My Experiences as a Solo Traveller

Racism in Switzerland: My Experience as a Solo Traveller of Colour

 

Good god, we Indians are obsessed, and I mean obsessed, about going to Switzerland. Seriously, I don’t get the hype. Like, I know Bollywood plays a major hand in it. But still, the number of Indian tourists you see in Switzerland is absurdly more than anywhere in Europe. So, I too, as a classic example of herd mentality, was like ‘Man, I need to go to this place and check it out!” Off I went to Switzerland. And that’s when I learned first-hand that racism in Switzerland is of another level altogether.

Racism in Switzerland, personal experience, Pinterest Image
Racism in Switzerland: My experience as a Solo Female Traveller of Colour :: LIKE IT? PIN IT!

I will go ahead and claim that there is ample racism in Switzerland. Now hold on here, if you are white, please do not try to tell me there isn’t. Your experiences aren’t the same as mine. Moreover, do not tell me that there are far worse people than the Swiss when it comes to being racist jerks. I know there are. In fact, a lot of Indians can be incredibly racist as well.

Now for those who are thinking, “You Indians are racists toward others so stop complaining about racism,” you need to rework that brain of yours. I, as a person, as an individual, DO NOT deserve to be treated like a terrorist/scum/less-than-human because I, personally, am not racist to anyone. Just because there is a generalised negative perception about Indians does not make it okay to treat any Indian racially. What kind of logic is this: ‘Because ‘your’ people treat others badly, you, who doesn’t do anything like that, deserve the same’? What kind of vindictive, messed up reasoning is that?

Before I continue further, I must say that this post is about racism in Switzerland but that does not imply I think every single Swiss is a racist douchebag. I can’t believe I have to give this disclaimer but here it is anyway. Now, note that the title of the blogpost is not  “My Racist Encounter in Switzerland’ but ‘Racism in Switzerland.’ Meaning: I had to face this more than once, or twice. But let’s start from the beginning.

Swiss train running next to a lake and hills
Euro Rail is great to get out of places that crush your soul LOL

Racism in Switzerland starts the minute you cross into the Swiss Border

In 2014, I entered Switzerland on an overnight sleeper train that had originated from Amsterdam, and had passed through Germany. Note that Holland, Germany and Switzerland are part of the Schengen (though Switzerland is not part of the EU). In other words, they practise freedom of movement across borders. This freedom of movement is not just for EU citizens but anyone who is within the Schengen area.  This law means that you don’t have to show your passport when crossing borders between Schengen countries.

That said, things play out a bit differently for you if you are brown/black or ‘look’ Muslim/non-Christian. More often than not, if you are a person of colour, the cops will stop you at these ‘border free but only for white people’ crossings and will ask for your ID/passport/visa. The authorities’ (arguably fair) excuse is that while you have the right to freedom of movement, they still need to check if you have a valid document that allows you to stay in the Schengen. Fine, whatever.

Picture of Swiss countryside
Beautiful country, ugly racism (not that racism can be ‘pretty’ anyway)

Going back to my story; so when the train crossed from the Netherlands into Germany, no border patrol/police came onboard. Because Germany actually follows (or followed back in 2014), the border-free policy that is the essence of the Schengen Agreement. But guess which country, with all its neutrality talk, did not? Switzerland.

Racism in Switzerland is not only rampant but most (if not all) Swiss authorities shamelessly practise and normalise it, which is evident by the way their cops/border patrol think it is okay to behave with a person of colour.  I was in a 6 person sleeper couch when these ‘Protectors of the Swiss state’ came onboard. There were three people in our coach. Namely, a white Australian boy (early 20s), a white German boy (mid-20s), and me (Indian, brown, female, mid-20s).

The German simply showed his German ID and that was it. The whole interaction took 10 seconds. The border police asked the Australian where was he from. Then, they asked him if I was travelling with him. Funny (not), that they preferred not to even address me directly if they could avoid it. Not sure if this is a gender thing or a race thing, or both. Probably both. The Aussie fellow says no, and then all eyes are on me.

 

Racism in Switzerland: A Transcript

Bern skyline
Bern Skyline

Swiss white male cop 1: Where are you from?

Me *smiling but not reciprocated*: India.

Swiss white male cop 1: Where are you coming from?

Me: Amsterdam.

Swiss white male cop 1: Show me your ticket! And your passport.

Me: *shows Euro Rail pass, passport and Spanish EU residency permit*

Swiss white male cop 1: *speaks something into his walkie-talkie* Are you carrying any drugs from Amsterdam?

Me: What, you mean, weed? Nope. [I don’t smoke pot. I didn’t do it in Amsterdam much less bring it on the train like an idiot]

Swiss white male cop 1: Do not lie! We can arrest you.

Me: I am not lying *major panic attack coming on*

A Swiss white female cop shows up along with two other male cops. Swiss white male cop 1 hands over my identity documents to Swiss white female cop.

Pciture of snow capped Swiss Alps
The Swiss Alps: Preferred the country so much more when I didn’t have to deal with people.

Swiss white female cop: *scrutinising my EU residency card* So you live in Spain?

Me: Yes.

Swiss white female cop: So if you live in Spain, you must speak Spanish?

Me: Well, yeah, I do a little.

Swiss white female cop then starts to quiz me about Spain in Spanish!. Meanwhile Swiss white male cop 2 demands to see my stuff. And without waiting for me to agree, he starts taking everything out of my bag. He was just short of sniffing my used panties.

Swiss white female cop after quizzing me: Your Spanish isn’t very good, how do we know you aren’t lying about living in Spain?

Me: Because I have a legal residency permit from Spain which you are holding in your hands and I would like it back!

After this, the female cop takes me for a pat down in the bathroom. All  of them then have a conversation among themselves before reluctantly handing back my documents while everything from my bag lay strewn all over my coach bed. If you think the story ends here, it does not:

The female white cop who arrived later asked her colleague where the Australian guy was from, who replied “Austria.”

Animals are treated so well at the Zurich zoo (as it should be) Shame, they can’t do the same with people of colour.

They were speaking in German. But, the Australian heard and understood the conversation, and said, “No, I am from Australia.” Following which, the Swiss white male Cop 1 literally went “Oh, doesn’t matter,” and they all left. As far as I know, Australia, unlike Austria, is not in the EU or Schengen right? So, why doesn’t it matter? He could have been in the EU/Schengen longer than it was permitted on a tourist visa, he might have had drugs on him (he too had boarded at Amsterdam), or he might not have been Australian at all! They did not even ask to see his passport, much less see if he was here legally, just because he was white!!

Also, I like how the Swiss white female cop with her resting bitchface thought that I possibly couldn’t be legally residing in Spain because I didn’t speak perfect Spanish. Let’s completely ignore the fact that I had a residency permit. Because surely residency permits are just stupid documents with no value at all. As for going through my stuff, why the hell was it okay for a male cop to go through my stuff especially when there was a female one present? Moreover, it wasn’t just about them going through my stuff, it’s about how they did it. The cop was touching/holding my stuff with a disgusted face like I was contaminated and tossing my valuables aside with disrespect and arrogance including a picture of my family.

I am a petite 5’2 harmless looking girl. I wasn’t dressed in a particular way (read: in a hijab, or anything ‘Muslim-like’) that could be used as a pathetic, Islamophobic excuse by these Swiss cops to interrogate me because I appeared ‘dangerous’ (read: Muslim). This entire episode stressed me out so much that I got my periods after they left, three days early (LOL). The Australian guy later told me he couldn’t believe what just happened and the blatant discrimination in the way they treated us.

 

Racism in Switzerland: An everyday reality for non-white tourists?

Picture of author standing by waterfront in Interlaken
At Interlaken.

Obviously, that’s not true for everyone but it sure was for me while I was there. It seemed that I kept running into diligent racists all across Bern, Zurich, Interlaken and Geneva. It’s like I was some Swiss racist magnet. A white woman in Geneva called me an “idiot immigrant.” Why? Because I took a little longer to buy bus tickets from a vending machine. Nope, not an immigrant, just a confused tourist.

Again, in Geneva, two cops kept tailing me while I was strolling around Parc des Bastions. They kept giving me these nasty looks. It was my last day in Switzerland so I was feeling benevolent. I smiled at them and offered the seat next to me on the bench. As a response, they glared at me some more and continued trailing me till I left. In Bern and Zurich, I kept noticing how at supermarkets and restaurants the servers/cashiers would politely greet other customers but not me. In Interlaken, I was looking at a menu outside a restaurant. Guess what happened? The server said to me: “You can’t afford this!” And snatched the menu from my hand.

Racism in Switzerland: Personal Experience Pinterest Image
Racism in Switzerland: My experience as a Solo Female Traveller of Colour :: LIKE IT? PIN IT?

Boy, was I happy to leave Switzerland. It is a beautiful country no doubt, but racism in Switzerland is ugly. I met people there who were kind and treated me with basic courtesy. This included a Middle Eastern man who ran a kebab shop in Interlaken, and fellow travellers from South Korea. Most Swiss I met simply ignored me, which is totally fine. While many gave me that “You don’t belong here brownie” look. For the foreseeable future, I have no intentions of spending my money on Switzerland. I also hope that your experiences in Switzerland, if you are a person of colour, are more positive than mine.

For more of my solo travelling experiences, click here.

43 Comments

  • Srikanth's Traveldiaries

    Looks like a post with an emotional outburst… While acknowledging your experiences, Swiss is by far the most safest and respectful country.you will definitely encounter idiots.. loads of them in our own country itself…. I have travelled to Swiss and saying it with my vast experience that I do not agree to most. Swiss are very respectful and bad apples are bound to be found at places….
    While I write this with empathy, do not generalize your experiences please..

    • Arunima

      Why am I not allowed ’emotional outburst’? This is a blog about my experiences not yours. I am allowed to react in whatever way I see fit. Secondly, you might want to read it a bit more carefully, nowhere am I generalising anything or calling everyone in Switzerland racist. Thirdly, I am not entirely sure how you can ‘disagree’ with someone’s personal experiences. I believe it’s okay for people to not have the same opinions as you. Lastly, just because people in our country behave poorly with others, does not justify the same being done to us. A point I mentioned early on the list, which you seem to have clearly missed.

      • Srikanth's Traveldiaries

        Sorry to see this…. I have read through your post and have carefully read through before sharing my thoughts as once I go online with a comment in open internet. I have clearly mentioned that your experience seems to be a very rare one.. I have exercised my opinion on what I felt is wrongly portrayed. You find bad apples everywhere. I felt your blog post talking about racism in Switzerland in a slightly exaggerated manner and could not stop from sharing my insights which I think I am entitled to once you go public about your experiences. while I do acknowledge that it has been your experience and feel bad about a fellow Indian experiencing it, but I would differ with you projecting the country as racist… This is the way Hindutva is jeopardizing the great work that’s being delivered by a very effective government..

        • Arunima

          The fact that you are calling my experiences ‘exaggerated’ without having been there to witness it, seriously contradicts your claim about you acknowledging my bad experience.

          Are you seriously comparing my personal (NOT GENERALISED as opposed to what you think) experience of Switzerland with an entirely unrelated comment about Hindutva and our government. PLEASE do not bring politics into my blog. I do not like blocking comments, but this is not the place for it. Find a better comparison if you must.

          And what ‘wrongly portrayed’? This is MY experience, a fact that you seem to be missing. I guess you must have a huge sense of entitlement because you think it is fine to call someone’s personal experience as ‘wrongly portrayed’ and seem to get personally offended by a make-believe generalisation of Switzerland when there is none. Have a good day, and enjoy your travels.

          • Srikanth's Traveldiaries

            Definitely…. Sure, hope you understand my message which is also fine if you don’t, as I didn’t experience it first hand, have been to Switzerland multiple times and have seen many Indians irrespective of their caste / colour being discriminated…. Hopefully in the future you have a better experience. All the very best!

  • Anjali Chawla

    Thanks for writing this piece. I really appreciate when bloggers write the truth even when it’s hard to swallow rather than painting a rosy picture of the place.

    I read quite a number of times about blatant racism in Switzerland. Oprah Winfrey too met with ugly racial discrimination in Switzerland. The more these stories reveal the ugly faces behind the beautiful alps, the more I make up my mind not to spend my hard-earned money on a heartless country.

    • Arunima

      Thanks Anjali. I am so glad for your comment. I am glad that you brought up the fact that there is indeed blatant racism in Switzerland. A fact that many seem to think is ‘exaggerated’ or ‘wrong’ because they luckily did not have to face it.

  • Prerna

    This is really sad and shame that you had to go through this experience recently. We’ve been to Switzerland twice and haven’t really faced any racism but then this is your experience and we are sad to read this. Hope this story reaches out and spreads so others do not have to face such problems in the future. Don’t let such bad experiences dull your charm and stop you from exploring. Wish you happy travels and may you never have to encounter this again.

  • Alice

    This is crazy! I can’t believe we still have this kind of issues in 2019! Honestly is time for people to wake up and appreciate and respect everyone!

  • Roobens Fils

    That’s crazy! I just spent a few days in Bern and I had no problems there, but I was with locals. But I heard other black people saying they also had problems in this country. Damn even Oprah Winfrey faced racism in Switzerland!

  • Adrian Gheorghe Alexa

    Congratulations on writing this article. It takes guts and people like you to change the world. Racism is always buried under the blankets of civilized society. People are taught to be racists so only by exposing them to the reality of life can we change that. People are dismissive of personal experiences, like the person above in the comments. Keep your chin up and congratulations on the response too. I applaud you.

    • Arunima

      Thank you Adrian. I am so grateful for your comment. It gets hard and frustrating especially when not only you have a racist encounter, but when you call it out, people further discredit you because they can’t bear to handle the truth that others can have different experiences than them. Again, thank you so much.

  • Trudy

    Switzerland has always been on my “maybe not” list after hearing and seeing how they culturally handle race. I can say that I’m not surprised by that incident. But I’m proud of you for acknowledging it for what it is instead of burying your head in the sand like I’ve seen done before. I hope that you never go through that again, and I’m happy that these stories are being heard

    • Arunima

      Thank you Trudy. It took me a while to come around and write about it. I was just not ready to think about it again, and I was pretty sure that people would start accusing me of generalising or dismissing my experiences (like the very first comment on this post haha). But I have gotten so much support and people have shared their own stories as well that makes me glad I wrote this.

  • jkrolak

    This is crazy. I am so sorry that you had to go through that. I’m glad you wrote this. It’s eye-opening to read about racism like this. Don’t listen to that comment from that woman. Your feelings and experiences are valid.

    • Arunima

      Thank you. Sure not listening to that person. I am intentionally leaving that comment up to show how easily people call your experiences “wrong” and “incorrect” because they think there is no other truth besides the one they see and have experienced.

  • The Solivagant Soul (@Thesolivsoul)

    What happened to you is completely bizzarre… right after they asked you for the passport. I am myself white as snow and I have been asked for my passport in Swiss trains very very often. Anyway, I do agree with you that everything after that should be taken up their chain… What an embarrassing situation…!

  • sue

    Switzerland stayed neutral during WWII. That says it all for me. While genocide happened the Swiss stayed out of it. And, severely restricted Jews fleeing the Holocaust. So, racism in Switzerland not surprising to hear about. It is built on a very long foundation. I am sorry for your experiences and I hope that you have better traveling experiences elsewhere. I would say that racism US is everywhere.

  • Maura

    Wow, I’m shocked that this behavior exists and it’s terrible you had to go through it 🙁 I wonder if it’s in part due to the problem with gypsies other countries in Europe are having? It’s still racism nonetheless, but where is it coming from?

    • Arunima

      Given the fact that I clearly look South Asian, if they had tried to pass off their racist actions by suggesting that they thought I was a gypsy that would only reflect their immense stupidity and ignorance. The gypsy problem if one can call it that does sanction a lot of racism in places like Spain. Like a lot of Spanish absolutely hate Romanians and think they are all thieves. As for where it (racism) is coming from, I think it comes from internalised notion of European (read white) supremacy that leads to a very exclusionist mentality for those whom they think are inferior to their race and culture.

  • Val

    Oh gosh I am sorry you experienced this 🙁 I don’t know if you have heard that Europeans (I can’t even imagine for non Eu) even if they have jobs in Switzerland they have to wait for months to rent a house! I know families that had to rent in the French part /boarders while waiting! it’s terrible

  • Angelica

    So annoyed for you, all of those people sound so terrible! I’ve never been to Switzerland before, but in Italy I had a similar “targeted” train experience where they asked me to show my ticket (which I did mess up buying), but they literally only talked to me about checking my ticket and not anyone else on the train- including my white male friend who also messed up buying the ticket but was sitting in a different row! And the menu thing is also just rude. I hope Spain is a little better?

    • Arunima

      Not surprised about Italy actually, have heard loads of stories like that. Sorry about your experience. Nope, Spain can be pretty racist too without even being conscious that they are being racist. One of the reasons I left. Got really sick and tired of being treated as a second rate citizen. I get that it can be a thing in small towns but man, even in Madrid… Heard similar stories about Barcelona though did not face it personally.

  • Shimona Carvalho

    Oh wow, that sounds so scary with the cops on the train. My heart is racing just reading about it. I totally know what you mean though, there are a lot of encounters like this while traveling. Some are Big Scary Moments like you described, but many are small, little, subtle biases that hurt too.

  • Tabitha Bear

    Thank you for sharing. Hearing stories like this are just such a bummer. It’s unfortunate. Especially when you’re looking forward to experiencing a country because of its beauty and reputation, it changes the whole outlook when you’re not greeted with that experience. An even bigger bummer to see comments trying to casually set aside your experience as an emotional outburst because maybe theirs wasn’t the same. Keep writing – the world needs this kind of truth.

    • Arunima

      A woman writing about a personal experience of racist encounter and a guy comes and tells her she is having an “emotional outburst” is so typical. A lot of my own countrymen can’t deal with an opinion that doesn’t match their own. And since I am a woman, of course I am having an emotional outburst. Haha. I am glad that is the first comment on this post, really reflects the kind of entitlement one has to deal with.

  • Jewels

    Thank you for sharing your truth! It’s important for us to have candid conversations about what it’s like to be a person of color traveling. I’m so sorry you had to experience this!

    • Arunima

      It is important to have conversations even though many will try to dismiss and belittle your personal experiences as false or inconsequential. Thank you for your support!

  • Sue

    What a horrible experience & thank you for sharing. Such archaic & outdated attitudes. Not been to Switzerland for a long time but this is definitely not encouraging me to visit any time soon.

  • rowena

    So sorry to hear about your experience. I remember the rise of nationalism in Switzerland about 8 years ago. Small indicators here and there, but it sounds like it’s gotten blatant just like racism and nationalism has risen in many western nations 🙁

      • rowena

        Definitely not trying to justify it, just saying that’s what I noticed when I was last there, and it’s become more and more of an indicator of blatant racism in many countries.

        • Arunima

          Of course, I know you are not justifying it. I was saying that the racists now have a really good way of being racist – in the name if NATIONALISM! Sorry, if I came across as I was trying to suggest that you were justifying it.

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