What Is Xenophobia?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on April 28, 2022
5 min read

Xenophobia is the fear of strangers. The word is also used to describe an attitude of prejudice and an outlook that is exclusionary of foreigners and certain people based on their background and identity. It may also manifest as a display of hostility towards specific ethnic groups.

There’s a fine line between xenophobia and racism but the two words are mutually exclusive. As the term suggests, xenophobia (phobia meaning fear) is a fear of foreigners and their customs that often transforms into intense dislike. On the other hand, racism is a firm belief in the misplaced idea that gauges an individual’s worth and capabilities based on their physical attributes like the color of their skin and hair.

This belief typically leads to methodical oppression of the individuals and groups of people who are considered inferior. Racist behavior can also lead to a systematic denial of human rights to entire groups of people, rights that other groups in the same region or country enjoy. Racism also limits opportunities in economic, social, and other areas of public life to oppressed groups based on their race.

There have been many studies in the U.S. about white supremacist ideologies that perceive white people as being superior to other races, including African-American, Asian-American, Latin, and Native American populations.

While xenophobia and racism do converge in some aspects, xenophobia does not lead to discrimination based on someone’s physical features or membership in a specific group of people. Xenophobia tends to divide people into two groups — insiders and outsiders. This in turn leads to fear and insecurity about outsiders who are presumed to pose a threat to the existing inhabitants.

A recent example of xenophobia is the increased number of incidences of violence in the U.S. against Asian-Americans since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Several cities across the U.S. have reported unprovoked instances of violence and theft, some of which have also led to fatalities.

Rapid globalization has led to national boundaries becoming transparent. This, in turn, has led to increased migration to certain countries, especially those that are developed, by people in search of a better life. Mass migration has triggered a sense of identity among both the immigrants to and the existing residents of those countries.

The existing population that has witnessed this massive inflow of immigrants is fearful of losing their social status and identity to the newcomers. There is also the perceived threat of losing their way of life along with the jobs that help sustain their lives. Although the acceptance of free-market economies has spurred development in several countries, it has also led to several confrontations between existing residents of a country and new immigrants.

To cite an example, there were several reports of violence in South Africa in 1994, where many locals who belonged to the Xhosa community (a local tribe based in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa) clashed with Namibian immigrants who had settled in the province. Their point of contention was that the members of the migrant Namibian population that had settled in the province were stealing jobs that were the lifeline for the Xhosa people.

Members of the Xhosa community expressed further anguish about the fact that the Namibian immigrants were undercutting their jobs by agreeing to work for lower wages and not being willing to participate in efforts to bargain with the employers for better wages and working conditions. All of this caused a general distrust of immigrants that eventually led to the launch of a collective campaign against them called “Operation Buyelekhaya” (go back home).

Racism has been described as an invisible evil. This is because although racism itself may be explicit, its expression is most often so subtle and deceptive that it can be hard to place.

Children face discrimination based on the color of their skin at an age where they are unable to comprehend such differences. Research has shown that disciplinary policies in preschools target black students by as much as 3.6 times when compared to white students.

A Canadian study found that children from the Caribbean are three times more likely to be identified as “at-risk” students, and, as a result, placed in separate classes. The deep-rooted bias that so discriminates against individuals may also adversely affect their health, which is one reason why it is important to call out such tendencies and to devise other methods to combat racism, We must:

  • Celebrate diversity. It is important to have a constant reminder that all the inhabitants in this world are equal and every culture has something unique to offer to this world. Children must be taught to acknowledge and enjoy cultural diversity. This can begin with simple measures such as reading about different cultures from around the world, exploring various cuisines, and watching movies from other countries.
  • Educate. There should be a concerted effort to educate adults and children alike about unity in diversity and to reinforce the benefits of science-based education. This includes doing away with the idea that racially different groups are inherently distinct and fostering a sense of human oneness in its place.
  • Inculcate kindness. Feelings such as prejudice and dislike are not natural. They are learned behaviors that many people pick up by watching adults around them. That’s why it’s essential to start early and make children understand that differences are to be celebrated. the innate humanness in everyone recognized, and judgements based on external appearances shunned. It is also important to teach children the importance of choosing kindness at all times as an alternative to hostility.
  • Create concrete action plans. It’s important to build and promote platforms to monitor acts of discrimination in everyday life and take the necessary measures to call out racism in all its forms. This should be coupled with strengthening civil rights for people from all backgrounds.
  • Track social media. Social media has long been thought of as one of the platforms where racist views get a lot of traction. There is an acute need to monitor the role of the social media platforms that don’t keep a check on the spread of biased views and permit the propagation of online hate speech directed towards specific groups.