Xenophobia is an extreme, intense fear and dislike of customs, cultures, and people considered strange, unusual, or unknown.
The term itself comes from Greek, where “phobos” means fear and “xenos” can mean stranger, foreigner, or outsider. Yet in Greek, xenos carries some ambiguity. It can also mean guest or wanderer.
In fact, ancient Greeks maintained a tradition of xenia, or extreme hospitality to strangers, in case an unexpected guest should happen to be a god or goddess, walking among everyday people in disguise. This hospitality to strangers was essential, and violation carried serious repercussions, as you’ll learn in the “Illiad,” the “Odyssey,” and other Greek literature.
The “x” in xenophobia is pronounced like a “z,” so to pronounce xenophobia correctly, you’d say “zee-nophobia.”
True phobias trigger anxiety symptoms when you encounter whatever you’re afraid of. For example, if you have a fear of clowns — coulrophobia, to be precise — you might begin to experience nausea or dizziness, sweating, shaking, or shortness of breath when you:
- see an actual clown
- look at pictures of one
- see a clown suit
- notice advertisements for a circus
Even reading the word “clown” might make your heart beat a little faster.
While it’s not impossible to have a clinical phobia of strangers, this phobia would differ from the colloquial meaning of xenophobia in a few key ways:
- You’d fear all strangers.
- When you even thought about encountering a stranger, you’d probably experience some physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety.
- Your fear would eventually get in the way of your daily life, most likely by leading you to avoid public places and anywhere else you might encounter strangers.
In this article, we’ll focus not on a clinical fear of strangers but the accepted definition of xenophobia. Mental health professionals don’t consider xenophobia a mental health condition.
Xenophobic beliefs and behaviors show up in multiple contexts across everyday life.
The so-called “melting pot” of America is liberally spiced with xenophobic attitudes, and it’s possible to express xenophobia without outright hatred.
You can be xenophobic without realizing it. Maybe you’ve thought (or said) something along these lines before:
- “Those clothes are so weird. She’d fit in so much better if she’d just dress like an American.”
- “No way, I’m not going to your neighborhood after dark. There are way too many strange people lurking around.”
- “I don’t trust those weird spices. Can’t we eat something normal, like a sandwich?”
These thoughts might not center on any specific person, but they still reflect a fear and dislike of things and people you consider strange or different.
You can further divide xenophobia into two main categories:
- stranger/immigrant xenophobia
- cultural xenophobia
Someone expressing stranger or immigrant xenophobia might:
- avoid and reject anyone they consider outsiders — people who come from other countries, who have a different skin color, who practice other religions, or who speak a different language
- consider the people who belong to their social or cultural group superior to everyone else
- avoid stores and businesses where “foreigners” or “other outsiders” shop
- avoid neighborhoods mostly populated by immigrants or people of different skin colors, or describe those neighborhoods as “dangerous” or “going downhill”
- make negative or derogatory remarks about people of other cultures or countries
- make an effort to keep “outsiders” out of their neighborhood and social circle
Cultural xenophobia extends beyond people to reject all elements of other cultures or “outsider” groups.
Someone expressing cultural xenophobia might:
- make rude or negative remarks about someone’s traditional clothing
- refuse to listen to music from other cultures or watch TV shows and movies in other languages
- reject food from other cultures without trying it
- believe products or materials manufactured in other countries are inferior
- make derogatory or negative remarks when people speak a different language
Racism is the belief that physical characteristics, like skin color and hair type, determine someone’s traits, abilities, and overall worth. People with “desirable” racial traits are considered superior to those who lack those traits.
As a practice, racism also involves systemic oppression of those groups deemed inferior.
In America, racism and white supremacist ideology elevate white Americans to the “superior” position. Members of other groups, including Black and Indigenous Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders, along with people who haven’t yet attained American citizenship, are automatically considered inferior, even subhuman.
While xenophobia and racism often intersect, xenophobia doesn’t automatically focus on the physical characteristics, behavior, or abilities of a specific group of people.
Instead, xenophobic thinking separates people into two groups: “insiders” and “outsiders.”
Insiders fear, avoid, and reject all outsiders because they represent some type of threat, from “taking jobs” to “carrying a deadly virus.” The criteria separating those who belong from those who don’t can vary, depending on the group, and these criteria don’t always center on racial differences.
What’s more, racism doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding all elements of a culture. Many racist groups actually benefit from the ideas or contributions of people from other cultures, rather than rejecting them entirely.
Xenophobia does often involve racism or cultural discrimination, but anyone can express xenophobic ideas.
For example, a Korean student adopted as a baby by American parents might insist to their classmates, “I was raised here. My parents are white, so I’m American like you. I’m not Korean. I don’t even speak Korean.”
In doing so, they reinforce their sense of themselves as an insider. They belong with “other insiders” — their American peers — rather than “foreign outsiders.”
Xenophobia exists around the world, though you can find any number of examples of xenophobia in United States history, from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to widespread anti-Muslim sentiment following 9/11.
Current events feature plenty of examples of present-day xenophobia in the hate crimes and violent verbal and physical abuse hurled at Asian Americans as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
These examples help illustrate other ways xenophobia might show up in day-to-day life.
Learning a foreign language
During your last weeks of middle school, your homeroom teacher provides a packet of information on registration for high school classes. Over dinner one night, you tell your parents you’re having a hard time choosing between the six foreign language options.
“We have to take two full years, but I’m not sure what I want to study,” you say. “Most of my friends want to take Spanish or French, since they’re ‘easy,’ but I think I want to do something different. Maybe Korean or Chinese.”
“Take French,” your mother recommends. “That, at least, is a language of culture. I don’t understand why they offer those…” she pauses. “Other languages. It’s not like you’ll ever want to go to those countries. Anyway, they all speak English over there anyway.”
You and your two roommates used to go out for dinner together every Friday night. During the pandemic, you’ve started getting takeout and eating at home instead. You take turns choosing the restaurant, and when your turn rolls around, you suggest your favorite Taiwanese restaurant.
“Ehh, that doesn’t sound good to me,” one roommate says. The other agrees.
“It’s my turn,” you remind them. “Anyway, I know you both like that restaurant. Why not tonight?”
“Well, you know,” your roommate hedges. “What with COVID and all… maybe we should skip Asian food for a while. Just to be safe. I mean, you never know, someone who just came from China could be working there, spreading the virus.”
You’re having lunch with your partner and their parents at an outdoor cafe. As you eat, two women wearing hijabs walk down the street, talking to each other and laughing. You don’t recognize the language they’re speaking, but it isn’t English.
Your partner’s father shakes his head. “If they’re not going to dress like normal Americans, they should just stay home where they belong. They should all have to speak English, at the very least. Who knows what they’re secretly plotting, right out in the open?”
In general, a fear of “outsiders” tends to emerge from perceived threats to the “in-group.” This group could be small — a family unit moving to a new neighborhood, for example. The group could also be a larger one, such as a town where most adults have lost their jobs and blame “foreign” workers for their unemployment and poverty.
Xenophobia is a learned response. If you grow up absorbing xenophobic ideas from parents, peers, and other people you spend a lot of time with, you may be more likely to subscribe to these beliefs yourself. Xenophobic attitudes can also develop following trauma or a crisis, including burglary, acts of terror or violence, or a global pandemic.
Political propaganda frequently promotes xenophobia. Some politicians weaponize xenophobia, manipulating emotional tensions within a community to further their own agenda.
Xenophobia and personality traits
A study from 2020 suggested a link between xenophobia and certain personality traits.
Researchers gave 422 university students three different tests: the Xenophobia Scale, the Adjectives Based Personality Test, and the Dirty Dozen Scale.
According to the results, participants who scored high in agreeableness, a Big Five personality trait, tended to display less xenophobia. This makes sense, since agreeableness tends to suggest other traits like compassion, cooperation, and kindness.
Both psychopathy and narcissism typically involve low empathy, or difficulty understanding what other people think and feel. It’s not a huge leap to imagine people with these traits might feel threatened by those they deem “outsiders,” if they have a hard time putting themselves in their shoes and considering their experiences.
These strategies can help you counter xenophobia, whether you witness it in others or experience it yourself.
Stand up instead of standing by
Calling out xenophobic comments lets people know their behavior is problematic.
It can feel a little scary to call out harassment, even in a public place. Remembering the 5 D’s can help you do it safely.
The 5 D’s
- Distract. Don’t feel comfortable calling someone out directly? An indirect approach is just fine — and sometimes safer. You might distract the person by asking them an unrelated question, for example, or pretend you know the person they were harassing and strike up a conversation with them instead.
- Delegate. Locate someone in a position of authority who can back you up. This might be a teacher, the owner of a restaurant, or the library manager.
- Delay. If you can’t do anything to stop the harassment, take a moment to make sure the person is alright. You might ask, for example, if they need help or other support.
- Direct. Politely but firmly tell the person doing the harassing that their behavior isn’t OK.
- Document. If you have your phone handy, film what’s happening in case the person being harassed needs later legal support. You may want to make sure others are present before filming and maintain a safe distance. Avoid posting your footage anywhere without getting permission from the person experiencing the harassment.
Acknowledge and embrace differences
People often feel drawn to those they consider similar, but keep in mind, no one is exactly the same.
Searching for similarities between yourself and someone else might only serve to emphasize how different you actually are. But instead of letting these differences set you apart, ask yourself what you could learn from someone with an entirely different perspective and life experiences.
The more you get to know people from different walks of life, the less unknown they become — and the less likely you are to feel uncomfortable around them. Plus, you might even learn you have more in common than you originally believed.
Have open conversations with kids
Just as you encounter subtle (and not-so-subtle) messages of xenophobia in your daily life, your kids also receive similar messages from their peers.
Speaking honestly with kids about xenophobia and refuting stereotypes with facts can go a long way toward helping them learn to challenge prejudice on their own — and speak up for friends and classmates who become targets.
One helpful step? Encourage them to consider other people as individuals rather than groups. Generalizations and stereotypes only highlight differences, and they can fuel xenophobic attitudes.
You’d say “your friend Hina” instead of “your Japanese friend,” for example.
It’s also important to start with some close exploration of your own behavior. Do you make prejudiced or discriminatory remarks without realizing? Do you make an effort to include everyone, or overlook people you assume “won’t fit in”?
Recognizing and working through xenophobia can take some effort, and it isn’t always easy. If you don’t know where to start on your own, a therapist can help you take the first steps toward addressing xenophobia.
Therapy offers a safe, nonjudgmental space to explore the root of your fears and learn to challenge and reframe them.
Xenophobia often stems from ignorance. Educating yourself with facts, instead of simply accepting what you’ve always heard, and taking time to explore other cultures is key in confronting biased beliefs.
Ready to learn more about quashing xenophobia and becoming anti-racist? These resources can help:
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.