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‘We must strive to be anti-racist’

Swiss-American Rose Wettstein argues that amid the global outcry over racism and discrimination, it’s time for each individual and each society to face reality and take action. 

The murder of George Floyd has become a global flashpoint. Discussions about racism and anti-racism have erupted throughout the world. Outside of the United States much of the conversation is one of reflection and self-evaluation. Betterment and growth cannot happen without these kinds of conversations. A response of self-reflection is essential, even in Switzerland.   

One need not be American or Black to be appalled by the circumstances around George Floyd’s death. Anti-racism as a movement in Switzerland is not only justified, but necessary.  While many believe racial minorities are more secure here than in other countries, the same systemic racism and structural inequities that plague the United States also exist in Switzerland.   

I have seen the concerns of those who worry about racism in Switzerland be dismissed and relativised in a number of ways. For some, it is a sincere belief that things “are not like that” in Switzerland. However, as recently as 2018 a Nigerian, Mike Ben Peter, died during a police search in Lausanne. Many Swiss would be surprised to find out that this is not a singular incident. If the comments section of newspapers can provide insight into how at least some of the population feels, there is this sentiment that “one should go back to where one came from, if it is so bad in Switzerland”. But do we really want to accept the standard that at least we’re not the worst? If we can do better, we must do better.   

Switzerland, like many countries in the world, has become an increasingly diverse country. The idea many people hold of what it means to be Swiss does not match the reality of “being Swiss” for many people. We must step away from a Eurocentric mental model of what it means to be Swiss, and we must listen to all our citizens and residents.   

According to a survey on diversity by the Federal Statistical Office, 28% of the population identify as victims of discrimination, physical violence, or psychological abuse. In addition, a third of the population reported feeling disturbed by people who they perceive to be “other,” and 12% feel threatened by foreigners. This is not a uniquely American problem. There are things amiss in Switzerland too. 

Now is the moment when you might expect that I finally, as a Black Swiss woman, will dive into shocking tales of the racism I have experienced here: a detailed retelling of every slight, offense, derogatory term and abuse. Ideally, these stories should clearly convince you that I had these experiences solely because of the colour of my skin. Perhaps the time I was accused of stealing while clothes shopping. Or a description of my anger when my daughter was told by another child that he didn‘t want to play with her because of the colour of her skin. Would the time an elderly woman angrily told me rules are not just for Swiss people, but Black people too, do the job? Certainly the woman who yanked off the hood of my son‘s jacket on the train as he went by. Rest assured, I have those stories. I could tell them in detail, and many would feel sorry these things happened to me. You would be appalled that “in this day and age” some people still judge others based on race, and I would express my disappointment that I have not once had someone stand up for me in the moment.  

However, I would rather not reduce racism in Switzerland down to every unjust moment I have ever experienced. Rather, when talking about racism in Switzerland, one must consider the systemic forces at play. In the ensuing discussions worldwide since George Floyd’s murder, there has been an increasing tendency to talk about racism as a system, rather than as individual beliefs and actions. Recently, you may have seen an infographic on social media that illustrates racism as an iceberg. Racial slurs, racist jokes and hate crimes, among other extreme offenses, are at the tip of it – overt forms of racism that are clearly socially unacceptable. Underneath the surface lies a larger mass of socially acceptable forms of covert racism. Examples include being silent, eurocentrism, and racist mascots and costumes. These forms of racism are, in fact, so acceptable that individuals with no intent to be racist will passionately argue these are not forms of racism. These “acceptable” (and often unintentional) forms of racism serve to maintain the status quo of a system that favours some people or groups, but not others. 

When racism is systemic, no one can be free. However, a new system also requires change at the individual level. The Service for Combatting Racism explains that racism “encompasses the not necessarily ideologically based, unintentional or even unconscious hierarchization of population groups, which shapes social structures, institutions and dynamics and leads to certain power relations, exclusions and privilege”. This means that we all may be contributing to and maintaining a racist system.  

While it is comfortable to look elsewhere for solutions and point fingers at others as the sources of the problem, we must not become complacent and inadvertently complicit. We must also look inward, as we as individuals all possess the ability and bear the responsibility to combat racism. When racism is systemic, not being racist is no longer sufficient. We must strive to be anti-racist.