Our family has hosted seven foreign exchange students over the years, and our younger daughter was a Rotary Exchange student for a year in another country. We have also traveled extensively throughout the world where we have experienced cultures dramatically different from our own. So the idea that anyone has a fear of, or dislike for, foreigners is a mystery to me. But that’s exactly what xenophobia is all about. It is an irrational fear or dislike of anyone who comes from another country or is somehow “different” from us.
If we understand that it is a natural thing for people to see others like themselves as extensions of themselves, it is possible to embrace the idea that xenophobia is a legitimate discomfort with those who are of a different color, speak a different language, or have cultural patterns which differ from one’s own. That discomfort can demonstrate itself in any number of ways, from a mild uneasiness to a violent reaction against the supposed aliens. That is not to condone xenophobia, but if we are to embrace the idea that humans have the capability of all kinds of phobias in the form of emotional conditions, we have to include those who legitimately experience phobic responses to people different from themselves.
But for the most part, when we use the word xenophobia in common speech, we are more focused upon a cultural pattern which may embrace racism, and which is seen as destructive by most of society. The inherent danger of xenophobia is that it generalizes, including people of varying characteristics in deeply-held fears about terrorists or others who are believed to have an intention of harming.
Within hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, two men from India were detained on a train in New England, being seen as potential terrorists. They were businessmen traveling from Boston to New York on a project, but their color, their clothing and their speech was believed to be threatening to the safety of Americans. They were released with apologies eventually, but it was just the beginning of a rapidly-expanding xenophobia in America, based upon our fear-filled response to having been attacked by Islamic terrorists. Our lack of understanding of the Middle East and the Far East has fueled that xenophobia and, quite truthfully, there is a resistance to learning more about “those people.” That persistent ignorance is a characteristic of American life which fails to allow us to cope with the global society in which we live.
States which have been affected by the massive influx of people entering this nation (legally and illegally) through Mexico have developed similar fears and dislikes for Latino people. The tendency is to group all of them into a block which is defined as illegal immigrants, resulting in insult and injury to thousands of innocent people who just happen to have a Latino heritage.
No one needs to spend a great deal of time defining the xenophobia/racism which surrounds the experience of black people in this country. While some may sooth their consciences by believing that the Civil War and the subsequent legislation against racial injustice has solved the problem of racism in this country, the reality is that it is very much alive and perhaps even more insidious than when it was more common and easily defined.
It would seem to me that we have seen an up-tick in the incidence of xenophobia in our national life. It may well be that the social media is one phenomenon aiding that perspective, in that it is more difficult to hide or disguise racism in today’s world without it being exposed on the internet. But I am also inclined to believe that our drift toward fundamentalism in national life is equally responsible for the growth of xenophobia and the resulting experience of American life in which it is more difficult for persons of color to live without fear in our society. That is a sad commentary on American life.
Photo Credit: China Daily