Following the election, my Facebook feed lit up with threats of a #blaxit, which excited the hell out of me since I had #blaxited a few years prior. In 2013, I moved from New York City (Where Brooklyn At?) to Geneva, Switzerland, after my wife secured a position at an international organization. Four years later, we’ve settled into an idyllic life blocks away from Lake Geneva. I’ve learned some French (Bah, oui!), returned to practicing law, and our family now includes a cat and a daughter.
For many, #blaxit talk has died down. Either the frustration of the moment has passed or the reality of the emigration process set in. Still, I’m out here.
Recently, at a friend’s wedding, I was introduced to a room full of bougie Black folks as being from Switzerland. It felt weird. Half the room looked surprised and the other half looked at the white guy standing next to me.
Several people approached me throughout the night, curious about what life in Switzerland was like. This general question was usually followed by more specific questions, such as: How is it for Black Americans? Is there racism? How have you managed being away this long? Below are some reflections on these questions.
From Black American to American (Black)
I’ve always identified as Black (or African-American when I could spare the extra syllables); referring to myself as an American seemed unnecessary when 98.9% of the people around me were American too.
My American identity, like my passport, was only reserved for trips abroad. It was reinforced when locals referred to me as gringo (Brazil 2005), Americano (Italy 2007), or Obama (Egypt 2009).
In a sense, life abroad is like being on permanent vacation. My longstanding order, Black first, American occasionally, has been reversed. Now I’m primarily American.
Being Black is secondary, supplementary. If you’ve grown up indoctrinated in The StruggleTM, this feels strange, but also liberating. The historical baggage of America’s racial history is gone and so is the burden of anticipating and managing other peoples’ reactions to your Blackness.
Here I am just a lawyer, not a Black lawyer, which allows me to focus on doing my job (reviewing poorly written documents drafted by people for whom English is a fifth language) and nothing else. Finally, I get the full benefit of my years of experience and this expensive-ass law degree.
Is there racism? Yes, but less than advertised.
Americans, both Black and white, would lead you to believe that racism abroad is exactly the same as it is in the U.S. I’ve had Black American friends inform me that “America is the safest place for Black Americans in the world.” After two straight years of watching police shoot unarmed Black men and get away with it? How, Sway!?!?
I’ve also had a white American casually inform me that the Swiss can be racist as hell (and moments later had that same person say some borderline racist shit to a group of Black and brown people). Hello Mr. Pot, I see that you’ve met Mr. Kettle.
Has my experience gone as predicted? In the words of Andre 3000, “Naw, not really.” I’ve found life in Geneva, much less racist than expected. The awkward tensions, subtle slights, micro-aggressions, and thinly-veiled resentments common in the U.S. have been largely absent in here in Geneva.
Is this because I’m now American? Probably. But history matters as well. Europe is behind the U.S. in dealing with the large-scale integration of people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. They also don’t have a history of owning people and then fighting a war over the right to own said people and then marginalizing those people and then . . . you get the point.
Now that doesn’t mean that racism and discrimination are absent here. To the contrary, I hear that people of color and even immigrants from other European countries (France, Spain, Portugal, and the former Balkan states) suffer from discrimination. The Swiss are equal opportunity haters.
Geneva is probably the least Swiss of any city in Switzerland, boasting a seriously diverse population comprised of 40% expats. This contributes to a melting pot feel similar to NYC, except even more meltier. The Genevois, to their credit, have acknowledged racism and discrimination as a problem. The canton (state) even sponsors an annual “Week Against Racism” to highlight the value of diversity, raise awareness and combat discrimination.
To have people openly acknowledge that there is a problem, and then seek to address it rather than live in denial, is refreshing. The fact that they will try and resolve racism and discrimination in one week, is uniquely Swiss, ever timely and efficient.
In short, Geneva may not be less racist in an absolute sense, but it definitely feels less racist towards me.
How can you stay away? Cuz I Always Remember to ‘Stay Black’
This last question is asked out of deep concern that I’m not getting the recommended daily dose of B(lack) vitamins. I assure folks that I’m fine, that I see Black people every day, and that I found a Black barbershop within a week of moving here.
I don’t feel isolated at all. First, I’m used to being the only Black American in my house (my wife is Indo-Canadian). Second, Black American culture is all around me. Euros love them some Jazz, House, Techno, R&B, Hip-Hop, Whatever-we-come-up-with-next. Hidden Figures and Moonlight are both in theaters, and I can stream Black TV shows whenever I want.
(Side Note: For all of the Black American culture, Black Americans are strikingly absent. We get hella love and respect, but we’re not in these global streets to reap the benefits. We are leaving some serious opportunities AND money on the table.)
The opportunity to move to Geneva came at the right time for me. Would I have made this move in my 20’s? Hell naw. I was too busy looking for my future baby mama. My attendance record at Da Club was perfect.
As a settled man in my 30’s, different story. After 15 years in NYC (where Brooklyn at?), I was ready for a new challenge. I felt grounded enough in my identity to seek out new experiences and not worry about losing myself. In a sense, I had achieved my own personal Peak-Blackness.
* * *
Four years later and with no end in sight, I’m immensely thankful to have this opportunity. The experience has challenged and transformed me in ways I find difficult to describe. Each day feels like I woke up and found $100 in my couch cushions. Is this a newfound sense of freedom, of liberation, of being left the fuck alone (in a good way)? Whatever “it” is, I want more of it, I want to share it with folks back home, and I want my daughter to grow up with it – like forever.