Monica*, a black Canadian woman, moved to Switzerland two years ago. The first month was stressful, and the relocation agent hired by her company to help ease the transition only added to it.
She said she felt bad around the agent and was pleased when she found an apartment. They went together to meet the property managers and exchange the keys.
“We were walking around and she [the relocation agent] was explaining how to open the windows, how to use the dishwasher, how to open the balcony doors. At one point, the property management guy rolled his eyes at her,” Monica tells The Local.
“And then you know what she said? I will never forget, these were her exact words. She was like, ‘Yeah, you know, with these people we need to do these types of things.' And I was [thinking], ‘Who's these people? What kind of people am I?'”
While some might suggest the agent was talking about newcomers, Monica suspected something more insidious was at play.
“I felt really bad every time I was around her. I even compared it to some of the other people who were moving in my company and they're not black or from North America, and they had a different experience with her.”
Kelvin Lau, a postdoctoral fellow in Geneva, has lived in Switzerland for three years. He was born in Hong Kong but says he's never been made to feel uncomfortable, acknowledging his advantage as a Canadian who speaks French. However, he has noticed that not everyone is afforded the same treatment.
“I think in Switzerland it's [discrimination] a double thing. If you are a person of colour, but you have money and your appearance shows it, you are still treated quite fairly,” says Lau. “But if you are of colour, but you have no money and you're just hanging out somewhere, I think you are very, very discriminated against – especially by the police in certain places.”
Both Monica and Lau attribute these differences to xenophobia or anti-foreigner sentiment, instead of racism. However, Tarek Naguib, legal sociologist at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences, is critical of this distinction because of the way ‘foreigner' is constructed in Swiss society.
“We see that actually, it doesn't make a difference if you are born here, born and bred here, or if you just came a few years ago,” Naguib tells The Local. “They [people of colour] all share the experience of being perceived as foreigners because of their physiognomics.”
As the Swiss People's Party's (SVP) 2016 ‘Black Sheep' posters demonstrated, there is an implicit understanding that to be Swiss is to be white. People of colour are automatically perceived as foreigners, making xenophobia an inherently racial issue.
“What I would say is that if you have a look at specific questions of discrimination against specific groups… you should always talk about racism. It has nothing to do with xenophobia,” says Naguib.
The SVP's 2016 referendum posters for its campaign in favour of deporting foreign criminals. Image: SVP
Melissa Sabai, from Tanzania, was interning at the United Nations in Geneva in 2016. She said she didn't experience discrimination in Switzerland, but had a racist encounter on a night out with a friend.
“We were walking by a group of random guys and they were trying to get our attention. They heard us speaking English, so they were saying things like ‘Oh hi, hey', kind of imitating us,” says Sabai.
“When we ignored them they started yelling, ‘Nigga! Nigga! Nigga!' and I was just looking at my friend like, ‘Is this real?'”
Sabai said none of the people nearby spoke up, they were just minding their business and “distancing themselves”.
Like many people, neither Sabai nor Monica reported the incidents. “It was my first month, so I didn't want to rock the boat,” explains Monica.
In a recent study by the Federal commission against racism (EKR), 406 racist incidents were reported in 2016. However, the authors acknowledge that this may not be representative of the actual occurrences of racial discrimination in Switzerland, because many people don't report their experiences.
There are many reasons for not reporting racist incidents, including ignorance of recourse, distrust of the system, or – ironically – fear of further prejudice or discrimination in a country where the dominant discourse is that racism is not an institutional issue.
“The understanding of racism in Switzerland is that it's a problem of an individual and not a problem of institutional routines or representation in media, in culture, in institutions – even without intention of being racist, but having an indirect effect of discrimination,” says Naguib, who co-authored a EKR study on anti-black racism.
Colonialism without colonies
He says this belief emerges from the popular factoid that Switzerland was not involved in colonialism or the Transatlantic slave trade. However, new studies and books are showing that Switzerland was clearly entangled in the European colonial structure in Africa and the Arab world.
Fanny Toutou-Mpondo, an anti-racism activist in Geneva and manager of the Afro-Caribbean events website Azanya.ch, says that even though Switzerland wasn't an official colonial power, Swiss society was not spared from adopting the racist ideologies that underpinned colonialism, whose effects are still seen today.
Some of Toutou-Mpondo's work involves denouncing racist advertisements and articles in the media, notably a 2014 Migros advertisement that depicted a brown bear being bleached white. She says some people – black and white – didn't understand why it was racist.
“[The poster] is reminiscent of a pictorial imaginary that for decades presented the colour black as dirty, as impure. Thus, we see a message that says a brown bear as it is, is dirty – even though a bear is by nature brown – and if it became clean, it would be white,” says Toutou-Mpondo.
“We succeeded in uncovering images that were completely similar and that were circulated in the Swiss media and the streets of Switzerland at the beginning of the [20th] century,” she adds.
So while people may be more willing to talk about anti-foreigner sentiment as the major prejudice they face in Switzerland, it seems the extent to which one experiences discrimination is intimately connected with perceptible markers of difference – race, gender, language skills, socioeconomic status, habitus, and the intersection of all of these.
* real name known by the writer