Black and Swiss women: "a remarkable identity”

Rachel M'Bon, co-director of the documentary Je Suis Noires, tells how black Swiss women fought to build their identity in a country that did not look like them. (Credit: Je Suis Noires/FIFDH)

The programme of the 20th International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights taking place between 4-13 March in Geneva reflects an era of profound upheaval: the pandemic, of course, but also other issues such as racism from another age.

The death of George Floyd triggered a wave of testimonies around the world. In Switzerland too, voices are being raised against “a systemic, institutional and ordinary racism” that is rooted in everyday mentalities. For Rachel M'Bon, co-director with Juliana Fanjul of the film Je Suis Noires (I am Black), broadcast as part of the theme, Black and Swiss: putting an end to systemic racism, it is time to find solutions so that being a black woman and Swiss is a normality. 

Built on a game of mirrors in which they still find it difficult to see their own reflection, six women, including the director herself, who is half Congolese, testify to the difficulty of assuming their "African" part in a country that has an idyllic image where discrimination is not considered a problem. Rachel M'Bon admits that she spent her childhood denying her blackness and avoiding being associated with her Congolese father.

"I avoided my father in front of my school friends so as not to be associated with this black man... I spent hours looking at my mother in search of my white part, validating the fact that I was not totally black... I built myself on a denial."

It is difficult to escape the mental prison of miscegenation when your mother is called a "whore" for marrying a "savage" or "primitive" man, admits Rachel M’Bon.

Constant racism. Based on the fact that there is a lack of data on black women in Switzerland, Rachel M'Bon investigates to lift the veil on the feelings of so many women of colour who are made invisible by the discourse and yet are so present in the streets of Swiss cities and villages. The testimony of these women of Senegalese, Ivorian, Cameroonian, Ghanaian, Beninese or Haitian descent, is poignant: ignored, perceived as foreigners, considered as suspicious, victims of repeated checks, arrested, when not outright insulted, regardless of their social background. Khalissa Akadi, student, Beninese father, Italian mother, says:

“At school I was told 500 times that I was the colour of poo... I pretended to laugh... I was told many times that I was ugly, that my hair looked like a witch's... It was very hurtful at a time in my life when I was building myself up and it created huge complexes about my appearance. I am the only person in my family nobody kisses. Symbolically it's violent. At all family parties, I can clearly see the people who are not going to greet me.”

Or this testimony from Brigitte Lembwadio Kanyama, president of the association Mélanine Suisse:

‘“Are you adopted? You are so excellent that I asked myself the question,’ a university professor told me when I was sitting an exam. Does that mean that to be excellent, you must have white parents?”

Tallulah Bär, a bank executive with an Egyptian father and a Ghanaian mother, has long worn her skin colour like a cross. “I often prayed to wake up white so that I would be like the other children so that I would not be laughed at.”

UN mission on racism in Switzerland. After visiting Bern, Zurich, Lausanne and Geneva in January, United Nations human rights experts found that people from African descent experience real discrimination in various aspects of their lives.

“Racial profiling and police controls of black people humiliate, criminalise and stigmatise,” Dominique Day, head of the UN working group of experts on people of African descent, said in a statement. “According to information received, police operations include brutal arrests, racial profiling, humiliating and degrading treatment, and reinforce negative racial stereotypes in the public realm. These are a violation of human rights.”

Despite positive initiatives such as an emerging public discourse around anti-black racism, conversation between the state and civil society on the presence of racist and colonial symbols in public space, and the strong engagement of civil society in the fight against racial profiling and police brutality, the working group noted with concern the prevalence of “systemic racism” in Switzerland. They will present their findings and recommendations to the Human Rights Council in September.

The notion of systemic, state or institutional racism which appeared in the 2000s, refers to the idea that alongside individual racism, institutions are also imbued with stereotypes and prejudices stemming from slavery, decolonisation and a racialisation of the world. 

“These patterns often produce a very discrete racism, not always explicit and which can sometimes escape those who are the actors of it.... It manifests itself not through antiracist insults, but through a whole series of micro-aggressions, small discriminations, small discrepancies that eventually form a shared experience of discrimination," journalist Anne Chemin recently explained in L'heure du monde.

Despite a reform of the criminal code against racism in 1995 and the adoption of article 261 bis stating that it is illegal to belittle a person because of their skin colour, attitudes seem to have changed little or not at all, according to Rachel M'Bon. In the last five years, 780 people have been victims of racial discrimination in Switzerland and only 62 cases have been the subject of a criminal complaint.

Stop perpetuating clichés. Why, in a country that is a symbol of peace and prosperity, are clichés about black people still so prevalent? The documentary looks at the possible sources of a collective perception based on stereotypes with the historian Patrick Minder. Here are some of those explanations:

-Although Switzerland did not have colonies, the presence of images produced by the Swiss for the Swiss corresponds to those disseminated in the Western colonial powers. The images constructed around Africans in Switzerland originated from advertising materials, consumer products, or posters that conveyed racist stereotypes such as the half-naked African who carries out favours or inspires little confidence.

- The perception of women was very problematic in a very hierarchical society with divisions between races. At the top of the pyramid was the western race, followed by Arabs and Asians and at the bottom, Africans.

-It had also to do with a division within the society itself where the man is dominant and the woman, subject to the man, does not have all the rights.  "So the African woman is at the bottom of the categories of this type of representation," explains Patrick Minder.

Black women's issues are still poorly represented by political parties and defense associations. For those concerned, there is a need for collective awareness to accelerate changes in mentality, much like for the climate, where individual actions will not suffice. Even more so than associations or institutions, collectives allow them to find one's place at all levels – on racism, sexism and class issues.

It took Rachel 20 years to realise that she was doing it wrong by trying to fit in with the perfect Swiss family and hiding under wigs. With this film, she wants to shatter a myth that has been perpetuated for three generations, which consists of trying to assimilate only to be accepted neither in Switzerland nor in Africa. No longer white in Africa and black in Switzerland. 

"The challenge for the new generation is enormous. The enemy that the young people want to fight in this country without a colony is supposed not to exist. I want to believe that their struggle will be able to free themselves from the Swiss modesty that seeks to round off the angles and perpetuate the myth of the ideal Switzerland.”

Je Suis Noires will be screening on 8 March at 8 pm, in the Grande Salle of the Espace Pitoëff followed by a debate with Rachel M'Bon, Brigitte Lembwadio Kanyama, lawyer and vice-president of the Cantonal Commission for Integration and Multicultural Cohesion, and Rebecca Steven Alder, blogger and anti-racist activist.