Racism in a Swiss school environment, a social reality?  (Essay)


In this essay I’ll write about racism in the primary and secondary school environment. It will be split into an empirical part and an analytical part. The focus of the writing will lie on the two small villages Gais and Bühler both located in rural eastern Switzerland. My own observations back from the 1990s and 2000s will be put into contrast with the current situation. During time in school, there was a small community of immigrants: people who came from the Balkan area (ex-Yugoslavia) had a hard time integrating and were had conflicts because of the racist patterns of others. The time of education was split up between the schedule of the school and a social co-existing (a social reality) which happened before, between and after the official classes. The second part of the essay will focus on the current situation at the schools in Gais and Bühler. This research contains conversations with people involved with the school, its guidelines and general statistics of racism in Switzerland. How much is racism part of the social reality of the schoolyard these days? Is there an awareness of racism? 

Family, friends and foes

Set in the east of Switzerland, I grew up between the two villages Gais (3000 inhabitants, https://www.gais.ch/portrait/fakten-zahlen.html) and Bühler (1780 inhabitants, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bühler). My parents still live there and work as professional artists. I am their child, born in 1992. There were small communities of migrants which came to Switzerland because of the the Yugoslavian war in the ‘90s. (D’Amato, 177-195) This was also the case for our neighbour’s family, which came from Kosovo. Swiss law provides permission to stay in the country if there’s a humanitarian reason for it. (Council of Switzerland, Chapter 2, Art. 3, Paragraph 2) He and his family members were learning to speak high German, while I was just learning to speak (because of my young age). My neighbours had three daughters and one son, who became my best childhood friend. This lead us to a process of learning together and also developing our own language. We were hanging out together all the time and his family started to accept me as if I was part of theirs. I experienced different cultural habits such as drinking chai tea with loads of sugar, eating baklava, watching television about the Yugoslavian war and many more things like this. The only gap between us was the main language spoken in the house: Albanian. One day some of his extended family members visited him and we went together to Gais to play. While we were playing at the football pitch, some kids from the village came there and told us that we should go away because it was their property. After a short discussion they started to offend my friend and his family members because of what they presumed was their nationality. They shouted the word Jugo was a common word in the german part of Switzerland used to discriminate against people who came from the Balkans.

In my primary school in Gais were two Albanian students, who were friends of mine. Several small racist incidents happened during this time, but not anything major. The nasty word Jugo was repeated again and again, always connoted negatively. Jugo is a shortened version of yugoslavian (Jugoslavier). In secondary school the environment became much more violent and aggressive. Two borders were built in the school between the pupils with migrant background and those a Swiss conservative one. The conservative party had around double as many members, whereas I held and belonged to the „foreign“ group. It was a weird situation, because I’m mostly Swiss, but I still was seen as a foreigner. This happened because I was friends with the Albanian guys and eventually somehow different because of the open education of my parents. There was also no real obvious reason why these two borders between the pupils were created. It was just like this and the longer it was in place, the more violent it became. There was also a Serbian girl at the school who was a class above us. She was completely alienated and discriminated against by her classmates.There was one shocking incident in the wardrobe. She put her clothes next to the (normally) kindest and nerdiest guy in our class. His reaction was to take his clothes to another spot and say, „I don’t want to be next to you – Jugo.“ The Yugoslavian war was between Albania and Serbia, which also affected the relationship between the Albanian people of my school and the Serbian girl. They couldn’t overcome the background of their native lands, so unfortunately a friendship wasn’t possible in their eyes. At one point I nearly became friends with the Serbian girl, but I was so terribly afraid that the other kids would harass me as well that I broke off our contact. Thinking back to this makes me feel so terrible. 

An interesting fact about the fight in the schoolyard was that there were clothing conventions by the conservative guys. Wearing a hiphop cap was directly connected with judgement of being Jugo. This was directly connected to psychological harassment and also physical offences. By wearing one I got involved in more than 4 physical fights and was ever after called Jugo. I was perceived as a foreigner. On the other hand, there was an interesting example of integration. There was one Albanian guy called Jetmir, who was an energetic, humorous and very happy person. Everybody liked him because he broke all social restrictions through humour and openness. The conservative guys, who were normally denouncing the Balkan people, repeatedly stated: „We don’t like Balkan people, but Jetmir is really OK, he’s a funny guy. Just all the rest should stay away from our country.“

Who’s the other? 

Let’s take a look beyond the lines. During the friendship between my neighbour’s family and me, what happened was basically a de-anonymisation of each other. I found myself in the other and the division between them and me disappeared. (Butler, 46) It was an integrative process of both parties. By having open-minded parents I didn’t have any restrictive behaviour or prejudices towards a family of migrants. On the other hand the family had a similar openness towards me, as a Swiss person, and allowed me to spend time at their house and integrated me in their everyday life. It’s the complete opposite of the situation at the football court, where a clear division of two groups happened because there was an idea of possession of a geographical space based on ethnic background. Through this conflict an intolerance of other beings got expressed, what ended up in denunciation of the other party through racist behaviour. One could argue that the group claimed to possess the football court because of their Swiss nationality. The public space doesn’t belong to any private person or group, but to the public, which includes all kinds of humans. Claiming that somebody hasn’t the right to be there is basically saying that this being isn’t human. This dehumanisation is primarily used because of egoistic reasons and results in social injustice. (Freire, 8) 

To dehumanise and abstract the other person the word Jugo gets used. It follows the same pattern as many other racist terms. It’s A verbal container which is negatively connoted and used to generalise and denounce somebody. It’s a word used to differentiate in a surrounding were difference wasn’t welcome. The split on the schoolyard between the two groups of students was a causality of this thinking. A hierarchical classification became the social reality. This hierarchical classification was also a symptom of a system of social oppression. One law of this system was the restriction of clothing, as mentioned in the form of the cap. Breaking this schoolyard law resulted in getting psychologically and physically punished. In a system of oppression there’s a present danger of the lower classified, the oppressed, starting to inherit the negative conjunctions they’re offended with. (Freire, 14) Imagine the consequences of such an environment during adolescence, where humans are at a central point of self-defining.

Another central observation of what happened shows that the mechanics of racism weren’t only connected to nationalism. The situation of me as Swiss person discriminated as Jugo on one hand and on the other hand the toleration of the Albanian boy Jetmir because of his personality shows a distortion of the racist ideology. It’s basically irrational to discriminate against a person of the same ethnic background. The mechanics of discrimination aren’t based on existing conditions but much more on an artificially created system of in- and exclusion. This system was connected to already existing racist prejudices and finally became the law of the schoolyard.

Quo Vadis Curriculum?

In MY education during primary and secondary school immigration has never been a theme. There were neither interventions nor any contextualisation of how to understand and handle immigration. I had my own social education through my childhood, but obviously there are other children who didn’t have an opportunity like this. In reality  young people’s superficialities can matter and they are existent, for example looking somehow different or speaking another language. These differences aren’t the problem, it’s much more about realising and accepting them. To prevent an escalation of a situation where someone is confronted with immigration it needs prevention and education. After the big wave in the ‘90s Switzerland is also currently confronted with a wave of immigration with a peak happening back IN 2015. (Bischof, Online-Interview) IN 2018 the biggest issue in Switzerland is xenophobia followed by racism against people of colour and islamophobia. (Beratungsnetz für Rassismus Opfer, 14) Immigration is still a very present theme and Switzerland is directly affected by it. The migration is as evident as the presence of racism. 

Part of the research of this essay is an interview with the director of the primary and secondary school in Gais, Marco Zehnder. He stated that there are interventions to prevent violence at the school. This happens DURING the first and second year of secondary school. The school also collaborates with an agency to thematise „being different“ IN the third year of school. In primary school there aren’t any interventions yet. Zehnder also stated that during his time there weren’t any major racist incidences.

Students even seem to be good examples by growing up together coming out of different cultures and eventually even thinking more progressively than their families. (1) To contrast this information I got in touch with two students. One who graduated secondary school in Bühler in 2018 and another who is currently 12 years old, so in the 6th grade in Gais. They have both French and Algerian roots and are Muslims. The student in Gais stated that racist incidents happened in form of verbal attacks, especially against the students who weren’t very popular in their class. The teachers heard it but didn’t thematise in a class lession what happened nor attain any major changes. 

The student in Bühler declared that racist incidents were part of his own school time. He  got verbally offended several times because of his Islamic beliefs. Even the teacher of his cooking class made offensive comments because he didn’t eat pork or food which contained alcohol. 

By taking a look at the website of the school it becomes obvious that learning efficiency is a central point of the schools in Gais and Bühler (https://www.oberstufe-buehlergais.ch/home.html). The school is split up into two learning levels, a higher and a lower one, whereas the students have three chances per year to change. There are preventions against drinking and smoking. The topic of racism isn’t mentioned at all on the website.

Out of sight, out of mind?  

Could it be that things are that different since I was going to school? By taking a look on the Swiss Statistics Of Racism In Professional Practice by the Advice Centre For Victims Of Racism we see that reporting racism is also directly connected to the availability of consulting places. Most of the racist incidents aren’t reported. (Beratungsnetz für Rassismus Opfer, 7) The second most often reported cases are within educational surroundings, only topped by incidents happening at the workplace. We’re talking here of 14% of all racist reports of all areas of life in Switzerland. (Beratungsnetz für Rassismus Opfer, 11) Marco Zehnder, the director of the school stated that racism isn’t a present topic. The website completely avoids the word racism or xenophobia. What speaks against this are the two voices of the students in Gais and Bühler. Racist incidents are a reality in both places, in Bühler there were even offences by a teacher against a student. Bell Hooks states that it needs a realisation of the social reality, what eventually has a pedagogical development as consequence. (Hooks, 39) As it’s visible on the website the schedule in Gais and Bühler is focused much more on learning efficiency than on social issues. This shows a form of an education where teachers educate with the „banking method“. They just attain to deposit the learning material in the students’ heads, out of a thought of pure efficiency towards the completion of their schedule. (Freire, 72) This means also that the students aren’t perceived as historical beings [what do you mean they aren’t perceived as “historical” beings?] (Freire, 84)  What does this say? Are the students in the very end just the material of the teachers’ work? Could their social being eventually been seen as unimportant as long they function efficiently enough? 

The students of Gais and Bühler mentioned that there weren’t any reactions by the teachers after the racist offences happened. The fact that presumably most of the racist incidents aren’t reported represents exactly what was happening when I went to school. The social reality was and eventually still is a hard one, especially if you were reporting something to a teacher. The schoolyard is a little sociological microcosm which has its rules. Small villages like Gais and Bühler are not at all safe from discrimination, specifically in the form of xenophobia and racism. Honestly I didn’t even know back then what racism even meant, not to mention the coded sub-level versions of it. I’m convinced that a lot of pupils still aren’t aware that they are getting assaulted because of racist patterns, but I’m convinced that there are a lot of them who just feel bad because of the way they’re treated by their classmates. Immigration in Switzerland is very present and unfortunately directly connected to the dangers of xenophobia. The students need to get involved in a proactive discourse with each other and the teachers to realise what it means to live in a multicultural society. They need to have an open space to talk about their identities, emotions and to understand that the ‚other‘ is as much an emotional being as oneself. A dehumanisation shouldn’t be part of anyone’s life, especially not in those of children. I’ve experienced a form of xenophobia by myself, mounted in a racist frame. There was never a chance of talking about what happened, partly because my friends and I didn’t really understand it. It was our social reality. The school administration of Gais and Bühler currently doesn’t show any awareness of those problems. Eventually theres a social reality happening beyond administrative control, which doesn’t make it less evident. If there’s any way to realise and solve problems, it’s communication. The two voices of the students and this essay will hopefully contribute to opening up this dialogue. 

Bibliography (MLA Citation)

Bischof, M. Rassismus und Antisemitismus sind auch in der Schweiz ein Problem, Foundation against Racism and Antisemitism, (year not on the website)

Beratungsnetz für Rassismus Opfer, Rassismusvorfälle aus der Beratungspraxis, Bern: Valmedia AG, 2019

Butler, J., Precarious Life, London/New York: Verso, 200

4Council of Switzerland, Federal Law of foreigners and integration, Chapter 2, Art. 3, Paragraph 2, 2005

D’Amato, G, Historische und soziologische Übersicht über die Migration in der Schweiz, Swiss yearbook of development policy, 2008 https://journals.openedition.org/sjep/340

Freire, P., Pedagogy of the oppressed, London/New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 2000

Hooks, B. Teaching to Transgress, New York/Abingdon: Routledge, 1994


  1. Interview with the director of the school Gais

Interview M. Z., director of the primary school Gais and secondary school Gais & Bühler 

E-mail, 12. April 2019:

Sehr geehrter Herr Widmer

Gerne beantworte ich Ihnen die Anfrage, welche Sie über das Kontaktformular der Schule gestellt haben.

Gibt es an der Primar & Sekundarschule Präventionen zum Thema Rassismus?

Es gibt keine Präventionsmassnahmen, welche unter dem Titel «Rassismus» laufen. Veranstaltungen, welche präventiven Charakter haben und in diese Richtung zielen, gibt es durchaus. Z.B. findet jeweils in der 1. & 2. Oberstufe ein Konflikttraining statt, welches sich auch mit dem Thema «Anderssein» auseinandersetzt. Zudem führen wir in der 3. Oberstufe seit vier Jahren mit der Agentur für Vielfalt eine Projektwoche durch, welche das Thema Rassismus immer wieder anschneiden. Dies wird dann jedoch allgemein thematisiert «Umgang mit Anderssein».

In der Primarschule gibt es keine konkreten Präventionsveranstaltungen, nebst den Themen in den einzelnen Klassen.

Ist Rassismus unter den Schülern ein Thema?

Nach meinem Empfinden ist Rassismus kein Thema bei den Lernenden, welches negativ behaftet ist. Die Kinder wachsen mit den verschiedensten Kulturen auf und sind meiner Ansicht nach die besten Vorbilder für die Erwachsenen, welche in ihren «alten» Denkstrukturen verharren.

Ist Rassismus unter den Lehrpersonen ein Thema?

Rassismus ist kein Thema unter den Lehrpersonen. Auch hier geht es allgemeiner um das «Anderssein», welches im Schullalltag natürlich immer wieder Thema ist und somit auch die Lehrpersonen mehr oder weniger beschäftigen.

Während meiner Zeit in Gais gab es noch nie einen Schulwechsel aufgrund eines rassistischen Hintergrundes.

Ich hoffe, dass Ihnen diese Antworten weiterhelfen.

Ansonsten können Sie ab dem 23. April auch gerne telefonisch mit mir Kontakt aufnehmen, falls Sie noch Präzisierungen benötigen.

Freundliche Grüsse


Interview scholar, 6. class (primary school) in Gais

Whats App, 16. April 2019:

Hat es bei dir in der Sekundarschule Rassismus gegeben? Wenn ja, was geschah? 

Ja, es gab bei uns rassistische Vorfälle. Es gab vor allem Sprüche gegen Ausländer, vor allem diejenigen die nicht beliebt waren. 

Haben die Lehrer*Innen das mitgekriegt? Was war ihre Reaktion?  

Die Lehrer*Innen haben das schon mitgekriegt, wollten aber nichts ändern.  

Interview scholar which finished the secondary school in Bühler 2017

Whats App, 16. April 2019:

Hat es bei dir in der Sekundarschule Rassismus gegeben? Wenn ja, was geschah? 

Ja, es gab rassistische Vorfälle. Vor allem die Bauern machten rassistische Witzlein. Grundsätzlich gab es viele Sprüche gegen den islamischen Glauben. Es war jedoch nie sehr schlimm, das jemand einzelnes komplett ausgeschlossen wurde ist nicht vorgekommen. 

Haben die Lehrer*Innen das mitgekriegt? Was war ihre Reaktion?

Manche Lehrer*Innen waren selbst Rassisten, insbesondere meine Kochlehrerin. Sie hat wiederholt Sprüche gemacht, weil ich kein Schwein ass. Zudem gab es einen Vorfall mit einem Gericht das mit Alkohol zubereitet wurde, ich wegen meines Glaubens jedoch nicht essen wollte.