When some white people are outside their homes, they pretend to be non-racists, but once they are in their homes, it’s a whole different story.
After I finished university, I was eager to find my first job. I live in Geneva, Switzerland and I knew it wouldn’t be easy being a black woman and all. At the time, there wasn’t much internet so I sent out spontaneous job applications and responded to newspaper advertisements. I must have sent over 30 job applications every week and received just as many negative responses until one day, a company named Ringier reached out to me.
They were impressed by my qualifications, particularly my language skills, and invited me in for a job interview. A week later, they hired me to go door-to-door to sell newspaper and magazine subscriptions. They warned me that I might encounter people that might verbally or physically abuse me because I am black. I was desperate to get a job and an income so I gave the job a try.
On my first day of work, my boss asked me to cover the Avanchets neighborhood not far from Geneva airport. It is a working-class area and most of the people that lived there were first-generation immigrants from Italy, Spain, and Portugal. I told myself that it couldn’t be that bad — these people were foreigners like me, so I thought that they would be kind to me. I was in for a rude surprise.
I knocked on my first door and no one came to answer it, but I could sense I was being observed from behind the spy hole. I knocked again and a deep, hoarse voice resounded from behind the closed door:
“Go away dirty nigger”, it said.
I stood there stunned, tears filling my eyes. I felt vulnerable and humiliated. The magazines I was holding fell to the ground and I got on my knees to pick them up.
“Get out or I will call the police, go away now”, the voice insisted.
I picked up the magazines and ran up the flight of stairs to the next floor. I gathered the little embers of courage I had left in me and knocked at another door. I heard a loud hustle and some agitation as someone seemed to struggle to unlock the door. It took the person several attempts to finally pry it open. Afraid, I distanced myself and stood in a discreet semi-defensive stance a meter away from the entrance.
“What do want?” a little blond boy with oversized blue eyes in a small face asked innocently.
“I’m selling magazine subscriptions, are your parents home?” I asked softly
Before I could say another word the little boy yelled:
“Mummy, there is a lady that looks like poo at the door”.
His mother rushed from whatever it was she was doing in total panic.
“What are you doing here”? She asked aggressively
“I’m …I’m selling magazine sub subscriptions,” I stuttered nervously.
“Go away, get out of here now, you’re trespassing, you’re not even supposed to be in this building”, she yelled.
She shooed me away, a look of disgust on her face.
I walked hurriedly toward the staircase and left the building. I was afraid.
My boss had instructed all of the team to meet at a nearby restaurant for our lunch break. He made it clear that he expected each of us to have signed up at least five subscriptions by then. I hadn’t signed up a single one, and I wondered what I was going to do. I sat outside for a while pondering my next move and decided to go back into the building to try my luck. It was only 10 am after all.
I was lucky on my next try. A young man opened the door and told me that he was interested in subscribing to l’llustre which is the equivalent of People magazine. He said that he loved reading about the rich and famous and had wanted to get a subscription for a while. As he signed the contract, he decided to also offer a gift subscription to his mother who lived on the other side of Switzerland. I was ecstatic, two subscriptions down, three more to go. I was well en route to meeting my target.
Before he said goodbye he warned:
“You shouldn’t be doing this kind of a job. People are really racist here, they won’t treat you well. It isn’t worth it”.
I thanked him for his advice, but still wanted to meet my target of five subscriptions that morning.
By the time I got to the last floor, I knew that this job would be short-lived. I had been insulted or threatened by at least half of the people that lived in the building and for no other reason than the fact that I was black. It was 11:30 am, half an hour before I was to meet my boss. I had signed up four subscriptions and was hoping for just one more. I rang the doorbell and an old white man answered.
He didn’t seem surprised to see me so I started reciting my pitch.
“Oh, why do you need to talk at the door, I’m old and can’t stand here long, please come in and have a coffee”.
“But I can’t,” I responded sheepishly.
“It’s a pity, I really like the magazine you have in your hand, but I can’t stand much longer”, he responded, a gentle smile on his face. He moved to shut the door.
“Wait, I’ll come in”, I said.
“That’s good, let me go get the money”.
“Money, no, you don’t need to give me money. The way it works is that you sign up now and the company will send you an invoice”.
“Oh ok”, he said, eyeing me with now what seemed like a lustful glance. I became concerned.
“So, here is the form, if you sign it, I’ll get it processed and you’ll receive your first magazine in two weeks”, I said.
“Ok, ok, I get it. Come sit down in the kitchen, let me make some coffee”, he insisted.
I began to feel uneasy but the old man looked weak and frail. I knew I could take him down if I had to.
As we approached the kitchen, he turned to me and said:
“You’re a beautiful black girl. You excite me”.
I pretended as though I didn’t hear him.
“I have lots of money, look at all my money”.
I turned around and noticed that he was holding out a wad of cash, about USD 500.
“I’ll give you all of this money if you rub my belly for a bit”.
I look at the dirty old man in disgust.
“No sir, I don’t want to rub your belly. I need to go”.
“But I won’t buy anything if you don’t rub me”, he said menacingly. His whole demeanor had changed. His kind eyes had grown darker, he looked mean, even threatening.
“No thanks sir,” I managed to say.
I hurriedly ran towards the front door, unlocked it, and left, my heart pounding in my chest.
Once in the elevator, I realized just how stupid I had been even going into his apartment. I had been obsessed with meeting the target that I had exercised poor judgment. What if he had attacked me — what if someone bigger and stronger had been in there and had attacked me? I held my breath as I pondered the utter stupidity of what I had just done. When the elevator got to the ground floor, I ran until I got to the cafe. My white colleagues were already having lunch. They had all met the goal of five subscriptions that morning.
“So how did it go”? Nobert, my white boss asked.
I recounted my experience with tears in my eyes and he laughed.
“Well that’s the job dear, toughen up, you’ll get used to it”, he said before continuing his conversation with my other colleagues.
There was no sympathy — no show of empathy. Just a: “Toughen up, you’ll get used to it.” I knew that I would never get used to being treated that way. No human being should ever have to get used to something like that.
I was badly shaken by this experience because I never thought there were so many racists in an international city like Geneva which boasts the United Nations and many multinational companies. What I realized through this experience is that some white people put on a facade in the outside world. They act like they are non-racists, they say they accept black and brown people, but in the privacy of their homes, their real racist self emerges.
By doing door-to-door sales, I was attempting to enter their private domains — and in these spaces, they are their full selves — no false pretenses, no social conventions to adhere to. In these private spaces, they are no longer hypocrites — they are their full-on themselves, they are racists.
Needless to say, I quit that job after a few weeks. The verbal abuse was too much to handle. I realized that I would never be able to do a job that would put me in direct contact with the public in Switzerland.
Despite this experience and many other racist encounters in Switzerland, I am still hopeful that mentalities will change. I can’t sit back and just accept that racism will always be something that I, my children, and their children will have to accept and live with. For as long as I have breath in me, I will work to educate and change the way people think. For me, the future is bright and it is non-racist.
Thanks for reading my perspective.