George Floyd’s murder has made me cry many nights over how senseless and inhumane his killing was. Learning of the killing of Breonna Taylor and many other black people has been soul crushing to say the least. A question comes to my mind in these times, “where is home for me?”. I lived for 20 years in Switzerland and finally decided to leave 3 years ago. Canada, my new home, also has its problems with racism, police brutality and the way Indigenous people have been/are treated. This is a text I wrote 3 years ago: it depicts my experience of moving while black. I would have been scared to share this in the past for fear of further discrimination.
That time we moved
We were expecting our first daughter and realised quickly that we needed a new apartment for our family. We set out to search for an a place, hoping to move before the baby came.
But this was Geneva, finding a place is really difficult because of the high rent prices. Switzerland is a country where 60% people rent and some big groups and families own the real estate market. People use their connections to get access to available apartments especially when you don’t have to be a Swiss Banker to afford the rent.
For this new search, we registered at the pension fund for workers of the state of Geneva. This fund rented its apartments to employees of the state of Geneva at slightly lower than market rates. Neither I nor my partner worked for the state but my friend Céline had told me to try anyways. I was desperate at this point, so why not. The caseworker was very called when I called, warm even. She listened to my plight and laughed at my jokes before telling me there was no apartment available. I did not give up and called regularly.
The apartment we lived in was big enough for two but not for three. Finding the place had been an obstacle course in itself. I had tried to hire an intermediary, i.e. a well-connected person from Geneva, who would use her network and relationship with agents to find me an apartment in exchange of a fee equivalent to one month’s rent. When I met the person in Café Jules Verne in Plainpalais in Geneva one evening to discuss what I was looking for, she told me in all honesty “Mademoiselle, I am sorry to tell you this, it will be hard for you to find a place because you are black, landlords don’t want to rent to black people”. I was not in high spirits after hearing that. Ten years living in this country and the dehumanisation. I was subjected to kept showing its ugly head at various turning points. I did not hire her finally.
Through a random discussion at a bar, a guy gave me the email of a real estate agent. I contacted him and got on his mailing list. One Thursday, his email came in and I saw the right apartment for me in my budget. I contacted him and arranged for mom to visit the apartment as I was working. They met at the place and it all worked out.
Three years later, we have to move again.
One morning, I called the case worker at the pension fund again and she suddenly told me there was a rental apartment available for us. I was overjoyed. We visited the apartment immediately and called to confirm we liked it. It was a two-bedroom apartment right in the centre of Geneva, in Plainpalais. We were so grateful to Mrs. R. The move-in date was less than 2 weeks from my due date.
At this point, I was very tired, anxious and was not sleeping well.
We gave our notice and arranged for the lawyer managing our building to come and check the state of our apartment. On the agreed day at 2 p.m. I was home alone waiting for the inspection when the doorbell rang. I got off the couch slowly, swaying my belly in my comfortable Kaba dress from Cameroon. At the door was this old blond woman with blue eyes, well dressed flanked by two people. I opened the door, smiled, greeted her in my politest voice – the one I had polished over the years when I needed to prove I was a well integrated member of the Swiss society, which was often- and introduced myself. I had heard from my neighbors that she was not a particularly nice person, she had taken away parking spots from elderly couples who had been living in the building for 30 and sometimes 40 years. She was putting pressure on some elderly tenants because she wanted to increase their rent manifold and some of them had really suffered from the situation. This was my first encounter with her.
“You are not Miriam ! I did not know a black woman had been living here for the past 3 years!”, Mrs. G. said. She told me she was the lawyer who managed the building on the account of the owner and she had come with two technicians to see if any repairs were needed before the next rental.
I was shocked by the violence of her introduction. Usually I wore a mask in public making myself ready to stared at, observed. But here was I, unguarded, in the security of my “home”…
I invited them in. She looked around surprised and said “The apartment is even in a good state and the walls are still white”.
She turned to me and said: “Mademoiselle, if I had known that you were black I would never have rented this apartment to you. You were smart, you played me and sent a blonde Latin American friend of yours to visit the apartment.”
I protested keeping my mounting anger at bay: “Madame, I did no such thing. My mom visited the apartment because I was working and she met Nuno the agent.”
I showed her my mother’s photo on my phone…
“No, this is not the person you sent.”, she continued “The person was Miriam , she had studied at the London School of Economics, worked in a Swiss private bank and was Swiss”. Her profile was perfect for an apartment in the best part of town (les beaux quartiers).”
I was so angry, frustrated but kept calm. I was scared of the difficulties she could create for us in a real estate market where the market actors all knew each other.
“Madame, the person you just described is me and not a Latin American woman.”, I said.
“If I had known you were black, I would never have rented you this apartment.”, she repeated.
“The copy of my ID was in black and white, I suppose when you saw the name, degrees and employer you did not notice I am black.”
She changed gears, “It must be hard for you black people to find somewhere to rent, right?” I told her we were moving to a bigger apartment so I guessed it was possible to find. She looked around and told the technicians, “Paint everything white! I want the walls white, white, white!” and then she turned to me with a cynical smile and says: “I am insisting with the white eh?” (J’insiste avec le blanc hein?)
Towards the end of the inspection, she turned to me again, with the two technicians standing next to her. “It must be hard for you, eh? Do you know why we don’t rent to Africans? Because they end up 15 in a small apartment and destroy it.”, she added. “She has started populating the apartment already”, confirmed one of the two accompanying technicians while pointing to my belly. The three of them burst out laughing. I was beyond angry and hurt at this point. I just kept looking at them. She went on and on about the beautiful, tall, blonde Latin American woman I had sent to visit the apartment and trick her.
I just could not believe this was happening to me in my home, near the term of my high risk pregnancy. When they left, I could not believe this had actually happened.
Fast forward again, 4 years later.
We were about to move again, we were leaving Switzerland. One evening around 6 p.m., I was sorting my paperwork when I found an old letter from Mrs G. the lawyer. I did not think twice. I grabbed my phone and called her number. I was nervous hearing the phone ring and ring again. Then, she picked up. I greeted her and introduced myself and she remembered me instantly. She explained that she did not have the contract to manage that building anymore and she had moved on to other activities. She had a confiding and friendly tone. I let her speak. And then I told her I was calling her regarding that visit she paid me four years ago when I was pregnant. I told her she is racist and that she could not accept that she had not noticed I was black when she gave me the apartment, because I met the criteria of what this society considers of value (going to this school and working at that bank, etc). I told her it was so hard for her to accept that I was black that she had to invent a blonde Latin American woman. I told her that black people – just like any other group in society- are a heterogeneous group and not just drug dealers and prostitutes as the TV seemed to paint us. “How could you be a lawyer and so racist?”, I enquired. At this point she was calling me a liar, that I sent my friend… and I just hung up on her.
I do not know if it was of any use but I did not like the fact that I did not do something when it happened.
“How could you leave the most beautiful and richest country in the world?”, I get asked often. “Well, when you are a black person in Switzerland let us just say life is not so easy for you.”, I often reply. The discourse in Switzerland is that racism does not exist there, it is certainly not viewed as an institutional issue, all experiences with racism are viewed as individual, anecdotal. But over the course of 20 years, from Yverdon-les-Bains to Lugano, from Bern to Gstaad, from Geneva to Neuchâtel, I encountered racism and anti-immigrant prejudice, again and again. How many times was I propositioned for sex while eating at a McDonald one afternoon as a teenager, while doing my groceries during the day, while walking to my sister’s graduation, while commuting from Yverdon to Geneva for university and even while pregnant? And many other things I cannot go into in one blog post. Switzerland gave me so many opportunities to study but it did not give me space to live as a human being. I realised I would never have the one thing that I wanted the most, freedom to be me without prescription.
I really hope that racism against black people will stop and my daughters like all the little black girls and boys in the world will grow up in a world in which they are themselves.