Oprah told a story on Entertainment Tonight that she was shopping for handbag in Switzerland. The clerk didn’t want to show a 38,000 handbag to her because she said “It’s too expensive for you.”
“This shows,” said Oprah “that racism still exists.”
Later, after the incident had reached international fame, she said she was sorry that she had named the Zurich boutique by name (Trois Pommes) and had named the city and country (Zurich Switzerland). “I was just referring it as example of being in a place where people don’t expect that you would be there.”
But this is not the first time that Oprah accused a European city of racism.
In 2005, Oprah and, Gayle King, her running buddy, went into Hermes in Paris, but found the door locked. Oprah was shopping for a gift for her friend Tina Turner . She claimed that the clerk closed the door on her because she is Black.
Just as when she was turned down in Paris, so when the incident occurred in Zurich, in Switzerland, an international scandal ensued and a no less than the Swiss Tourist bureau got involved.
The Zurich shopkeeper herself said that the charge of racism was unfounded.
Contradicting what Oprah calls racism, she went on to say, “I would never say something like that, that is this is too expensive really never! Good manners and politeness of the Alpha and Omega in this business.”
The saleswoman was like Paula Deen explaining why she was not a racist–her explanation seems to suggest she does not quite understand what Oprah is referring to.
The question has arises: are the Swiss country racist towards African Americans? Trudy Goetz, the owner of the shop, explained that it was all a misunderstanding. The defense claims that the clerk thought this Winfrey was asking for the price of the item.
However, whether this is racism or not, the question has an important and significant background. The history of racism and the Swiss cannot be told without recourse to James Baldwin, American’s most famous Black author.
In 1951, James Baldwin, sick and disillusioned, was down and out in Paris struggling to finish his first novel. Luckily, he met a Swiss young man who suggested that Baldwin go to his family’s Chalet in the Swiss Mountains to finish his novel. Baldwin took his suggestion and moved to the small mountain in the Swiss mountains. There he finished his novel Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953).
It is one of the greatest American novels ever written, probably the most mature first novel in contemporary American literature. In addition to this classic work of art, Mr. Baldwin penned an essay “Stranger in a Village” that recounts that experience. It is certainly one of the best written essays in the American canon – and it still the best discussion of racism in Switzerland and Europe.
I visited Jimmy at his home in the south of France in 1973. He often talked about his stay in that Swiss village. When he when arrived into this small village, he had the shock of his life.
For the Swiss in the village, Jimmy said, his hair was an object of peculiar fascination. “Some thought it was made of tar, others thought that it was like wire or cotton,” he reported, “Somebody suggested, with a laugh, that he should let it grow long and wear it as a winter coat. They joked that if he stayed in the sun too long it would melt.”
As he walked in the village, children, having been taught that the devil was a black man, would “scream in genuine anguish.” Older women would never pass without a friendly greeting; other women looked down or away or smirk contemptuously. Some of the men he drink with suggested that he take up skiing. They wanted to see what he would look like on skis. Some accused him behind his back of stealing their firewood. Men walking with their girls would give him a look of ”paranoiac malevolence.”
“There was no suggestion,” he wrote, “that I was human. I was simply a living wonder.”
In the old days, back in the 60s and 70s, when an African-American, in Switzerland, you were looking at a celebrity.
At one point, he called his Swiss friend, Lucian Happensberger, on the phone, and I had a chance to talk to the man who made it possible for Jimmy to finish his great work.
In 1973, when I visited Jimmy in the South of France,I rarely saw another black man. I remember strolling on the beach near Nice, when I saw one.
It turned out to be the celebrity, Bill Cosby. A few weeks later, I saw another one. This time it was Quincy Jones.
If a black person showed up in a Swiss town, then, it was as a wonder or a celebrity. In some cases, both.
In the 1980s I visited Zuoz, a small village in the Swiss Alps (near St. Moritz), with my girlfriend whose parents l lived there, and as I would walk through the village, faces would appear in the windows to gaze. When I got on skis, everybody stood around to watch (and laugh). For them, as Baldwin said, a black man on skis was a “sight,” like watching a wonder of nature. I must confess that I also enjoyed providing them with such a “sight” as I came down the mountains.
The difference between being Black in Switzerland and being black in America is divided by an “abyss,” to use Jimmy’s word for the wide gap between the two cultures. This “abyss,” he wrote, “is the American experience.”
He had been living in Paris for two years, he told me, when he felt ill. He said he “suffered a species of breakdown and was carried off [by his friend Lucien Happensberger] to the mountains of Switzerland. “There in that absolutely alabaster landscape,” he said, “ armed with two Bessie Smith records and a typewriter, I began to re-create the life that I had first known as a child and from which I had spent so many years in flight.”
Living among the whites, it suddenly occurred to him what it must have been like for the white man to see the black men for the first time.
In his vision, he described the white man– “discontented European” facing an “unconquered continent”– and his shock at seeing the first black men in the market place.
“The shock this spectacle afforded is suggested..by the promptness with which [white men] decided that these black men were not really men but cattle.”
Two important facts distinguished the American slave from other slaves in world history. First, as had happened in other cases, the American slaves did not wrest power from the masters; and, two, their identity had been ripped from them.
There was no indication that this situation of the American slave would ever change. This unique situation is the origin of the American Negro. “The history of the American Negro,” he wrote, “is unique in that the question of his humanity became a burning one that would divided the nation.”
“It is an argument that Europe has never had,” he would add, “Europeans quite sincerely fail to understand how or why the argument arose in the first place, why its effects are also frequently disastrous and always unpredictable, why it refuses until today to be entirely settled.”
In fact, the situation between the shopkeeper and Oprah replays this question.
This singular question is why the Europeans just don’t get it.
The difference is that Europeans never had to live with the black man. Their colonies were in Africa at safe remove. “The black man represented no threat whatsoever to European identity,” Mr. Baldwin maintained.
If they posed any problem at all for European consciousness, it was a problem which remained comparably abstract. In effect, the black man as a man does not exist for Europe.
But in America, even as a slave, the Black was an inescapable part of the general fabric and no one could not escape having an attitude towards him.
But the Europeans did have an option. They were allowed to accept the black man not as a human, but as an exotic rarity, as a wonder of nature.
For white America, “not to accept the American Negro was to deny his human reality, his human weight and complexity,” Jimmy wrote, “and the strain of denying the overwhelmingly undeniable forced Americans into rationalizations so fantastic that they approached the psychological.”
It was difficult for white America to abandon their beliefs that came from Europe.
These beliefs, furthermore, threatened an idea which, is the “ very warp and woof of the heritage of the West, the idea of white supremacy.”
Jimmy observed that the Swiss village was a metaphor for Europe. “The idea of white supremacy rested on the simple fact that white men are the creators of civilization and therefore civilization’s guardians and defenders.”
“Thus it was impossible for Americans to accept the black man as one of themselves; for to do so would jeopardized his status as a white man.” Yet, on the other hand, not to accept him was to deny his human reality.
But despite this long battle, the status of the black man has changed. In Jimmy’s words, “The Negro is not a visitor to the West, but is a citizen there, as an America.”
This new interracial drama that played out on the American continent has not only created a new black man is created a new white one too.
For the Swiss, the black man is an exotic rarity. It is this protective shield that guards him from seeing the Black man’s rage.
He does not see the black man’s rage: “This rage, so generally discounted so little understood even among the people whose daily bread it is , is one of the things that makes history.”
Today, Oprah feels that rage, as she explained on Entertainment Tonight show. “I could have had a big blow up,” she said, “ and throw down the black card, but why do that?”
Oprah represents a new kind of Black visitor it to Europe. In the old days, Black expatriates, like Mr. Baldwin, left America because they were poor and disenfranchised; they were willing to learn the language and culture of their host country.
Today, the Black celebrities like Puff Daddy, Jay Z and Oprah have no interest in living in Europe. They are there to flaunt their wealth, even as they pretend to be “just an ordinary” black man or woman.
Oprah wanted to be seen as just another black person not as an exotic rarity. Swiss people are not accustomed to “just another black person.”
The shop girl said she did not know who Oprah was. Oprah, for her own part, was dressed, she claimed, in jeans and a blouse, and no bling-bling.
“Oprah was without her make-up,” as comedian Paul Mooney joked about the Hermes’s shopkeeper not recognizing Oprah. “Who can tell it’s Oprah without her make-up?”.
If Oprah had presented herself as the extraordinary billionaire person, the Swiss clerk would not have discriminated against her. But since Oprah insisted on presenting herself without her make-up, the clerk assumed that she was just an ordinary black woman, what ordinary working class black tourists could afford it $38,000 purse?
In America, blacks try to escape their obscurity by becoming rich and famous.
“The Black man insists,” in Mr. Baldwin’s words, “that the white man cease to regard him as an exotic rarity and recognize him as a human being.”
Oprah was insistent on attending the wedding of Tina Turner, another exotic rarity of a black woman. The Swiss are racist not because they do not like black people, but because they are Europeans. Europeans are not innocent, but ignorant of the family quarrel that we African Americans have with our white compatriots. It is time that we let them in on the context of that makes the real American culture.
Their prejudice, finally, is not that they have such a low opinion of Black folk; but, rather, that they have an all-too high opinion of themselves. They do not seem to realize that the world is no longer white. It is time that Europeans, particularly Switzerland, join in the conversation.
The population of the village when Jimmy visited it sixty-three years ago was a mere 500 peopl; today, the population of the village is 600. Not much else has changed. The village lists three important writers who came to visit: Mark Twain, Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe – and James Baldwin.
“This world is white no longer,” Jimmy concluded his essay, “and it will never be white again.”
Now, we just have to spread the word to the Swiss – and to the rest of Europe.
Cecil Brown is the author of Dude, Where’s My Black Studies Department?. His latest book is Pryor Lives: How Richard Pryor Became Richard Pryor.