Xenophobia (ZEE-no-foe-bee-uh) is dislike, hatred, or fear of outsiders. This can manifest as hostility toward immigrants, but it can also manifest as hatred toward members of another tribe, culture, or religion.
A person does not have to actually be from another place or culture to become a target for xenophobia. People can distrust or hate others based purely on assumptions about their accent, appearance, or behavior.
Racism can play into this, too. Racism is discrimination based on a person’s race or ethnicity, which people sometimes use as justification for xenophobia toward immigrants from certain backgrounds.
Read on to learn more about xenophobia, including types, examples, causes, and how to challenge it.
No, xenophobia is not a medical diagnosis. Although it contains the word “phobia,” which means “fear” in Greek, xenophobia is not a true phobia.
By contrast, the word “xenophobia” refers to a range of aggressive, fearful, and hostile beliefs. It comes from a person’s ideology and worldview rather than from a disorder.
The people xenophobia affects most are not the people who hold xenophobic views themselves, but the targets of those views. This can include:
- religious minorities
- people from different cultures
There are two broad types of xenophobia: immigrant xenophobia and cultural xenophobia.
Immigrant xenophobia is the dislike or fear of people who are, or who are perceived to be, immigrants. Anti-immigration policies are a manifestation of this type of xenophobia.
Cultural xenophobia is dislike or hostility toward different cultures. Assuming that products, foods, or movies from other cultures are inferior to one’s own is an example of this.
Xenophobia may also be implicit or explicit. Implicit xenophobia includes anti-outsider views a person is not aware they have, but that still affect their beliefs and behavior in subtle or unintentional ways.
Explicit xenophobia means that a person holds explicit, conscious anti-outsider views. Political rhetoric that targets immigrants is an example of this type of xenophobia.
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Xenophobia specifically relates to a person or group having “outsider” status within a society. Racism specifically relates to race or ethnicity, whether the person or group has “outsider” status or not. These two forms of prejudice can occur separately, or together.
For example, a white American citizen feeling resentful toward white immigrants, solely due to a belief they are stealing local jobs, is an example of xenophobia on its own.
That same citizen feeling hatred toward all immigrants due to their assumptions about their ethnicity, skin tone, and their impact on the local economy is xenophobia and racism combined.
A person or institution may have xenophobic views if they:
- express distrust or disgust toward perceived outsiders
- express distrust or disgust toward that group’s food, music, or other aspects of their culture despite having little knowledge of it
- avoid interacting with perceived outsiders
- blame perceived outsiders for local problems, such as a lack of new jobs or inflation
- believe that perceived outsiders think, behave, live, or feel significantly differently from non-outsiders
- treat perceived outsiders differently from non-outsiders, such as by being rude or hostile to them
- treat perceived outsiders as dangerous or criminal with no evidence that they are
Xenophobia exists on a continuum, from subtle comments to overt and explicit discrimination. It is also present at all levels of society, from individual beliefs to laws and government policy.
Some examples of how xenophobia can manifest include:
- Microaggressions: Xenophobic microaggressions are subtle comments that imply someone is an outsider. For example, a person might hear that someone has a different accent to them, and immediately ask where they are from or compliment their English. These might seem like innocent comments, but they emphasize a person’s “otherness.”
- Exclusion and discrimination: Xenophobic discrimination can occur anywhere, from relationships to workplaces. For example, an employer might not hire or promote people who they view as “foreign” due to implicit or explicit beliefs about how deserving, capable, or trustworthy they are.
- Medical xenophobia: This occurs when medical professionals treat perceived outsiders differently. They might spend less time with patients, view them as untrustworthy, fail to get them a translator if they need one, or report them to immigration authorities. This often means that people perceived as outsiders get lower quality medical care, delay access to medical care, or have a higher risk of stress-related health conditions.
- Journalistic xenophobia: This is when implicit or explicit xenophobia affects how journalists portray religious or cultural groups. For example, they can present religious minorities as part of a multicultural society or as outsiders, or refugees as “deserving” of help or as a threat. Publications can also focus on negative stories about certain groups in order to sow fear and attract more readers, or to sway public opinion.
- Violence: Xenophobic violence can come from individuals or institutions. For example, in South Africa, xenophobic attacks against Congolese migrants are a serious problem, but the Human Rights Watch reports that some witnesses say that local authorities are complicit in this too.
- Hostile immigration policies: Harsh immigration policies, such as forcibly taking children from their parents at the Mexican border, are the result of xenophobia and racism. The aim of these policies is to deter a specific ethnic group from trying to move to the U.S. and punish those that try. Other examples of these policies include the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Muslim travel ban of 2017.
- Displacement: This is when a more powerful group or institution forces a less powerful group out of their home. An extreme example is the Trail of Tears, in which the U.S. government forced approximately 100,000 Native American people off of their land.
- Genocide: Genocide is an attempt to destroy or kill a religious, racial, or ethnic group. An example of genocide is the Holocaust, in which the Nazis imprisoned and executed millions of Jews based on a racist and xenophobic ideology.
Similar to other forms of oppression, xenophobia keeps certain groups in power and disempowers others. However, the factors that contribute to this are complex.
Sometimes, people engage in xenophobia intentionally for their own gain. They may be motivated by:
- Power: Political leaders sometimes use xenophobia as a tool to get votes. They may use perceived outsiders as a scapegoat for societal problems that they then promise to fix. They may also use xenophobia to create an in-group and out-group, creating an illusion of unity among the most dominant group of voters.
- Insecurity: A number of studies suggest that perceived insecurity plays a significant role in xenophobia. When a person or group feels that they have less access to resources or are in danger, they can want someone to blame. This is one of the factors fueling xenophobic violence in South Africa.
- Greed: Sometimes, resources are not scarce — they are just highly valuable. A gold rush on Cherokee land in 1829 was one of the reasons the U.S. government displaced Native Americans from their lands during the Trail of Tears.
- Other prejudices: Xenophobia can stem from racism, Islamophobia, antisemitism, and other forms of oppression, which can fuel xenophobia toward specific out-groups.
There are also other factors that can contribute to xenophobia that are less explicit, such as:
- Lack of diversity: People from areas with little immigration or diversity may feel unsure about the arrival of people who seem different to them. It can also create a strong sense of in-group versus out-group, or “us versus them,” when there is a strong majority of people from the same background.
- Education: When schools do not teach students about a range of cultures and religions, or avoid discussing the influence of immigration in a country’s history, they deprive students of knowledge that can foster understanding between people of different backgrounds. Some curriculums may even encourage xenophobia by presenting one culture as superior to all others.
- Fear of strangers: Some experts believe xenophobia may have some basis in an innate fear of strangers. Babies fear strangers, which may explain why it is easy for people to absorb xenophobic beliefs. However, prejudice is something a person learns from others, meaning it is not inevitable.
On an individual level, people can challenge xenophobia via:
- Education: Take time to learn about xenophobia, including the myths and stereotypes, as well as its impact on marginalized groups. Look for articles, books, and other media that come directly from marginalized people.
- Self-awareness: Many people grow up around xenophobic messaging, whether from their family, peers, or the news. It is important to become aware of one’s own assumptions and to challenge them, particularly for people in positions of power. Although xenophobia is not a mental health condition, approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may help people with this.
- Cultural appreciation: People may find it useful to expand their understanding of food, music, movies, and more. For example, caregivers might encourage their children to read books with diverse characters, or try foods from a variety of cuisines.
- Inclusivity: Find ways to make group environments more inclusive to break down the “us versus them” dynamic. For example, a school could offer a Spanish translator at parent-teacher meetings if many children have caregivers who speak Spanish as their first language.
- Using privilege: People who belong to an in-group have privilege in comparison to perceived outsiders. They can use this privilege to benefit others. For example, a person could accompany a friend to doctor appointments to ensure the doctor listens to them, or teach other members of the in-group about xenophobia so that the burden of doing this is not on the out-group.
- Speaking out: Speak out against xenophobic comments, jokes, or microaggressions. For example, if people in an office make a xenophobic comment, try pulling them aside and telling them it is untrue and hurtful.
To truly stop xenophobia, though, governments, media publications, law enforcement, and other institutions need to take action to dismantle it. This may involve changing laws, policies, codes of conduct, and disciplinary procedures for people or organizations that fuel xenophobia.
Xenophobia is the fear, hatred, and distrust of outsiders. It harms not only immigrants but anyone that the dominant group in a society deems strange or foreign. It is not a phobia in the medical sense, but a widespread form of prejudice and discrimination.
Xenophobia can be part of a political platform, the result of institutional policies, or a form of interpersonal abuse. It negatively impacts the lives of many people globally and often overlaps with other types of oppression.