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What is Xenophobia?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2016
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Xenophobia is a tricky word to define due to its common misusage in the English language. In strict definition the word means an irrational fear of strangers or things foreign, but in everyday language people may see xenophobia and racism used as synonyms. The brass tacks difference has to do with the word racism, which tends to translate as hatred of things different or of persons of a different race or foreign identity. The most important words to note, here, are “fear of” and “hatred of.” While fear can lead to hatred, it does not always do so.

This difference might be best illustrated with a couple of examples. A person with xenophobia who enters a French restaurant might be scared by the staff, worried by the menu, and feel panicky, confused, or upset by the whole experience. The racist person entering the restaurant would be more likely to insult the staff, complain about the food, and get angered by having to be there. Anger and upset are simply not the same, and there is more purposeful behavior expressed by the racist than the xenophobe.

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It’s also important to bear in mind that phobias are irrational fears. They are not immediately under control of the person who has them, though they can be cured over time when a person desires a cure. The xenophobe, if he or she desires, could theoretically begin different forms of therapy to recover from adverse fear of things foreign. This could include exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, and the condition might also be treated to some degree with anxiety medications, which might help to control scared or panicked response to foreign or strange things and people.

Cures to racism exist too, but they may be along a different path. Education and access to different ideas are important. Racists or other discriminatory people may not require a therapist or anxiety medications, though some might, to overcome ideas of anger or hatred about a specific group.

Certainly, it has been argued that hatred and racism arise from fear, though it can’t always be proven that this is the case. Yet, many organizations that attack different races do all they can to exploit fear, elevating it to unreasonable levels so participants are willing to act in violent or aggressive ways. While it is true these fears are irrational, most people experiencing them are still not experiencing true phobia. There are definitely people with xenophobia who do become racist, but not all do.

One thing that bears mention is that xenophobia doesn’t have to be only fear of foreign people. It could be fear of anyone with differences or that is perceived to be a stranger. This could mean real fear of people within a nation, frightening thoughts about those with different religions, gender preferences, or sexual preferences, and the list could perpetuate. What people fear may depend on each individual, but the greater the irrational fear of difference, the more xenophobic a person may be.

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