For the two of you who haven’t heard, Oprah was asked yesterday about her experience with the N-word. “Racism doesn’t show up the same way for me,” she said, since she obviously travels in rarefied circles.
Still, it sometimes shows up. It can be discomfiture in a boardroom where she is the only woman or only non-white person. Or it can be more direct.
Recently a store clerk at a schmantzy boutique in Zurich, where she was for Tina Turner’s wedding, refused three times to show her a triple-expensive Tom Ford handbag, “because you wouldn’t be able to afford it.”
“I wasn’t wearing my eye false-eyelashes,” she said, “but was alone dressed in full-on Oprah Winfrey attire.” The store clerk at the snooty boutique Trois Pommes kept showing her less expensive handbags.
Since the news broke yesterday, apologies have been gushing like chocolate bars out of Switzerland. “The store clerk was a native Italian speaker”, was one excuse. Even the tourism board for Switzerland apologized.
As someone who lived for several years in the Swiss village next to Tina Turner’s, Oprah’s experience surprises me not one little bit.
Judgment is a part of the place. And it’s not just skin color. It’s everything.
Once I was shopping on Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich’s answer to the Champs-Elysee, and looking at watches. I’m white, by the way, and my husband was running one of the most important companies in Switzerland. But I was treated as lesser—“I don’t know where you’re from”—said the clerk, because I wasn’t dressed to the nines, maybe only to the sevens…. My brother and I were dumbfounded, and I wouldn’t have wanted a watch from there anyway.
I had a friend from the Philippines, and at one point, a boutique refused to let her try on clothes, because they said she might get them dirty! When they later learned that her husband owns the fanciest hotel in town they changed their tune.
Switzerland is a nice country, with lovely people, but it is rigid and old-fashioned. Only in 1973 did women get the vote in the Canton of Appenzell, and that because of government pressure.
It’s not just skin color. Whether that’s a good thing or not, there can be suspicion of anyone and anything that’s not Swiss. If you’re overweight. If you’re female. If your skin is a different color. If you’re from another country. If you don’t serve in the Swiss army. If you don’t speak Swiss German. Not everywhere, and not by everyone, but the sentiment is very present in the Alpine air.
When that former husband of mine was introduced at a big Swiss press conference, he was asked: “What kind of a last name is that?”
The answer they were afraid of was, “Jewish.”