Xenophobia is the fear of outsiders or strangers. The term is most commonly applied to people who are afraid of immigrants or people from unfamiliar, foreign cultures.
What Is Xenophobia?
While xenophobia can be a true phobia, it is often used in ways similar to the term homophobia. In this context, xenophobia characterizes people who dislike foreigners, believe their country’s culture is superior, or wish to keep immigrants out of their country. Xenophobes may not actually have a true phobia of outsiders; instead, they manifest behaviors that are detrimental or in opposition to outsiders. Thus the term has strong political connotations.
Xenophobic rhetoric and behavior can be traced back through human history. In some cases, fear of outsiders could have been a protective mechanism against invasion or sickness. For instance, mistrust of a person from a different tribe, even if misplaced, could have its roots in the desire to protect one’s home against a foreign threat. However, the hatred and racism that may characterize xenophobia is not typically warranted, and xenophbic behaviors may result in unjust treatment of foreigners or immigrants.
In the United States, several political groups have rallied to oppose illegal immigration by Hispanic people, particularly those from Mexico. In some cases, these groups oppose all immigration by people from Mexico. This opposition is sometimes couched in terms of fear. For example, anti-immigration groups may express fear of crime or lost jobs. Pro-immigration groups and Hispanic advocacy organizations have decried these groups as xenophobic.
What Causes Xenophobia? Xenophobia in Psychology
When xenophobia manifests as a true phobia, it comes in two distinct forms:
- Cultural xenophobia occurs when a person fears a foreign culture.
- Stranger or immigrant xenophobia occurs when someone is frightened of people or groups perceived to be outsiders.
Some evolutionary psychologists have argued that xenophobia may be a part of the human genetic behavioral heritage. Perhaps the tendency toward xenophobia protected human ancestors from outside groups who might do them harm. Some social psychologists argue, meanwhile, that xenophobia is not universal, but triggered by the unique circumstances of modern society.
What causes xenophobia, therefore, is still being debated and may be dependent on a person’s school of thought. There is evidence of xenophobia’s existence across a variety of cultures, however, and one of the common characteristics of xenophobia tends to be an ingroup/outgroup mentality.
Examples of Xenophobia
Many cultures and countries, including the United States, have histories with xenophobia. A few examples of xenophobia include:
- Post September 11, 2001, hate crimes against American Muslims and individuals who appeared to be of Arab descent reached a record high.
- Fear of disease has often led to xenophobia. In the case of COVID-19, or the coronavirus, anti-Asian discrimination took place in the form of bullying and threats of violence.
- In South Africa, violent attacks against foreigners, including people from Zimbabwe and Mozambique, have become a problem identified by some human rights groups.
- One survey revealed that in Japan, nearly one in three foreigners have experienced discrimination in public and at work.
If you feel anxious or uncomfortable around individuals you see as “outsiders” or avoid people who appear to be foreign, you may be experiencing xenophobia. Working with a therapist may help you get to the root of and process your feelings, which may be seated in fear of the unknown or a scarcity mindset. Find a licensed and compassionate therapist today who can help.
- American Psychological Association. APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.
- Escobar, N. (2020, March 4). When xenophobia spreads like a virus. National Public Radio. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2020/03/02/811363404/when-xenophobia-spreads-like-a-virus
- Fritscher, L. (2019, June 4). Understanding xenophobia, the fear of strangers. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/xenophobia-fear-of-strangers-2671881
- Hurst, D. (2017, March 31). Japan racism survey reveals one in three foreigners experience discrimination. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/31/japan-racism-survey-reveals-one-in-three-foreigners-experience-discrimination
- Lichtblau, E. (2016, September 17). Hate crimes against American Muslims most since post-9/11 era. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/18/us/politics/hate-crimes-american-muslims-rise.html
- Sanchez-Mazas, M., & Licata, L. (2015, December 31). Xenophobia: Social psychological aspects. International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-08-097086-8.24031-2
- South Africa: How common are xenophobic attacks? (2019, October 2). BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-47800718
- Wicker, H. R. (2001). Xenophobia. International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B0080430767009803
Last Updated: 03-5-2020
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