Life as a brown, female immigrant in the Swiss Alps

Swiss mountains in the Bernese alps and a mountain lake

German version here

“I am here, I am loud, because you refuse to see me” (A twist on a Swiss climate strike slogan).

It is ironic that as a well-educated upper middle class immigrant woman, whose work focuses on social and environmental justice, I’ve felt the oppression lived on a daily basis by Dalits & Muslims in India, Blacks and Latinos in the US, & economic migrants and refugees in Europe only after being reduced to my skin colour and heritage by the Swiss leftists. Other aspects of my being become invisible, including my education, skills, professional and personal experiences. Rather I am reduced to a few categories found on a census form:

Female — ✓

Brown/Black skin colour — ✓

Birth Place, global South — ✓

Placing so much emphasis on characteristics that I have zero influence over, further emphasizes my position on the edge of society and makes it clear how steep the mountain is to be seen as an integral part of this society with the right to speak, to write or to work on whatever I want because it is of interest to me.

I quickly learned, if I am willing to be tokenised by speaking about a topic from the perspective of a Person of Colour (PoC) to ensure that a panel is more diverse, I am welcomed. But what does it mean to speak as a PoC and how can I represent all of the people in the country that fall into this category?

We do not expect Herr Scheidegger to speak about a topic from the perspective of his race or gender, but rather as an expert. Why should it be any different for the rest of us? In 2020 why can I not speak about climate justice because I am an expert, while also being an immigrant, brown and female?

The concept of the white European as the expert is so ingrained, that even an organisation that is committed to improving representation of second generation Swiss and immigrants in Swiss society, primarily invited Swiss academics without any immigrant background as experts to an internal retreat.

Of course this does not negate that there are instances in which a perspective based on race, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability, etc. is essential — yet the person is bringing in A perspective and not THE perspective.

If others are under-represented, then there must be programmes fostering them from the beginning because it is the responsibility of society to create favourable conditions which enable the participation of everyone. This cannot rest on the shoulders of minorities, because all of us are impacted/affected by the situation.

The reason for this is not because a rainbow society is nice to have, but as we know from nature, ecosystems with high levels of biodiversity are more resilient and robust. This is no different for human societies. We are stronger when we can view reality from multiple perspectives; our knowledge base is broader allowing for more innovative solutions to complex problems.

Unfortunately diversity does not seem to be valued in large swaths of Swiss civil society. Take a look at who works in NGOs (even on themes related to migration!), who gets elected and is active in political parties. Who are the journalists, the moderators and the experts in Swiss society? An environmental group asked me to join solely based on my skin colour to counteract critique they had received of not being diverse.

When I ask Swiss people why groups are quite homogeneous and what we could do to recruit members with a different background, there is little willingness to reflect. Instead, I hear that the group is open and everyone is welcome or that others don’t have time for political work or they’re simply not interested.

When I suggested that we should consider what unconscious barriers we may have erected that prevent people from certain backgrounds from participating, specifically ask people with other backgrounds to join in and ask them what we can change about the culture to encourage their participation, I was met with blank faces and confusion.

When it also comes to getting more diverse speakers on a podium, there is also often resistance. I was especially shocked when someone said that it is difficult to find people with an immigrant background or someone that comes from a working class background who is an expert. Another person said that a white German professor, who is in contact with people from the global South could represent their point of view well, i.e. it is not necessary to invite them. The prejudice of many Swiss activists has been revealed — “educated” seems to mean “holding a university degree” and coming from a bourgeois family. I fulfill those categories, but I am not good enough because I am not of European descent.

In the world of NGOs, left think tanks and local groups, nepotism and friends-only circles are part of the explanation as to why diversity is lacking. How can I even get my foot in the door, when positions are not advertised, or if they are, the organisation knows a priori whom they will hire?

Of course it is easier to collaborate with people you already know and are friends with — most likely you have much in common — upbringing, hobbies, ways of communicating. There is thus no need for being explicit because everyone knows the unwritten rules and there is likely to be less friction.

When I’ve spoken to Swiss activists, there seems to be an acceptance of the practice, going as far as to defend the practice. I have been asked, ‘’what is wrong with working through existing networks?’’ and I have been told that my requests for transparency and clear processes were unfair and too taxing.

Networks are necessary and essential, but when there is no way for new people and ideas to flow through everyone loses, not just those blocked out. This myopic view often results in mediocrity.

In the Swiss office of an international NGO with about 80 employees, there were only two of us who hadn’t grown up in Switzerland or Germany. We both left the organisation because we felt as if we were treated differently than others.

Often I am the only person in various committees who did not grow up in a German-speaking country and often the only one who has dark skin. Although 25% of the country is made up of immigrants (16% if you don’t count those from Germany, Italy, France and Austria), they are rarely seen in public life, and the same goes for second generation Swiss.

As I did not grow up in Europe, I realize that I often do not understand how things work here. When I do dare to inquire about the structure of a group, what the communication norms are, and how decisions are made, the response is often one of confusion and incomprehension. The process of having to convince others that there is no clarity at all is a very lonely and exhausting experience

In one organisation I was adamantly told that it was clear to everyone else how the group functioned and that it was a waste of time to talk about it. In another, my questions fell on deaf ears and decisions continued to be made behind closed doors.

However, members of another committee made an effort to answer the questions honestly, but they realized that they themselves had not formalized the structure or decision-making process, and admitted that people who have been with the group longer simply take decisions into their own hands. Swiss, who hadn’t been a part of the committee for very long thanked me; they were also confused, but they didn’t dare to ask for an explanation.

I assume that some Swiss have realized that I was questioning the status quo and calling for those with more power in society to come to terms with the structures they benefit from and to exhibit a willingness to make society more egalitarian and participatory by giving space to others to redefine norms. As soon as I start questioning assumptions, the welcoming culture is over and I am marked as the difficult and ungrateful immigrant.

Informal structures and intransparent decision-making processes make it almost impossible for those coming from different social milieus to participate on an equal footing, cement informal power dynamics and make it impossible to create a culture of accountability and transparency.

Because questions of clarification regarding how a committee functions are often met with incomprehension, I have started to ask for moderated discussions when it comes to discussing conflict, lack of transparency, undemocratic procedures, sexism or racism in a team. I am not equal anyway, partly because the others have known each other for years and are friends. Unfortunately, so far, these requests have been met with resistance and rejection.

It is surprising that a request for a neutral moderator should be viewed as problematic; after all it is considered best practice to enable participation by everyone and to ensure a constructive environment. If there are few opportunities for experiences of others to be heard, acknowledged and taken seriously, how will change ever happen?

How can I dare to feel justified enough to make demands on those with more power that would lead to me being treated as an equal? What is so threatening about wanting to sit at the table and participate as my whole self?

Why is it problematic and undesirable for me to be competent and professional? Is it problematic to refute the stereotype of the stupid and lazy brown woman? A member of a committee told me that it was uncomfortable for the other members because I was too competent and demanded too much from them. In order not to damage the self-confidence of others, should I hide my abilities and act awkwardly?

If I express my grievances ‘’nicely’’, I am ignored. If I speak forcefully, such that the anger, hurt and emotions seep out, I am difficult, rude and unconstructive. And I know that what I will be said will be judged differently thanks to double standards, microaggressions and unconscious bias.

If I do manage to get a substantive response, it is usually defensive and resistant. Could it be that I am not welcome anymore because I have ceased to play the role of the thankful and subservient immigrant? Is it that my competence and eloquence make me seem arrogant and threatening?

Very often the tables get turned and the focus is on how I have hurt the feelings and been unfair to the person with more power in society, rather than the focus on the unjust structure that I was pointing out. A white reader was offended when the author Winnie Dunn responded to a question about the harm caused by good intentions with ‘’sh*t’’ and ‘’white people’’ in the same sentence during a panel on diversity at the Sydney Writers Festival in 2018. Another panelist, Hella Ibrahim, responded, “I walked out of that panel frustrated. Because yet again, a good convo was derailed, white people centred themselves, and a POC panel was told to police it’s [sic] tone to make their message palatable to a white audience.”

Rather than listening to what I say, accepting responsibility and apologising, here are a selection of excuses I have been given:

‘’It was not my intention to offend you. You misunderstood me. ‘’ (i.e. your inability to understand was the problem).

‘’I didn’t see what the person did myself and I can’t judge it.’’ (i.e. your statement/interpretation is not trustworthy).

‘’We’re all learning. Be understanding when someone makes a mistake. They certainly did not mean and/or just didn’t know it was wrong.’’(i.e. what the person did wasn’t so bad).

‘’You’re the only one that sees a problem. Everyone else is fine with the way things are.’’(i.e. your complaint is not legitimate).

‘’You are very demanding and angry. Why are you attacking me? Why are you talking so loud? Can’t you say it in a different tone?’’ (i.e. Your tone and your anger is the problem).

‘’I support you, but I can’t go too far out on a limb.’’ (i.e. I don’t want to expose myself and I don’t want to endanger relationships).

‘’Why are you so hard and unfair with me? I’m trying to help you.’’ (i.e. I’m the good guy/gal)

‘’We’re doing the best we can’’ (i.e. We can’t do more).

‘’We’re volunteers. Your expectations are too high’’ (i.e. You’re asking for too much).

‘’I need a safe space’’ (i.e. You’re threatening me).

Last year I became a naturalized citizen and I wanted to be more involved in my adopted country, but I am discouraged, bitter and angry. I’m no longer willing to be patient; of course change takes time, but when I see little will, I prefer to step back in order to protect myself.

I feel compelled to be much more careful. I am no longer willing to share my knowledge and networks so quickly and I am also no longer willing to be a part of groups and workplaces (fortunately I have enough international contacts to earn my daily bread) when I am the only migrant and PoC, unless I have already worked with individual members of the group or workplace.

Of course this essay has focused on the problems, but there are also Swiss people who are wonderful allies. I would like to thank them very much — your contributions are appreciated and noticed, but unfortunately you are still too few.

Unfortunately I have experienced little public solidarity. Even if some people understand my perspective and see discrimination, abuse of power and lack of transparency playing out, they are rarely willing to speak out in front of others. It is all very well for them to tell me in confidence, but the situation does not change.

Instead of preferring complicity through silence, I would much rather that they take a principled stance, even if they face consequences. As the inspirational US-American civil rights activist Martin Luther King wrote from jail in 1963: ‘’Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.’’

I hope that my words will encourage a few Swiss to take up the fight. We want to be seen and make a contribution — let’s improve the situation together!

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Payal Parekh

climate scientist turned activist; Swiss, Indian, American immigrant.