What Black Lives Matter means for Switzerland
Tuesday, 23. June 2020

By Jovita dos Santos Pinto and Stefanie Boulila, 23.06.2020

Until recently, when racism was discussed publicly in Switzerland, it was usually with a view to the USA or South Africa. Like many in Europe, most find it difficult to see racism as a phenomenon structurally anchored in Switzerland. Anti-racist movements in Europe also long invoked an individualized and ahistorical understanding of racism: that racism emanated from individuals, i.e. "racists," while the state was neutral. In Anglo-Saxon and French discourse, there is the term anti-racialism for this; a term that is still far too little used in the German-language debate.

This understanding of racism is being challenged by the Black Lives Matter protests in Europe. Within the movement, People of Color show solidarity with Black people in order to make visible the structurally anchored racism in Switzerland. This solidarity stems from the commonly experienced marginalization of non-white voices in debates around racism and belonging.

About the authors

Jovita dos Santos Pinto is a PhD student at the Interdisciplinary Center for Gender Studies at the University of Bern. Stefanie Boulila is a member of the Young Academy of Switzerland and author of Race in Post-racial Europe: An Intersectional Analysis, 2019, Rowman & Littlefield International.

The debate on Black Lives Matter in Switzerland shows how problematic this ahistorical and individualized anti-racialism is. The protests coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Schwarzenbach Initiative. Thus, against this background, a distinction is made between racism in the U.S., which is characterized by the opposition between black and white, and racism in Switzerland, which shows itself primarily along the question of citizenship.

This simplification and juxtaposition of the two contexts denies Switzerland's rootedness in European colonial history and the structural entrenchment of anti-black racism that goes along with it.

The role of European colonialism has been repeatedly underestimated and sidelined for current debates and discourses. In Switzerland, this is evidenced by the fact that a reappraisal of colonial history is not considered necessary because Switzerland was supposedly not involved in European colonialism. However, research shows that colonial racist discourses are strongly reflected in cultural as well as political debates.

For example, the SVP campaigns on the minaret initiative or the deportation initiative ("Schäfchenplakate") have repeatedly served the image of the non-assimilable, non-European, barbaric other. As political scientist Noémi Michel argues, the "Schäfchen" campaign iconographically used black as a threat to white.

Such images are part of historical patterns that have helped shape Swiss self-image since the 19th century. They are thus part of an unambiguous and unquestioned archive that can be pulled out again and again in contemporary debates to dehumanize, demonize, and declare Black people and People of Color as not belonging in Switzerland.

About the spelling

"Black" is capitalized in this article to indicate that it does not mean the designation of a supposed skin color, but a political self-designation.


Beginning in the 18th century at the latest, Swiss individuals, families, and companies were involved in various ways in the subjugation, enslavement, and exploitation of Black people. The profits derived from these activities flowed into Swiss banks, investments, and infrastructure.

But dehumanization through enslavement and colonial violence was also reflected socially, culturally, and in knowledge.

Literary scholar Hortense Spillers writes of an inscription of blackness into the flesh. To be black meant to be objectified, to be considered property exploitable and quantifiable, and thereby tradable across the Atlantic.

This idea was supported by a system of knowledge that placed whiteness at the center and reverted to blackness as a negative foil. Blackness not only described character or physical traits of disenfranchised people in philosophy, history, and biology, but symbolized evil and negativity par excellence. In this sense, blackness performed a core function for the construction of Europe: it was the constitutively other. This knowledge was popularized in adventure novels, advertisements, missionary booklets, postcards, and in Switzerland until the middle of the 20th century, not least in ethnographic shows.

Dehumanization was also evident in one of the few documented cases of enslaved people in Switzerland. This was the legal case concerning the possible naturalization of Samuel Buisson in Yverdon around 1800. Buisson was the son of Pauline Buisson, who had been enslaved and abducted from Haiti. Buisson was dehumanized by being equated with "other goods" and never registered. She was demonized as an "excited n-" and "inflammable matter" whose sheer presence posed a "danger" "to Europe."


Anti-Black discourse did not disappear with the 20th century discourse of Überfremdung. In James Schwarzenbach's party paper, for example, blacks were very much distinguished from other people. "An N- remains an N- - even after generations," it said, "Africans and Chinese would have to remain foreign bodies forever (see USA!). Who comes to us? Are they carriers of a good or bad heritage?"

Here the colonial logic is taken up, according to which Black people and People of Color were not assimilable, in this way non-European Black people and People of Color are distinguished in history from, for example, Southern European migrants. Further, southern Europe, with Italy, Spain, or Portugal, saw itself as part of the European colonial powers and shared with them racist discourses that distinguished between the white population of Europe and the colonized. Thus, southern European migrants found themselves in the paradoxical position of not being white enough for Switzerland, but certainly belonging to the colonizers in other regions of Europe and the colonies.

Such situational belonging remained, and remains to this day, categorically excluded for Blacks and other People of Color. As cultural scholar Fatima El-Tayeb has pointed out, "non-white" is considered "non-European" and consequently inferior. The social movements of the 1970s that advocated for a more equitable treatment of southern European migrant women are thus not to be equated with the American civil rights movement, the backgrounds of both movements differing massively.
Security Policies

The foundations of Swiss racism go back much further than the Schwarzenbach Initiative in 1970. Racism is not merely a question of citizenship. Those who restrict racism only to the question of passports adopt in essence the individualized and ahistorical anti-racist view: For this perspective fails to recognize the multiple forms of racism emanating from the state.

For example, the question of citizenship overlooks the everyday experiences that Black Swiss women and men of color have in dealing with security and protection agencies, the health care system, or the education system. Moreover, this anti-racialism makes it impossible to take a critical stance toward the European border regime that makes non-white people an alleged danger to Europe.

Focusing on the question of citizenship instead of colonial racist knowledge has devastating consequences for those affected. Authorities have been able to pursue various racist practices with impunity, such as a study on racial profiling in Switzerland revealed. Among other things, those affected reported racist abuse by officials, illegitimate vehicle checks, unlawful body searches, and the constant threat of being pulled out of groups of people and controlled.

The Black Lives Matter movement makes visible the experiences of Black people in Switzerland and thus criticizes structurally anchored racism. The movement breaks with the previous view of citizenship and demands a reflective approach to one's own colonial history. In this context, the Swiss authorities are at the center of criticism, as is Swiss popular and consumer culture, as illustrated by the debates about racist product names, media coverage or carnival cliques.
Black Lives Matter shows that there is hardly any area of Swiss culture that is not marked by colonial stereotypes.

The movement thus breaks with colonial amnesia and the idea that racism emanates from single individuals. Black Lives Matter demonstrates an anti-racism that aims to change Swiss society so that Black people and People of Color are no longer exoticized, dehumanized, and criminalized.

[DeepL Translator]