution in 1789, France declared the universal rights of humans and citizens. It signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, at a time when slavery, the Code Noir, and the Code de l’Indigénat with forced labor were still in force on French territory.
France supported apartheid in South Africa up until the 1980s. We can have this sense that universalism can only be a Western value Doesn’t universalism, which has still not been achieved, need to be a universal value? We must have the courage to listen to and respect diversity.
Would you say that the memory of colonial history has been hidden in France?
Part of growing up is being confronted with yourself, collective memory, your history, your fears. When historians refer to the wars of decolonization, some speak of “losses” for France. But in reality, it was a victory for humanity. France did not lose territories; these territories became free. We should not be ashamed of the past. When we mention this, why do some people feel like they are being attacked? As if convinced that they belong to a side that must be defended. No one should feel guilty for anything, we are not responsible for the past. We are, however, responsible for the present and the future. Knowing our history means moving forward together.
When we categorize individuals by placing them in a hierarchy, we suffer from a lack of humanity that can have devastating consequences for all of us. We see people drowning as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean and being imprisoned in refugee camps. That’s the way it is, but by accepting it, we become accomplices. I believe it is the economic system in which we live that weakens our connections. We take everything for granted; we think we don’t need other people. You are responsible only for yourself, and no one else should be responsible for you. What a harsh perspective! Being alone is the worst thing that can happen. Yet our current economic system leads us towards this way of thinking. Ties with others are broken, just as they are in the logic of racism, which says that others are not humans like me… We must rebuild policies founded on solidarity.
How can we change this state of affairs? How can we put an end to the categorization of individuals and their identities?
We must first change our point of view. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we heard a good deal of commentary on the impending disaster in Africa, and the need to mobilize to help the continent. But the predicted disaster never came! Historically, it is quite evident that aid has never been free of charge. There is a predominant idea in our collective subconscious that development will come through the methods of dominant countries, and their development criteria. As if there was no other course of action. And, as I previously pointed out, many of those living in developing and emerging countries think this as well. This reflects a colonization of the mind. Then comes climate change and pandemic, and we clearly see that this dominant model is leading us towards disaster. We see our need to think and act differently, to find a new model. We now find ourselves in this historic moment that I would call the decolonization of the mind. Hierarchies are being challenged, and so much the better! This allows us to think, see, and explore different ways of doing things.
In your book, you mention the idea of ubuntu. Can you tell us what this is and how it can help us?
It’s a concept from South Africa based on the values of sharing and mutual respect. It’s no secret: we can’t exist without one another. We must make mutual assistance a central component in our lives and stop blaming those facing difficult situations. Not everything is a matter of will. Some start life with more advantages than others. In France, the word “community” has acquired a derogatory meaning, becoming synonymous with “communitarianism”. Yet “forming a community” is a beautiful idea. Each individual has a place and participates in some way to the life of this community. That’s what we must do.
Interview by Thomas Hofnung
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.