What Is Xenophobia?

  • Olga GabrielMaster's degree, Forensic Science, Uppsala University, Sweden
  • James ElliottB.Sc. (Hons) , B.Ed. (Hons), PGCE, CELTA , FSB, MMCA

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Overview

Learning about xenophobia is vital for fostering inclusivity, preventing discrimination, and promoting global awareness, especially when teaching the generations to come. It empowers us to challenge biases, contribute to safer communities, and advocate for policies that ensure equal treatment for all.

Xenophobia (Zee-no-foe-bee-uh) is characterised by fear and distrust of individuals from different cultures or foreign backgrounds, as well as a possible belief that these strangers may disrupt their own (or someone else’s)  nation’s authentic way of life and societal harmony. 

The term originates from the fusion of the ancient Greek words: “xenos”, meaning “stranger”, and “Phobos”, meaning “fear”. 

This concept suggests not only that foreigners are not able to integrate into their own communities but that they are a threat to the unity of the xenophobic individual’s society.1 

Historical context

The origins of Xenophobia can be traced back to ancient human instincts related to survival and tribalism. Early human societies often formed close-knit groups for protection, and unfamiliar outsiders were perceived as potential threats. 

These instincts helped early humans survive in challenging environments but also led to a fear of those who were different or from unfamiliar backgrounds. As time passed, these feelings mixed and entangled with other reasons, such as cultural and political ideas, and ended up affecting how we view people from different places.

Interesting comparatively recent examples of xenophobia in practice are in instances during the era of colonialism, when European colonisers used the claim of cultural superiority to justify taking over others’ lands, claiming they were making the local people more civilised. They did this while keeping their own imported customs and beliefs.2

For example, in India under British rule, the British thought their own culture was superior. But later, they started seeking spiritual guidance from Indian teachers and appreciating some Indian cultural and spiritual practices. Some people who learned from Indian culture accepted and adopted it fully, even changing their diets, clothes and lifestyles. 

In some cultures that were colonised, the indigenous populations tried to protect their own culture by either accepting parts of the colonisers' ways or emphasising their own traditions. This reaction happened because the colonisers often didn't respect the cultures they conquered.2

A more recent example of mass xenophobia occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. The SARS-CoV-2 virus first appeared in Wuhan, China, at the end of 2019 and quickly spread around the world in 2020. 

As it reached the United States, there was an associated rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans, where they faced both physical attacks and harassment. 

Sadly, throughout history, during health crises such as pandemics, people of Asian descent have often been unfairly targeted and treated as outsiders in the USA. This discrimination goes back to the late 1700s when Asian Americans first came to the country. 

COVID-19 generally exacerbated racism, leading to fear of foreigners and xenophobia. This could potentially be why there was an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes during and after the pandemic.3

Signs and characteristics of xenophobia

People may have xenophobia if they find themselves frequently:

  • Rejecting potential friendships on a basis solely related to factors such as skin colour, clothing style, or other external traits
  • Experiencing unease when interacting with individuals from different social groups
  • Struggling to establish rapport with a colleague or supervisor from a distinct racial, cultural, or religious background
  • Taking significant measures to steer clear of specific places or environments.7

Recognising these signs and characteristics is crucial for addressing xenophobia in others and self and helping promote a more inclusive society.

Types of xenophobia

During the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action urged nations to prevent the emergence of xenophobia among their citizens. It can be categorised into two types of xenophobia:

  1. Cultural Xenophobia – this form centres around cultural differences. Individuals who exhibit cultural xenophobia harbour strong aversions to aspects of another culture, such as clothing or language.
  2. Immigrant Xenophobia – this type arises when a particular group is excluded from society, often due to significant immigration by that group into a country. However, this prejudice can persist even in long-established communities. It can lead to hostility, violence, or even extreme actions such as genocide.

Manifestations of xenophobia include:

  • Discrimination and prejudice – unfair treatment and negative attitudes towards individuals from different backgrounds
  • Hate crimes and violence – acts of aggression and harm targeted at people due to their perceived differences.
  • Stereotyping and scapegoating – forming generalised opinions about certain groups and unfairly blaming them for societal issues.
  • Social exclusion and marginalisation – pushing people away from mainstream society, limiting their access to opportunities and resources.

Causes and factors contributing to xenophobia

Several possible factors are thought to play a role in contributing to xenophobia:

  • Fear of the unknown – People naturally get scared of things they aren’t familiar with. This includes cultures or individuals they don't know, which can lead to misunderstandings and biases.
  • Economic Insecurity: – During hard times, such as economic struggles or social changes, people tend to search for someone to blame. Immigrants and minorities are often unfairly condemned for the problems in society.
  • Cultural differences and nationalism: – When people with different backgrounds meet, their unique lifestyles can seem unfamiliar. Nationalism, feeling proud of one's country, can lead to thinking one's culture is superior, creating a fear that outsiders will change their cherished way of life and so leading to prejudice and discrimination.
  • Media influence – How immigrants and minorities are represented in the media can shape how people think about them. If the media portrays them negatively, it can reinforce and exacerbate existing biases.
  • Increased job competition – With more foreigners looking for work, it becomes increasingly difficult to get employment due to the increase in competition. Even for those with a job, being replaced is still a possible consequence, so foreigners are seen as a threat.
  • Generalisation – People may associate one negative encounter with a single individual with the entire group. When the experience is relayed to others, it contributes to an overall stigmatisation of that group.7

It is also evident that factors can be categorised into two primary types: inherent factors, involving genetic and personal factors, and environmental factors, involving education and inter-ethnic interaction.5

The impact and consequences of xenophobia

Xenophobia has many consequences for individuals, groups and society as a whole:

  • Psychological effects on victims – these are victims of targeted hostility, hate crimes, discrimination, isolation, war, and genocide.6
  • Erosion of social cohesion and diversity – xenophobia creates distrust and tension in society and also curtails communities encountering new ideas and different ways of thinking. This can lead to a lack of social progression and innovation.
  • Economic consequences – fewer migrants choose the country in which xenophobia is present. Therefore, the country misses out on access to skilled labour and resources. Tourism can also be harmed as unstable areas are avoided, causing revenue loss and affecting tourist-related industries.
  • International relations and diplomacy – long-standing tensions may escalate into violent incidents.6 A recent example occurred in the 2008 attacks in South Africa, which even happened after it became a democracy in 1994.10 These attacks primarily targeted Nigerians, who had previously faced similar hatred in the 1980s. This has damaged the relationships between the countries

Combating xenophobia

Individuals can, with certainty, play an active role in combating xenophobia. They can challenge their own biases, engage in conversations that promote understanding, and support organisations working to counter xenophobia. Endeavouring to understand others’ cultures emphasises our shared humanity and sends a message that racism and xenophobia won't be tolerated. As responsible individuals, parents, and global citizens can help combat these issues. Here are a few steps it is possible to take:

  1. Embrace diversity – support local events, like festivals and lectures, that promote cultural understanding. Encourage children to explore different cooking and stories from around the world.
  2. Challenge hate speech – speak out against bigotry and racist jokes. Address prejudice in newspapers and online platforms to indicate that intolerant comments are unacceptable.
  3. Teach kindness – counter biases by setting a positive example. Educate children about differences, emphasising our common humanity and the importance of respect.
  4. Stand up against harassment – If it is safe, intervene if someone is being mistreated. Being a witness and offering support can help victims regain power.
  5. Support human rights – empower organisations such as UNICEF, which advocates for children's rights worldwide. Stand in solidarity and ensure all children, regardless of background, grow up in a safe and nurturing environment.8

FAQs

Is xenophobia a mental illness?

Despite it containing the original Greek term “phobia”, xenophobia is not classified as a mental health disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which lacks specific criteria for its diagnosis.9 Xenophobia comes from an individual’s beliefs and environmental influences rather than an anxiety disorder, such as in the case of agoraphobia or social phobia.

Are xenophobia and racism the same?

Both involve prejudice, but xenophobia and racism are not the same. Xenophobia is the fear and hatred towards strangers, foreigners, or anything unfamiliar. Racism is more focused on race, needless to say, and includes the belief that a person's traits are mostly shaped by their race and that some races are inherently superior.

Is xenophobia a recent phenomenon? 

No, xenophobia has existed throughout history. It has often been linked to times of social change, economic uncertainty, or political unrest.

Does xenophobia only affect immigrants? 

No, xenophobia can target anyone perceived as different, including immigrants, refugees, tourists, or even people within the same country but from a different cultural background.

How can xenophobia be addressed? 

Education, cultural awareness, and promoting inclusive policies are essential in combating xenophobia. Encouraging open dialogue and challenging stereotypes also play a significant role.

Summary

Xenophobia is the fear of the unfamiliar and has been present throughout history. It remains a complex challenge that demands a collective effort to overcome. By acknowledging its roots, raising awareness, and fostering inclusive environments, societies can move towards a future that celebrates diversity and unity rather than fear and division.

References

  1. Xenophobia | fear, discrimination, facts, & description | Britannica [Internet]. [cited 2023 Aug 17]. Available from: https://www.britannica.com/science/xenophobia
  2. Prnjat A. Xenophobia and identitarian nationalism [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2023 Aug 23]. Available from: https://philpapers.org/rec/PRNXAI
  3. Gover AR, Harper SB, Langton L. Anti-Asian hate crime during the COVID-19 pandemic: exploring the reproduction of inequality. Am J Crim Justice [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2023 Aug 23];45(4):647–67. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7364747/
  4. Patwardhan A. Causes and Effects of Xenophobia, the Strange Fear of Strangers [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2023 Aug 23]. Available from: https://psychologenie.com/causes-effects-of-xenophobia
  5. Wagner R. The significant influencing factors of xenophobia. Student Scholarship – Education [Internet]. 2017 Apr 1; Available from: https://digitalcommons.olivet.edu/educ_stsc/2
  6. Klein JR. Xenophobia and crime. In: Miller JM, editor. The Encyclopedia of Theoretical Criminology [Internet]. 1st ed. Wiley; 2014 [cited 2023 Aug 24]. p. 1–3. Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/9781118517390.wbetc094
  7. Effects of xenophobia in the community | bonyan [Internet]. 2023 [cited 2023 Aug 25]. Available from: https://bonyan.ngo/blog/effects-of-xenophobia-in-the-community/
  8. UNICEF USA [Internet]. [cited 2023 Aug 26]. 5 ways to fight racism and xenophobia. Available from: https://www.unicefusa.org/stories/5-ways-fight-racism-and-xenophobia
  9. Bornewasser M. Social psychological reactions to social change and instability : fear of status loss, social discrimination and foreigner hostility. Civilisations. Revue internationale d’anthropologie et de sciences humaines [Internet]. 1993 [cited 2023 Nov 26]; (42–2):91–103. Available from: https://journals.openedition.org/civilisations/2310.
  10. Choane M, Shulika LS, Mthombeni M. An Analysis of the Causes, Effects and Ramifications of Xenophobia in South Africa. Insight on Africa [Internet]. 2011 [cited 2023 Nov 26]; 3(2):129–42. Available from: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0975087814411138.

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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