Racist Attitudes in Switzerland? The Tales of two African-American Women

Oprah traveled to Zurich, Switzerland, recently to attend the wedding of Tina Turner who has lived in the tony Zurich suburb of Küsnacht since 1995. Earlier this year, Turner made the headlines for accepting Swiss citizenship while simultaneously renouncing her US citizenship, presumably for tax reasons. The US has the questionable distinction of being the only industrialized country that taxes its citizens who reside abroad. (One would wish that the US would apply similar standards to US corporations, but that is a different matter.) Taxes aside, Turner seems to be genuinely at ease in Switzerland: “I’m very happy in Switzerland and I feel at home here. […] I cannot imagine a better place to live,” Turner reportedly told the Swiss tabloid Blick.

Oprah, her wedding guest, had a different story to tell to Entertainment Tonight. Oprah apparently entered the exclusive boutique Trois Pommes (which Oprah refused to identify) in downtown Zurich by herself, without any of her handlers. She asked to see a handbag with a SFr. 35,000 ($38,000) price tag. According to Oprah, the sales person replied, “No, it’s too expensive!” When Oprah further insisted on seeing that bag, the woman at the store replied, “No, no, you don’t want to see that one, you want to see this one, because that one would cost too much and you would not be able to afford that.” The employee then proceeded to show Oprah other, less expensive handbags. After three unsuccessful attempts, Oprah apparently left the store without making a scene and without pulling “the black card,” as she put it.


Upscale shopping street in the historic heart of Zurich

In the interview, Oprah was clearly annoyed because her star power apparently has not reached tiny Switzerland yet: “I didn’t have my eyelashes on, but I was in full Oprah Winfrey gear. I had my little Donna Karan skirt and my little sandals. But obviously The Oprah Winfrey Show is not shown in Zurich. So this does not happen to me unless somebody obviously does not know it is me.”

It is unfortunate that this narcissistic display of injured vanity obfuscates the matter. It has allowed commentators in Switzerland to focus on the hissy fit by a narcissistic international entertainer–as a commentary entitled “Die verletzte Narzisstin” (the injured narcissist) in the respected Zurich daily Tages-Anzeiger did. This line of argumentation enables commentators to deny that there is any racism at issue in this scandal that now is referred to as “Täschligate” (handbag-gate) in Switzerland. As in the cases of the Nazi Gold and the bank secret, Switzerland again sees itself exposed to a barrage of international accusations, and the gut reaction is to circle the wagons–a posture that is common when small states see themselves exposed to massive criticism and pressure from abroad. And Oprah delivered all the arguments for this defensive posture.

This also is unfortunate because Oprah clearly has had a positive impact on young black women around the world. In a visit to South Africa some years ago, a group of young women from Limpopo province glowingly told us how Oprah is a role model for them who as a person of color and as a woman made it in a world dominated by white men.

But Oprah is right that this incident would not have happened if the sales clerk had recognized her as a celebrity. Which brings up the question why it did happen. Trudie Götz, the owner of the boutique, in an interview with the Swiss tabloid Blick framed this as a “misunderstanding” due to the imperfect command of English of her employee and claimed that her employee meant well, acted correctly and in no way displayed racial prejudices. She further stated that she sees no reason to fire her sales person. Ironically, Ms. Götz was an invited guest at the Turner wedding as well.

Trudie Goetz

Trudie Götz, owner of the upscale Trois Pommes boutique, in an interview with the tabloid Blick (screenshot Aug. 9, 2013)

If the sales clerk acted correctly by not showing a handbag to a customer deemed undeserving, business policies and practices come into focus. It is obvious that the profiling of customers in this boutique is standard procedure and that sales people are trained to profile customers–a practice that was confirmed by other upscale Zurich retailers. But what are the criteria for this profile? Obviously, the perceived ability to pay is key, and race factors into that in a major way. Furthermore, the rabid denials of racism by so many Swiss commentators imply that race indeed is a major underlying issue. Switzerland just in recent years has been forced to deal with a multi-racial society. Switzerland still lacks any authoritative mainstream voices–like Oprah–who can talk about race from a minority viewpoint. As the clumsy and insensitive commentaries in the Swiss press indicate, the Swiss have a long way to go to develop an understanding of the subtle ways of racism in our globalized world.

In the meantime, Switzerland Tourism, Switzerland’s official tourism office, showed outrage over the scandal, apparently fearing damage to its brand. International tourism in Switzerland has been in decline over the past few years, and the perception is that this scandal is not helpful. Daniela Bär, the spokesperson for Switzerland Tourism, offered a speedy apology to Oprah, reducing the issue to a clumsy salesperson who acted inappropriately. This also seems to be the view of other retailers in Zurich–again denying any systemic issues this scandal seems to have revealed. It is evident that Switzerland Tourism and other commercial interests would like the world to see Switzerland through Tina Turner’s eyes rather than Oprah Winfrey’s.


Note: see my later post, published on August 13, 2013, entitled Oprah Creates a Stir: Switzerland’s Small-State Response

47 thoughts on “Racist Attitudes in Switzerland? The Tales of two African-American Women

    1. Peter Hess Post author

      Apparently Oprah thought about that for a fleeting moment, but that would have given this sales clerk a huge commission…

    2. Hazel

      In Switzerland we do not both with
      famous people or even Royalty. All
      people are just people. We are a quiet
      and reserved nation and do not flaunt
      who we are or wealth. Besides she
      could not buy out the store – She is
      not Swiss.

  1. Pingback: Oprah Creates a Stir: Switzerland’s Small-State Response | Cultures Contexts

  2. angryYETcynical

    Born and brought up in Switzerland (or, as I usually call it, “CH”). Never thought of my fellow Swiss as my peers. Why? Apparently the colour of my skin is a disadvantage for me in order to get a job, get an apartment, get friends, get a girlfriend, a table at a restaurant etc….

    My parents told be earlier on: “beware of the whites: they can act politely but they don’t mean it”. 20 years after that statement I realized that she was absolutely spot on, boy was my mother right.

    My solution? I don’t communicate with whites more than I really need to (for work or at the restaurant etc…) and stay in touch only with a few but good friends.

    You always risk to be backstabbed by people. Eliminating whites from your friends list will reduce the reasons to be backstabbed quiet significantly.

    1. Momo

      ME TOO. BORN AND RAISED. I need to connect with more people of colour here. It’s so insidious and latent and passive aggressive here, and if you talk about it you’re being told that you’re inventing it and that it doesn’t exist. I’ve cut out about 10 people in my life the past 4 years, including my boyfriend’s entire family (so has he). As well as all but 2 of his “friends”. My “friends” too.

        1. Ynot

          Hey fam, are you guys still in CH? I relocated here last year and am enrolled in university. I’m DYING to meet up with African Americans and just other diaspora Africans, bi-ethnic, multi-ethnic Africans, etc. in general. I’m thinking about organizing a Facebook group so we can more readily find each other. Do you guys think that would be of any interest here in Switzerland?

          1. BH

            Please do… would love to connect w more people of color (and not just any people of color but those who are conscious of and talking about this stuff)!
            Just to be upfront, I’m not black or American. (From Southeast Asia, ethnic Indian and dark enough to elicit Swiss disdain). I’m trying really hard not to hate this place… connecting with like minded people would be a huge plus 🙂

        2. RodneyPounds

          What part of New York are you from.Im black.I met a young lady from Switzerland,She Invited me to come visit..Is it very racist there?

      1. BH

        ME THREE. I literally just googled “Geneva+racist+toxic” because have been feeling so worn out living here. (Been here 6 months .)
        Previous commenter is so right that it is super passive aggressive and insidious.
        Would love to connect with some people who can relate! Not sure whether anyone’s still keeping tabs on this comment thread?
        How can we make this happen?

      2. Ricky Thomas

        This has caused me to pause at my breakneck speed to visit Switzerland however, I believe that racism is alive and well in many countries – even amongst black themselves there is racism and for that reason, it is important that as a black person we seek out our own ethnic group and connect with them in a meaningful manner, I’m a Jamaican living in the city of Montego Bay, allow me to be your friend.

        1. shotgun517

          You’re absolutely right about not racism but prejudice amongst Blacks! I too am Jamaican who moved to NYC as a 11 yr old in 1978 and the African Americans used to tease me and say go back home on your banana boat and call me jungle boy! Jamaica has no jungle, I guess they got that from the BS they saw on Tarzan movies about Africa which is straight lies!

    2. Mel David

      Yes! You are spot on. My mother told me that as well. And its the truth. Smile in your face, and stub all Black people in the back. This being America I’m talking about. Only communicate with (the) Whites when necessary. As for the White Swiss, who cares what low income, under educated, pale filth without a clue think? Warn your young Black family the hate and damages (the) Whites has dished out world wide. Get only what they need, but (the) beneath them.

    3. Nichelle Thymes

      Racism apparently exists all around us. I’ll be in Zurich next month for a week. I wonder if I should change my plans.

    4. Sheronica McIntyre

      Wow and I’m actually thinking about moving there. I am in fact african american, but that also happen here to in the United States big time. Specially in bigger suburban area’s or more so corporate jobs. I never understood why people hate black people so much.

  3. Joe Mel

    What does Oprah think she is, a US famous Neil deGrasse Tyson or Sylvester James Gates Jr., my gosh, the nerve of that woman

    1. Donna

      I am here now.. it’s palpabable.
      I walked to the store the first evening .. a whole older lady almost walked into traffic to get to the other side of the road.. to my amusement .. she then turned to smile back when she was safely on the other side after she noticed me laughing!

  4. Wavey

    Do you still reside in CH? I am thinking of traveling to Italy and would be visiting CH to shop. Is this not a great idea?

  5. Joel Savage

    This kind of treatments happen a lot to black people but passed unnoticed. It’s because Oprah is rich as well as a celebrity the reason she has taken the case seriously. She mustn’t be angry over such things.

    1. Ricky Thomas

      You need to continue to be the passive slave that your spineless direct ancestor was because from all indications, per your comments, you along with Sharonica McIntyre are insinuating that Oprah should have kept quiet about her racist experience (Oprah did not utter words of anger, therefore, you could not confused speaking out with being angry). If every one of our black ancestries were of the docile jackass’ mentality like you then certainly people of African descent would still be shackled by our necks, hands, and feet and be traded publicly in the western marketplace without any laws to protect us, if our vociferous forth parents had remained passive in their quest for freedom people like you would never had a platform to voice such non-sensical opinion.
      Go ahead, you apologetic excrement continue to be whoever you are as your servile and docile perception of life suits you best – but remember if it weren’t for those who stood up against being treated worse than wild animals you wouldn’t be able to share such rubbish for the world to see.

  6. Joe

    WTF? A overly self consumed black woman gets snubbed. Who cares. Happens to ALL races now and then. Its called LIFE. Grow up and quit pissing about it.

  7. T C

    I’m sorry that happened to Oprah but it happens to regular people like me all the time. I went to China and restaurants refuse to serve me. It’s a shame when you have to google where African Americans are accepted before we can travel. And to the person who told Oprah to get over it why should she all she wanted to do was see the bag shame on the salesperson walk in a black person shoes for a week I bet you will run yourself into a wall. Thanks Oprah for letting people know it happened because of the color of your skin.

  8. Mosby M

    GOD created a man & a woman? No color was ever mentioned!! Seems as though a “a Come to JESUS” meeting is needed!! Yes, I am a black American….ALMIGHTY GOD bless all of us. John 3:16

  9. Layla

    I’m a Black American, I went to Switzerland over the summer and I was in a small town called Adelboden up near the alps, much smaller than Zurich. However, while shopping there I noticed this too. I was followed in nearly every store I went into. The only store where I wasn’t followed was a sporting goods store. I was talking with the owner as I was checking out and he was telling me how he used to live in the Bay Area of California so a black person was not a rare and exotic sight to him. I was very excited to visit Switzerland, due to its extremely positive reputation but I was very disappointed with my experience there.

  10. Carlos N.

    Wow! My Grandmother was the result of a Swiss father & Guatemalan mother (native). She never complained about being mixed race. The french sounding last name helped. But she told me that she got a bad vibe from her dads side of the family. WOW! All this for chocolate!

  11. Jeronda Hamblin

    People we need to be aware that racism has been around for hundreds of years. Why, because racism is spiritual. We wrestle not against flesh and blood but against rulers, authorities, spirits of this dark age. How do blacks overcome? With truth not to them that are being used by those wicked spirits but to ourselves and not with rage or defeated thought process which is the true agenda of those people that are so easily used or the partial agenda of those evil spirits, but with a determined attitude that believes the report of the Lord which states you are wonderfully made. When God created you He said it is good.

  12. RM

    Boy, I hope this sales Lady realizes how much money she lost! wow how lost money can you love…..the color that makes the day is green….duh!!!!

  13. Sea

    Feel free to go to shop in an entirely black country. Please. Switzerland is white. It’s European. European is white. It’s for the indigenous population- which is white. You don’t like it? Don’t go there– just how many of we whites do not go to African countries for all the reasons indicated above: Being avoided, being laughed at, being discriminated against, not feeling at home, etc. I have no clue why there are even any blacks at all in Switzerland- Turner or anyone else.

  14. Plantain.co.uk

    I’m here now, Black Briton from the UK and it’s my first visit to Geneva. Very beautiful, delicious chocolate and so many ads on watches. However, the racism is certainly here. A few ppl I’ve come across, their manner has been abrupt, rude and impatient. Will not rush back here in a hurry!

    1. Ms P

      Switzerland is on my bucket list, but after reading these comments as an African American woman I will be taking it off my list, and travel to places where my dark skin is welcomed.

  15. EF

    Did anyone ever start a facebook page or other means for African Americans and other people of color living in CH to connect?

  16. Zhara


    I’ll be in Zug later this month from the UK. Is there anyone there at the moment?

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