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Opinions - 30.07.2020 - 00:00

Black Lives Matter – On the actuality of a movement

The violent death of George Floyd in the USA brought international attention to the Black Lives Matter movement and put the issues of discrimination and racism on the political and societal agenda – also in Switzerland. An opinion piece by Christa Binswanger, Jelena Tosic and Sandra King-Savic.

30 July 2020. Sabine Gisiger reviews the peculiar and quite contradictory history that continues to shape the Swiss experience with migration in her documentary Welcome in Switzerland (2017). Gisiger uses archival material from the 1970s, including an interview with James Schwarzenbach: According Schwarzenbach, there is “no racial difference between an Italian, a French and a Swiss person. This is why it is impossible to talk of racism. One would have to talk about Negroes or Arabs (...) but these people are Europeans”. The perfidious nature of racism is illustrated by the very reasoning Schwarzenbach gives in his attempt to deny his racist attitude. Denying racism is often tacitly based on the assumption of the "cultural" or even "natural" superiority of one’s own culture, and thus corresponds with a classification of people. This is a very clear expression of racism.

And yet, looking back at historical aspects of attitudes to do with migration in Switzerland also sheds a positive light on the present. The BlackLivesMatter demonstrations across Switzerland – so too in St.Gallen – represent an important milestone in the tireless resistance to racism and discrimination. Activists, critical citizens, students, politicians, and many others have long demanded that racism be called-out and confronted as such. We hope to contribute to the social responsibility of speaking out against racial and ethnic discrimination in this opinion piece, also because we, as lecturers and academics, feel a special obligation to so. The problematic trope by which "racism does exist in Switzerland" not only contributes to discrimination or even to racial profiling, but also trivializes the problem at hand.

Protests in the USA

First, we look to the U.S. and the events there, which caused thousands of people to take to the streets in protest of police violence. George Floyd was suffocated by Derek Chauvin on May 25th 2020, a gruesome act that was filmed by witnesses and broadcasted directly to our screens. The cruel death of George Floyd triggered a massive, national and global social movement to protest against the disturbing police-brutality and systemic racisms in the U.S. Perhaps E. Tendayi Achiume, said it best when she argued the U.S. legal system had not only failed to acknowledge racism, but also to confront the injustice and discrimination resulting from the systemic bias toward persons of color. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castille, Breonna Taylor; The human loss due to police violence in the U.S. is painfully long. As a result, 16 US cities have pledged to defund and/or reform the police forces.

Michelle Alexander, law professor at UCLA, analyzes systemic racism in the U.S in The New Jim Crow – Mass Incarceration and Racism in the U.S. from a historic perspektive. In reexamining American historiography in view of the systemic racial discrimination, Alexander sought to foster an international dialogue so as to discuss what it takes to create an egalitarian, multi-racial- and ethnic society. Alexander, however, tasks her readers to look beyond the U.S. to find solutions about how to create a truly democratic society. In heeding her call to look beyond the U.S. we might understand her plea as an open invitation to examine and re-examine our own history of ethnic and racial discrimination in Switzerland.

Xenophobia most prevalent discrimination in Switzerland

Switzerland is one of the most significant countries of immigration in the world. The proportion of the population born abroad is higher when compared to traditional immigration countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the USA. And yet, there is still a culture of denialism by which migration is not perceived as a rule, but as an exception. Xenophobia is, perhaps as a result, the most often cited form of discrimination in Switzerland. In the latest human rights monitoring report, which appeared in March 2020, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) identified 179 hate crimes. These incidents were identified by the police. Far greater is the number gathered by the Network of Counselling Centers for Victims of Racism. The network noted a total of 301 xenophobic, anti-black, Muslims, Arab, and anti-Roma and Sinti incidents.

Immigrants and their descendants shape Switzerland substantially. Nearly a third of the entire Swiss population is foreign born and/or considered foreign. Individuals with a so-called Migrationshintergrund (migratory background) include people of the first and second, and at times even the third generation. For historic reasons, the “othering” of people in Switzerland is primarily tide to reasons of migration and flight. Classificatory aspects of “othering” may accumulate in one person at once, for instance, when racialized and ethnified migrants face trafficking and/or work under particularly precarious working conditions. This multi-layered accumulation of “othering” a person is called “intersectionality”. In our research, we understand social participation in terms of belonging: Belonging, as seen in the Swiss case, is not exclusively tide to legal representation, but entails upward social mobility on an equal footing with one’s Swiss-born colleagues and/or peers born in Switzerland to ‘foreign’ parents. Yet, people who bear an unfamiliar or ‘hard-to-pronounce’ name and/or ‘look different’ face hurdles when looking for a flat, a job and/or face discrimination based on racial and ethnic biases. This fact is the more disturbing when one takes into account that migrants built much of the infrastructure we use on a daily basis.

Different research perspectives on discrimination

Our research at SHSS contributes to a deeper understanding of discrimination from different perspectives. The SNSF-funded project by Jelena Tosic and Andreas Streinzer deals with "Un / Deservingness" a currently prominent form of moralization and culturalization of inequality. Everyday and political debates about who would "earned" what and why in a society (e.g. citizenship, social support, etc.) often imply racist classifications and stereotypes - especially when it comes to people with a migration background. In her Sandra King-Savic's habilitation project "Reframing 'Integration': Building a new Paradigm of 'Integration' based on the Perspective of those who Experienced Migration. A Case Study of Labor Migrants and Refugees from the former SFRY in Switzerland” explores 'deservingness' with regard to belonging and the meaning / meaning-making of 'integration' from the perspective of migrant workers and refugees. Christa Binswanger and Andrea Zimmermann are publishing a volume on the “SDG 5 - Sustainable Development Goal 5: Gender Equality ”, where an intersectional focus poses the question of gender equality and discrimination on a global scale.

It is our aim to come together so as to speak out and take a stand against racism in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

PD Dr. Christa Binswanger is Permanent Lecturer in Gender and Diversity at the University of St.Gallen. Jelena Tosic is Assistant Professor for Transcultural Studies, Dr. Sandra King-Savic is International Postdoctoral Fellow (IPF) at the University of St.Gallen.

Image: Adobe Stock / Lance

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