Published simultaneously in French and German1, “Un/doing Race. Racialisation en Suisse / Rassifizierung in der Schweiz” features thirteen studies on the meanings of race, racialization, and racism in Switzerland by specialists from a variety of disciplines: Social anthropology, law, history, philosophy, political science, and sociology. Aimed at a scholarly and student audience, the book adopts a global comparative perspective and analyzes the evolution of racism and racialization in Switzerland, paying particular attention to their links with the colonial heritage and to recent anti-racist activism, particularly by black and racialized people. After a substantial introduction by the editorial team, it is divided into four parts: Racisms without race; Intersectional and transversal constellations; Knowledge, politics, and racialization; and Antiracist horizons.
The death of Nigerian Mike Ben Peter in Lausanne in 2018, during a violent intervention by the police of the canton of Vaud, opens the introduction with a tragic and symptomatic example of the official denial of racism and of racial profiling in Switzerland—confirmed in June 2023 by the acquittal of the six police officers accused of “negligent homicide.” At the end of 2022, the Swiss Forum for Migration and Population Studies (SFM) at the University of Neuchâtel published an unequivocal report on structural racism in Switzerland, noting “clear indications of institutional and structural discrimination” against “black men in particular, but also people perceived as Asian, Muslim, Roma, Sinti or Yenish” in the fields of “work, housing, administrative procedures and naturalization, politics and, to a lesser extent, social protection, police and justice.”2 The publication of “Un/doing Race” is thus timely.
In Part One, Jovita dos Santos Pinto, Claudia Wilopo and Jana Häberlein, as well as Noémi Michel outline the importance of race as a structural category in Swiss society, an importance long neglected by the focus on migration and ethnicity in the study of discrimination, integration, and exclusion. While “race” has no biological basis, it is nonetheless a social construct that produces concrete effects through racialization, a process produced by racist colonial thinking to mark, categorize, and hierarchize people and bodies that continues to influence social representations and hierarchies today.
However, since the end of the World War II, racism has generally been “evacuated” from the Swiss debate, either by linking it to Nazism (i.e., to the past), by arguing that Switzerland did not own colonies (i.e., did not participate in racist colonialism), or by attributing its expression exclusively to extremist circles. At the same time, Switzerland has built itself implicitly around the concept of whiteness, a universal system of structural advantages that privileges white people at the expense of non-whites marked by racial difference. As Noémi Michel’s chapter develops, “race is shown, but not said.” This taboo, which she calls “racelessness,” forbids/permits to say, and then discusses what it forbids/permits to show, an ambiguity that makes the effective fight against racism and racial profiling particularly difficult (p. 104).
The chapters in Part Two explore recent variations in racism in Switzerland and its capacity to renew discourses of otherness. This is the case of anti-Muslim racism analyzed by Faten Khazaei, who shows how race, culture, religion, and gender are simultaneously mobilized to construct a civilizational hierarchy and an “Other” that is culturally inferior to post-Enlightenment modernity. Note here the amnesia of a process that does not hesitate to resort to the rhetoric of “gender equality,” when historically Switzerland's most salient exceptionalism in the twentieth century was its exclusion of women from national suffrage until 1971—that is, after the 1965 Voting Rights Act for blacks in the United States—and until 1990 in the canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden.
In “Blanchir la nation,” Anne Lavanchy and Patricia Purtschert also examine this gendered dimension of racialization. They show how whiteness and patriarchy serve as normative references for social and political life in Switzerland, right down to the intimate sphere of the couple and the household, particularly regarding “mixed” or “binational” marriages. Indeed, in the context of the extremely restrictive acquisition of Swiss nationality, marriage enables the non-Swiss partner to join the national community by applying for naturalization.3 However, the administrative procedure is gendered and racialized: For marriages between white, Swiss, heterosexual men and non-Swiss women, the process does not involve state intrusion into the couple’s intimacy; however, it becomes inquisitive in the case of unions between Swiss women and non-white and/or non-Western men. Indeed, despite the 1995 Federal Act on Gender Equality, the administration continues to perceive Swiss women as vulnerable and potentially dangerous, presumably because they are likely to introduce undesirable “others” into the implicitly white national community.
Christina Späti's study of anti-Semitism and colonial racism in Switzerland discusses the difficulties of treating these two forms of racism jointly as ideologies of exclusion, despite their common presence in Eurocentric racist thought from the late 19th century to 1945.
More historical questions are addressed in Part Three, which shows that the category of “race” has a long history in Swiss academia. As early as the 19th century, scientists such as Louis Agassiz and Karl Vogt deliberately contributed to the development of human racial classification and colonial racism. Tino Plümecke and Katharina Schramm demonstrate the validity of the “NaturesCultures” concept for understanding the problems of race and racialization, since the two have always linked the “biological” to the cultural. Barbara Lüthi and Damir Skenderovic examine the evolution of the logics of racism through the prism of migration and asylum in Switzerland. After 1945 and, above all, after 1990, “race” was banished from public discourse, and free movement within Europe intensified. “Culture” was then increasingly employed as a means of excluding specific groups, although racialization was in fact at work in relation to refugees from African, Asian, and Arab states.
As documented in Pascal Germann’s chapter on Swiss racial science and in Viviane Cretton’s chapter on the “Alpine race” in Valais, Swiss researchers played an active role in the Western world’s debates on race and eugenics. The study of “human races” continued in Switzerland well into the 1970s, contributing to the fact that racist conceptions, both in phenotypic and cultural terms, shaped the public debate. Admittedly, the study of race was not carried out for the purposes of Swiss nationalism—there was no specific promotion of a hypothetical “Homo Alpinus Helveticus,” no doubt because this would have been fatal to a Swiss national identity that encompassed internal linguistic and religious pluralities.
Nevertheless, Swiss scientists worked within the boundaries of European imperialism and focused on the supranational category of the “white race,” which they opposed to the darker, colonized “Other”. In particular, Eugène Pittard, from the Institute of Anthropology at the University of Geneva, invested himself in craniology, actively sorting dolichocephalic from brachiocephalic skulls. Above all, Otto Schlaginhaufen gave international fame to the University of Zurich’s Institute of Anthropology, developing anthropometric measurement techniques and instruments that were applied to thousands of Swiss recruits and exported worldwide to classify and determine racial affiliations. Eugenics also had a considerable impact in Switzerland, aiming at the “racial improvement” of the (white) population through policies such as sterilization “without consent,” marriage bans for the mentally ill, and practices of abduction and forced placement of children of single mothers or parents considered unfit, generally from poor backgrounds.
Finally, two contributions trace out avenues of resistance and self-affirmation by people and groups victimized by both racialization and invisibilization in Switzerland. Pamela Ohene-Nyako analyzes the literary practices of Afro-descendant women in the country to resist white cultural hegemony through black literature. Mélanie-Evely Pétrémont examines humor and anti-racist performance as strategies for subverting the white space, used notably by the Collectif Afro-Swiss to reveal the regime of whiteness and raceless racism exemplified by a laundry product advertisement.
The book closes with Rohit Jain’s reflections on memory and official amnesia. To issue a wake-up call, he builds on the coincidence of the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement and demonstrations with the 50th anniversary of the 1970 rejection (by a “Swiss people” then represented solely by its male citizens) of the popular initiative “National action against foreign domination of the people and the fatherland” (sic), which sought to reduce the proportion of foreigners in Switzerland from 17 percent to 10 percent. For Jain, this coincidence is an opportunity to relinquish official amnesia and to finally grasp the links between the politics of memory, racism, and social transformation. Not only by acknowledging Switzerland’s colonial complicity and the injustice represented by the “immigrant worker regime,” for example, but by developing a polyphonic, anti-racist politics of memory that include the voices of those long excluded and/or racialized.
In short, based on the specific case of Switzerland, the contributions in this book show how “race,” racism, and therefore whiteness are polymorphous and evolving concepts. Over time and in different contexts, “racism is not caused by the presence of people to whom a racialized otherness is attributed; it is a system of asymmetrical attribution and distribution of privileges and resources” (p. 36) that continuously undermines Swiss democracy. “Un/Doing Race” offers a collection of innovative and exciting articles that anyone interested in understanding contemporary Swiss society should read. As it brings essential elements to the current public debate, it will hopefully be soon completed by an abridged version aimed at a non-academic readership.
1 Page numbers in this review are cited from the French version.
2 Leonie Mugglin / Denise Efionayi-Mäder / Didier Ruedin / Gianni d’Amato, Racisme structurel en Suisse : un état des lieux de la recherche et de ses résultats (SFM Studies 81), Neuchâtel 2022, http://www.unine.ch/files/live/sites/sfm/files/listes_publicationsSFM/Etudes%20du%20SFM/SFM%20-%20Studies%2081f.pdf (28.08.2023).
3 Until 1952, Swiss women marrying foreign men automatically lost their Swiss citizenship.