Media mogul Oprah Winfrey said in an interview this week that she was the victim of racial discrimination during a recent visit to an upmarket handbag boutique in Zurich, Switzerland. The accusation came during the same week that human rights groups accused another Swiss town of “apartheid” over planned restrictions on asylum-seekers. Both events brought into question a trend of hostility toward foreigners in Europe’s Alpine heartland.
Winfrey said in an interview that aired on "Entertainment Tonight" that while she was in Zurich for singer Tina Turner’s wedding in late July, a store clerk at Trois Pommes refused to show her a Tom Ford handbag, saying: “No, no, no, you don’t want to see that one. You want to see this one. Because that one will cost too much; you will not be able to afford that.”
“I said, 'Well, I did really want to see that one.’ And she refused to get it,” the billionaire continued. Swiss Tourism officials have since offered a formal apology, saying the clerk “acted terribly wrong.”
“Switzerland Tourism is deeply sorry to learn about the experience Ms. Winfrey recently had in Switzerland, and we apologize that her feelings were hurt,” the agency said in a statement on Friday. “We would like to assure Ms. Winfrey -- like any visitor to Switzerland -- that she is welcome with open arms.”
The manager of Trois Pommes -- who told CNN she was one of Tina Turner’s best friends -- called the whole thing “a 200 percent misunderstanding.”
As news of the alleged racial discrimination went viral, Winfrey took to Twitter to say that, “other than the handbag diss,” she had “a great time in Zurich.” The media mogul added that she went to the best spa ever and “would love to experience [the city] again.”
“Turns out that store clerk did me a favor,” she tweeted. “Just found out that bag was $38K!!! She was right I was NOT going to buy it (sic).”
Yet, if she wanted to buy it, she could certainly afford it. Forbes estimated that Winfrey, whose popular daytime talk show doesn't air in Switzerland, earned $77 million in the year ended in June.
The whole ordeal has been called a “public relations disaster for Switzerland” and comes during a turbulent time politically for the nation. Several towns are laying out plans to try and ban asylum-seekers from public places such as libraries, sports fields and swimming pools during certain hours of the day or house them in special centers to avoid tensions with Swiss residents.
Located 20 kilometers (12 miles) outside of Zurich, the village of Bremgarten opened the first of nine new asylum-seeker reception centers on Aug. 5. New rules in Bremgarten would segregate asylum-seekers and limit their ability to leave their compounds to “avoid friction and resentment,” the head of Switzerland’s Migration Ministry, Mario Gattiker, said.
The Migration Minister told local media that such rules would ensure an “ordered” and “conflict-free” relationship, though human rights groups say these ideas are no different than those implemented in apartheid-era South Africa.
“For Switzerland, the home of the United Nations and its refugee agency, to introduce a blatantly discriminatory policy that effectively segregates asylum-seekers from the communities in which they live is shocking,” Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher for Human Rights Watch, said. “The Swiss authorities should encourage all Swiss communities to treat some of the world’s most vulnerable people with respect and dignity, rather than reinforcing prejudice and division.”
Simpson added that Swiss authorities “still have a chance to redeem themselves” as they open the remaining asylum centers. “Instead of encouraging local communities to treat asylum-seekers like unwelcome threats to public safety and hygiene, politicians should do everything they can to protect them and encourage their integration into communities.”
Some 1.8 million of Switzerland’s 8 million inhabitants are now foreigners, and the events in Bremgarten are just the latest manifestation of the nation’s growing unease over the issue of immigration. In April, Switzerland said it would impose quotas on EU citizens seeking employment in the country, while in June, the public overwhelmingly voted to tighten laws for asylum-seekers.
Though Switzerland has a higher population of foreigners than any country in Europe, some 41 percent of those who responded to an online poll by Swiss-German tabloid Blick this weekend described the Swiss population as racist. Other commentators have argued that every country has extremists and racists, and that the incident at the handbag store in Zurich could have simply been a mix up in translation, as English was said to be the store clerk’s third language. Either way, the Oprah furor brought several issues to the fore and forced Switzerland to reflect on the ways it welcomes foreigners -- and the way it wants to be perceived internationally.