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Opinion Racism in Switzerland: An expat’s perspective

Men and children run out of starting line

A race against racism, held for the 17th time in Zurich in September.

(Keystone)

An African-American woman living in Switzerland shares her and her children's everyday experiences with racism.

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(swissinfo.ch)

I personally have experienced the Swiss to be polite, cheerful, helpful and willing, when possible, to speak to me in English when my basic Swiss German fails me.  I feel more the burden of being a foreigner who doesn’t speak the native language than the burden of racism.  But most of the Swiss I interact with are merchants, and being nice is an important part of the job description. 

Christine Worrell is an American expat who has lived in Switzerland with her family for five years.  A mother of two and a former corporate lawyer, she currently sits on three charitable boards in Switzerland.  She enjoys travel, reading and cooking.  She is fluent in Italian, and continues to attempt to learn German!

(Christine Worrell)


Although my pre-teen/teen daughter and son attend international school, they take public transport, travel to other parts of Switzerland for sports tournaments, and socialize with Swiss kids.  They are much more integrated in Swiss society than I am.  And they have been victimized because of their race. 

I will never forget the tearful outrage of my son when he told me of his first experience of racism, which happened in Switzerland.  He had been walking to the lake to meet some friends when a woman clutched her purse and crossed the street to avoid walking near him.  My funny, smart, angelic faced boy was viewed as someone to be avoided, someone who was a threat, someone who didn’t belong because of the color of his skin.   

The thing about racist treatment is that even though as a person of color you are always on the alert for it, it somehow always seems to take you by surprise.  I blamed myself for not having had “the talk” with my son that every black parent has to have to prepare their child for the day they will be perceived negatively and/or treated differently because of their skin color.  I somehow thought I had more time, or that everyone who looked at my handsome boy would see him for what he truly was – a great kid.  I remember explaining to him that day that the shame of racism is on the person who commits the racist act and not on the person subjected to racism.  I explained that racism derived from either hatred or ignorance, and that we should pity people with hatred in their hearts or ignorant minds. 

Bus driver incident

The next time something more seriously racist happened to him, I was in a position to address the incident.  He had been waiting for the public bus at the bus stop near his school, which also serves a nearby refugee center.  Even though he signaled, the bus driver didn’t stop and laughed while giving my son the middle finger as he passed him by.  Fueled by my fury and the desire to teach him that it is important in life to stand up to unacceptable behavior, I contacted the school and the bus company and made a complaint.  Thankfully, I was taken seriously by both organizations.  They met with us, an investigation was made, and the bus driver was fired.  It turns out that this was the last in a string of infractions by him.  Though I was angry that a bus driver with a history of inappropriate behavior could continue to be employed and given a route driving children, I was happy with the resolution of the matter.  But I often wonder if my brown-skinned boy had actually been the refugee child he was probably taken to be and had he not had the benefit of an international school backing his claim, the incident would have been taken seriously and the outcome the same.  I’ll never know. 

My daughter has not been immune to negative experiences although she is a girl.  She was once pushed down to the floor by a Swiss boy and called a “nigger” while standing on a public bus.  She had had no interaction with this boy prior to being assaulted and was merely chatting with her friend.  Luckily, her friend spoke fluent German and while my daughter told him off in English, her friend did so in German.  I was proud of her for standing up to a racist bully, but also fearful that the next time (for I am certain there will be a next time) she might be alone and the boy might not be willing to stand down. 

Lack of equal access

As a result of immigration, Switzerland is becoming more racially diverse.  There are estimated to be approximately 100,000 black people currently living in Switzerland.  Switzerland has a unique opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the US, with its toxic racial history, and from its European neighbors, many of which have failed to successfully integrate significant African and Arab immigrant populations and failed to educate the native-born population about tolerance and acceptance.  The Swiss government is taking steps to understand the issue of racism in Switzerland, which is a first step in addressing it.  A study by the Swiss Federal Commission Against Racismexternal link found that black people in Switzerland do not have equal access to public services, housing, employment or the protection of the judicial system and are often subject to racial profiling by authorities.  Despite these findings, in a 2017 survey, 51% of Swiss viewed racism towards blacks as a minor problem. 

Racism exists in many places, not least in my home country of the U.S., but racism anywhere is a societal ill that should be tamped down, stamped out and not allowed to take root because like a weed it will flourish and thrive to the detriment of society.  One of the recommendations of the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI)external link of the Council of Europe, of which Switzerland is a member, is that racism cannot be combatted without the engagement of a “civil society.”  A top-down approach has little chance of success, but the engagement of citizens is crucial.  It also views surveying the discriminatory experiences and perceptions of potential victims of racism as crucial to understanding and combating the problem.  It is against this backdrop that I share my account.  I feel it is important to share my family’s stories, perspective and experiences to create better understanding of what it is like to be black and brown and living in Switzerland. 

My daughter just returned to Switzerland from a school trip to Tanzania.  When my husband asked her what part of her trip made the biggest impression on her, her response surprised us.  She said that she was struck by how happy and joyful the people were.  They had very little and yet they were kind and generous and welcoming to the international students who came to visit them and to learn about their culture.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Switzerland could treat newcomers of all races with the same spirit of openness and acceptance? 


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