Oprah Winfrey, shown here in a file photo, recently experienced racism at a store in Switzerland. (Source: Reuters)
This morning, news came through that billionaire television superstar Oprah Winfrey suffered a bit of "living while black" in Switzerland, showing that her fame and fortune does not unfortunately keep her safe from racism itself. At a luxury goods store in Zurich, a customer representative kept refusing to show her a $38,000 handbag because the representative thought that she "will not be able to afford that one." Oprah would eventually receive an apology from the Swiss tourism office and the store owner, but it rattled some people. In a country as supposedly tolerant as Switzerland, this case of racism seems surprising to some. But as past history and the country's recent brush with Islamophobia indicate, Switzerland's isolated nature have made these things not so unusual.
Switzerland's history has long been that of an isolated nation, one surrounded on all sides by the Alps. That the culture would be isolated creates a situation where outsiders would be treated differently and with some adversity would not be surprising. However, the racism that a black person would face in Switzerland is far more nuanced than would occur elsewhere, a simple deference against outsiders, something that remains relatively unchanged even in recent decades. Writer James Baldwin made a point of this in his essay on his stay in Switzerland, "Stranger in the Village:"
I say that the culture of these people controls me-but they can scarcely be held responsible for European culture. America comes out of Europe, but these people have never seen America, nor have most of them seen more of Europe than the hamlet at the foot of their mountain. Yet they move with an authority which I shall never have; and they regard me, quite rightly, not only as a stranger in the village but as a suspect latecomer, bearing no credentials, to everything they have-however unconsciously-inherited.
The only encounters with a completely alien culture that the Swiss have had to deal with recently are of those with Muslim-related backgrounds, in particular Kurds, Turks, and Albanians that have immigrated in their country.. Their response has not been kind to them: Following the rise of the Swiss People's Party, who have used racist epithets in the past, Islamophobic movements have also risen, all in the name of "security" and "reducing immigration." In particular, the Swiss population passed a constitutional ban on the building of minarets, the mosque towers used for the call to prayer, by a significant majority in 2009. If anything, these developments represent a shift towards such problems as what a billionaire like Oprah had to deal with yesterday.