Be honest, when you think of Switzerland, what comes to mind? Most probably, mountains, skiing, chocolate, cheese, and white-blond Heidis. Yes, that’s the image that most people have in their heads when they think of Switzerland. So when I, a black woman, say that I am Swiss, most people don’t believe me. They say, “But you can’t be, black people, can’t be Swiss”.
The reality is that I’ve lived here for almost all of my life, and yes, I am a proud Swiss citizen. I love this country, it is truly magnificent. From the beautiful Swiss Alps to its crystal clear blue lakes, Switzerland is a land of unparalleled beauty rarely matched anywhere else in the world. But there is ugliness here too. Some people here are hard-core racists, and that sometimes spoils everything.
So yes, I’m Swiss and I’m black. For some people, that’s an impossible combination. So whenever I travel within Switzerland, I’m always sure to have my Swiss passport on me, because many people — law enforcement included, don’t believe I am Swiss.
In Switzerland, you always need to carry a piece of identification at all times — and most Swiss carry around their credit card-sized ID card. I used to do this too, but after several unpleasant interactions with law enforcement where they questioned the authenticity of my ID card, I decided that I would take my passport with its full biometric data with me even when I travel domestically. It’s a bit of a pain to carry a bulky passport around, but it’s brought me peace of mind more often than not.
Not so long ago, I was traveling on the intercity train from Geneva to Basel. At Délémont, a charming village at the foot of the Jura mountains, I heard a bit of a commotion in the neighboring train carriage. At first, I was curious — eager to see what was going on. I could see Swiss border guards harassing a young African couple and their two children. They were asking them for their papers and aggressively searching through their bags. I could tell that the man and his wife were intimated — the border guards continued to harass them. As I stood up to go help them, one of the border guards approached me.
“What’s in that suitcase?” he questioned, looking down at my carry-on with suspicion.
“Why do you ask?”I responded in French.
“Where are you going?”, he asked aggressively. His guttural Swiss German ignoring the fact that I had just responded in French — one of Switzerland’s official languages by the way.
“I know my rights, I’m a Swiss citizen, I don’t have to tell you where I am going”, I responded calmly.
“Can I see your identification?”, he asked.
I took out my passport and handed it to him. He looked at it suspiciously and walked away. From afar, I noticed a phone pressed to his ear. He was probably verifying my identity.
I waited. He returned and asked me to open my suitcase. All of a sudden, I was at the center of attention on the train. It seemed like every passenger was focused on my luggage, curious to see what was inside — I later found out they thought I was a drug mule. I mean what else could I be for a Swiss border patrol guard? They that tend to think that the majority of black people are criminals.
I opened up the suitcase slowly, taking my time. Inside, my belongings were arranged neatly. He peeked into my carry-on, without touching anything.
“Pack it up”, he instructed before hastily handing over my passport and heading in the opposite direction. I noticed his colleagues had stopped harassing the African couple. The train conductor blew the whistle and within seconds all 6 border guards hopped off the train. It seemed like it had yet been another case of mistaken identity like there are many over here.
But border guards are my personal bete noir. They hold the keys to the city, or should I say, the key to enter Switzerland, and every single time I come back home from a trip abroad, they make my life hell. I’ve even gone so far as to warn fellow travelers not to queue up behind me at Swiss immigration. I know I’ll spend up to 10 minutes in line while the border guard verifies and doubly verifies if I truly am Swiss or if I’m trying to get past with a forged or stolen passport. It’s a tedious and grueling experience. Every. Single. Time.
And then comes the familiar response from my Swiss friends and colleagues:
“Well you can’t really blame them for checking, there aren’t many black Swiss people after all”.
I always wonder if that is some type of joke. While in the 80s when I first set foot in Switzerland there might not have been many black and brown Swiss people, today is a completely different story. There are thousands of brown and black Swiss people in this country. Look at black and brown Swiss athletes like judoka Serge Aschwanden, or sprinters like Sarah Atcho or Mujinga Kambundji, and many others. Yes, we are here and we exist. The Swiss see us in their communities, maybe they don’t see as many of us in their workplaces because systemic racism prevents us all from being gainfully employed, but yes we are here.
I became a Swiss citizen in the year 2000. I had lived here for 20 years. Switzerland isn’t one of the easiest countries in terms of obtaining citizenship. What makes it even more confusing is that different cantons have different rules whereby Swiss citizenship eligibility is concerned. There are federal rules and also cantonal rules. I became eligible for Swiss citizenship because I grew up in the country, knew all the history, the culture, and the norms, and had all my friends here. The fact that I had lived here between the ages of 10 and 20, my formative years, was a key element that made me eligible for citizenship.
Basically, my life is in Switzerland. To crown all of this, the person I married is also Swiss. But, I didn’t obtain my citizenship through marriage, I obtained it on my own individual merit. That was important to me. I’d heard on several occasions Swiss say that someone wasn’t really Swiss because they had obtained citizenship through marriage. Call it personal pride, but I didn’t want anyone to ever think that I hadn’t put in the effort to fully integrate and assimilate Swiss culture in the many years I’d been here — sometimes even more so than Swiss who had been here for generations. I want people to know that I am truly Swiss — that I had a choice of getting citizenship the easy way, but I opted to go the hard way and get in on my personal merit only.
So that why it’s even tougher when I’m waiting at that queue in the airport and the border guard is questioning me, just short of what I imagine a Guantanamo Bay interrogation would feel like. That’s why it pains me to be made to feel out of place in this country when all I really know is this country.
I stand shoulders high in that queue every single time, but I am breaking deep down inside. How many more times will I have to go through this? How many more times will I be made to feel unwelcome? How many more times will they send me that same racist message: But, black people can’t be Swiss. How many more times?
Thanks for reading my perspective.