In General Knowledge, Phobias & Fears

Understanding Xenophobia in Today’s World


The dictionary attempts to define xenophobia as “an unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers, or of their politics and culture.” While this serves as a framework for understanding what xenophobia means, it does little to impart the impact that xenophobia has on the victims who are the target of such abuse. Examples of xenophobia are evident on the local level, in the fears of small-minded people, and have occasionally manifests itself on the national scene in the form of discriminatory behavior, as evidenced by the particular system of xenophobia in South Africa: Apartheid.

To turn the microscope on South Africa, and its particular brutal form of xenophobia, risks missing examples of the behavior closer to home here in America. Xenophobia in America has served as a consistent strain running through our national consciousness in a paradoxical counterpoint to the message on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me you’re your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.”

The fact remains, at various times throughout our national history, the meaning of xenophobia translated into the loss of political, economic, and social power for marginalized groups that did not conform to the notion of who exactly constituted a “huddled mass” worthy of inclusion under the umbrella of “American Exceptionalism.”

The idea of “American Exceptionalism,” the theory that the United States is qualitatively different from the other nation states of the world, is as old as Puritan John Winthrop’s admonition to his fellow travelers in 1630 that their new community would be, “as a city upon the hill—watched by the world.”

Planted within this sermon was a seed of hubris that would sprout occasional xenophobic outbreaks throughout the remainder of United States’ history. The current clamoring to “secure the border” by conservative groups within the United States represents only the latest of examples of xenophobia in America.

Regardless of the country, community, or people, what prompts xenophobia examples within a culture? Frequently, it arises from the psychology of how we view the “others” of society.

Whether that implies eschewing the weird kid on the playground that keeps to himself, or demonizing the thousands of unaccompanied kids on the southern American border, our tendency to categorize and pigeonhole is an innate one.

Psychologists point to the “psychology of the other” to help put a human face on the definition of xenophobia, with the hope that such visualizations will prompt a change to the knee-jerk reactions of xenophobes when confronted with an increasingly diverse population.

The Psychology of the “Other” Created by Distance

In and of itself, it is natural to view the strange or different with some form of askance. After all, it is the unknown and that mystery is always fraught with doubt, concern, and apprehension. Among the people of different nations, and dissimilar cultures, the fear of the unknown is a breeding ground for mistrust that are heavily freighted with misconceptions formed out of ignorance and arrogance.

Nations are composed of individuals however, and psychologists, who specialize in studying the individual, look to their behavior to understand larger patterns of xenophobia in society, which we can apply to arrive at a real world meaning of xenophobia.

There are many ways to measure distance. The physical miles that separate people act as a barrier to communication, and communication is the precondition for understanding one another. Just as the geographer will analyze distance as the measurement of physical space, the psychologist looks at distance as a “psychological space,” to explain the degree to which we feel connected with one another.

For instance, in describing the deteriorating condition of your marriage, you might say that you feel “distant from your loved one,” or perhaps in trying to grasp the worldview of your neighbor, you may decry that you are “worlds apart” in how the two of you view a particular issue. In short, you feel psychologically distant from them, but you apply a physical definition of distance to explain the emotional and intellectual estrangement of the two parties.

Bridging this psychological gap is dependant on two conditions: the size of the psychological chasm that separates you, and the willingness of both parties to lessen that gap. By not playing the xenophobia game, individuals have the power to defy any established dictionary definition of xenophobia. Sadly, seeking solace in the familiar, they rarely move beyond their own prejudices.

Xenophobia in America: A Brief History

For much of the Republic’s early history the ideal immigrant hailed from northern Europe. Great Britain, Germany, and the Nordic nations all delivered what early Americans viewed as quality stock for mixing in the American melting pot. Unfortunately, for xenophobes, reasons for immigration are typically two-fold. They represent pulling factors, such as the economic promise of America luring hopefuls to her shores, and pushing factors like war or grinding poverty that effectively “pushes” the desperate immigrants to those shores.

While you can attempt to draw only the best of the world to your shores to help add to the bounty that is your nation, you can’t hope to control the historical forces that occasionally swept up millions of people into its vortex before depositing them on those same shores.

Since its colonial inception, the United States has experienced four great waves of immigrants.

The first, the colonial era, drew in less than a million immigrants, according to historians, but that relatively small number accomplished big things on the new continent. Drawn predominantly from Great Britain, this homogenous group shared the same “psychological space” as one another, and there was little rancor between the various national groups. Indeed, with the presence of an aboriginal population, these early settlers concentrated the bulk of their xenophobic fears on this group.

The second great wave of immigration picked up steam around the middle of the 19th-century, and is said to have continued through to the 1880s. Much like the earlier epoch, this group arrived from northern Europe, but with a singular difference.

The 1840s witness a potato famine in the Emerald Isle, and prompted millions of Irish families to take to the high seas in search of a better life in the United States. While the years prior had hosted Irish immigrants to America, those earlier settlers were largely protestant. This latter wave was comprised of predominately-Catholic adherents, and their arrival ignited a xenophobic wild fire against their presence in the largely Protestant United States.

The third wave of immigrants to America began trickling to the United States in the 1890s, and lasted until the eve of the Second World War in the 1930s. Unlike earlier groups, this wave originated in southern and eastern Europe and was comprised of such groups as Italians, Greeks, Russians, Poles, and Hungarians. Among the nearly 25 million immigrants who took up residents in the United States during those years, an estimated four million were Jews.

Fear of being overwhelmed by this tidal wave of humanity, the American government took legislative action to starkly limit the number of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. This legislative action took the form of a quota system favoring northern European immigrants over their southern brethren.

During this same period, in reaction to American xenophobia in California, the United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusionary Act of 1882, which effectively halted the immigration of citizens of the Middle Kingdom. The Chinese were already in the United States thanks to their participation in the California Gold Rush, but also owing to the efforts of Leland Stanford, president of the Central-Pacific Railroad, who imported thousand of Chinese workers to toil away on the building of the transcontinental railroad. Once the line was complete however, native prejudices rose against the hard working group and demanded the flow be stopped.

The fourth, and final, wave of immigration began after 1965 and continues to this day. Just as the earlier waves were distinguishable by the geographic regions they drew from, this final wave was distinct in that it drew primarily from Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.

One impetus of this latest movement was the ending of European colonialism in Africa and Asia beginning in the 1950s and accelerating through the 1960s. Perhaps more important however, the United States government passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which did away with the quota system that was previously the law for the past four decades. As such, this latest wave is a clear example of the push-pull effects of immigration.

The latest permutation of this wave can be seen in the aforementioned unaccompanied Latin American children who have arrived in record numbers over the past year. This group, mostly from the Central American nations of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras has excited a national debate regarding their care, housing, and repatriation back to their own nations.

With dog whistle overtones of racism, the current debate has seen its share of xenophobes balking at their arrival. When American Exceptionalism is portrayed by angry mobs hurling curses at passing school buses filled with scared children, one has to think that the Puritan, John Winthrop, would be egregiously upset by what has become of his “city upon a hill.” The reality is however; our willingness to accept the world’s “huddled masses” is largely predicated on where those poor wretched souls originated from.

As indicated, bridging that gap necessitates the willing to close that gap, and that requires shedding the heavy baggage of prejudices that many people carry. All that the classic definition xenophobia offers to people is the fear of the unknown and unfamiliar. As definitions go, that characterization begins to fall apart once individuals lay aside their predisposition against that which is foreign, and embrace the possibilities of an entirely new worldview and experience. A people’s attitudes toward xenophobia define the nation, but the nation also informs the population’s outlook.

For anyone grasping for an understanding of xenophobia, it is recommended that you put away the dictionary and pick up a history book to fully appreciate our nation’s uneven record in welcoming newcomers. Giving xenophobia meaning means more than reciting a xenophobia definition or using xenophobia in a sentence, it requires an understanding of history. To give it meaning requires understanding its effects on the people who practice it and those who suffer from its effects.

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