Xenophobia: The Fear of Strangers

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Xenophobia, or fear of strangers, is a broad term that may be applied to any fear of someone different from an individual. Hostility towards outsiders is often a reaction to fear. It typically involves the belief that there is a conflict between an individual's ingroup and an outgroup.

Xenophobia often overlaps with forms of prejudice, including racism and homophobia, but there are important distinctions. Where racism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination are based on specific characteristics, xenophobia is usually rooted in the perception that members of the outgroup are foreign to the ingroup community.

Whether xenophobia qualifies as a legitimate mental disorder is a subject of ongoing debate.

Xenophobia is also associated with large-scale acts of destruction and violence against groups of people.

Signs of Xenophobia

How can you tell if someone is xenophobic? While xenophobia can be expressed in different ways, typical signs include:

  • Feeling uncomfortable around people who fall into a different group
  • Going to great lengths to avoid particular areas
  • Refusing to be friends with people solely due to their skin color, mode of dress, or other external factors
  • Difficulty taking a supervisor seriously or connecting with a teammate who does not fall into the same racial, cultural, or religious group

While it may represent a true fear, most xenophobic people do not have a true phobia. Instead, the term is most often used to describe people who discriminate against foreigners and immigrants.

People who express xenophobia typically believe that their culture or nation is superior, want to keep immigrants out of their community, and may even engage in actions that are detrimental to those who are perceived as outsiders.

Is Xenophobia a Mental Disorder?

Xenophobia is not recognized as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). However, some psychologists and psychiatrists have suggested that extreme racism and prejudice should be recognized as a mental health problem.

Some have argued, for example, that extreme forms of prejudice should be considered a subtype of delusional disorder. It is important to note that those who support this viewpoint also argue that prejudice only becomes pathological when it creates a significant disruption in a person's ability to function in daily life.

Other professionals argue that categorizing xenophobia or racism as a mental illness would be medicalizing a social problem.

Types of Xenophobia

There are two primary types of xenophobia:

  • Cultural xenophobia: This type involves rejecting objects, traditions, or symbols that are associated with another group or nationality. This can include language, clothing, music, and other traditions associated with the culture.
  • Immigrant xenophobia: This type involves rejecting people who the xenophobic individual does not believe belongs in the ingroup society. This can involve rejecting people of different religions or nationalities and can lead to persecution, hostility, violence, and even genocide.

The desire to belong to a group is pervasive—and strong identification with a particular group can even be healthy. However, it may also lead to suspicion of those who are perceived to not belong.

It is natural and possibly instinctive to want to protect the interests of the group by eliminating threats to those interests. Unfortunately, this natural protectiveness often causes members of a group to shun or even attack those who are perceived as different, even if they actually pose no legitimate threat at all.

Xenophobia vs. Racism

Xenophobia and racism are similar in that they both involve prejudice and discrimination, but there are important differences to consider. Where xenophobia is the fear of anyone who is considered a foreigner, racism is specifically directed toward people based on their race or ethnicity. People can be both xenophobic and racist.

Examples of Xenophobia

Unfortunately, xenophobia is all too common. It can range from covert acts of discrimination or subtle comments to overt acts of prejudice or even violence. Some examples of xenophobia include:

  • Immigration policies: Xenophobia can influence how nations deal with immigration. This may include hostility and outright discrimination against immigrants. Specific groups of people may be the target of bans designed to keep them from moving to certain locations.
  • Displacement: In the U.S., the forcible removal of Indigenous people from their land is an example of xenophobia. The use of residential schools in the U.S. and Canada was also rooted in xenophobic attitudes and was designed to force the cultural assimilation of Native American people.
  • Violence: For example, attacks on people of Asian descent have increased in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Causes of Xenophobia

There are a number of different factors believed to contribute to xenophobia: 

  • Social and economic insecurity: People often look for someone to blame in times of economic hardship or social upheaval. Immigrants and minorities are often scapegoated as the cause of society's ills.
  • Lack of contact: People with little or no contact with people from other cultures or backgrounds are more likely to be fearful or mistrustful of them.
  • Media portrayals: The way immigrants and minorities are portrayed in the media can also influence people's attitudes towards them. If they are only shown in a negative light, it can reinforce people's prejudices.
  • Fear of strangers: In general, people are more likely to be afraid of unfamiliar things. This can apply to both physical appearance and cultural differences.

Impact of Xenophobia

Xenophobia doesn't just affect people at the individual level. It affects entire societies, including cultural attitudes, economics, politics, and history. Examples of xenophobia in the United States include acts of discrimination and violence against Latinx, Mexican, and Middle Eastern immigrants.

Xenophobia has been linked to:

  • Hostility towards people of different backgrounds
  • Decreased social and economic opportunity for outgroups
  • Implicit bias toward members of outgroups
  • Isolationism
  • Discrimination
  • Hate crimes
  • Political positions
  • War and genocide
  • Controversial domestic and foreign policies

Certainly, not everyone who is xenophobic starts wars or commits hate crimes. But even veiled xenophobia can have insidious effects on both individuals and society. These attitudes can make it more difficult for people in certain groups to live within a society and affect all aspects of life including housing access, employment opportunities, and healthcare access.

The twisting of a positive trait (group harmony and protection from threats) into a negative (imagining threats where none exist) has led to any number of hate crimes, persecutions, wars, and general mistrust.

Xenophobia has a great potential to cause damage to others, rather than affecting only those who hold these attitudes.

How to Combat Xenophobia

If you struggle with feelings of xenophobia, there are things that you can do to overcome these attitudes.

  • Broaden your experience. Many people who display xenophobia have lived relatively sheltered lives with little exposure to those who are different from them. Traveling to different parts of the world, or even spending time in a nearby city, might go a long way toward helping you face your fears.
  • Fight your fear of the unknown. Fear of the unknown is one of the most powerful fears of all. If you have not been exposed to other races, cultures, and religions, gaining more experience may be helpful in conquering your xenophobia.
  • Pay attention. Notice when xenophobic thoughts happen. Make a conscious effort to replace these thoughts with more realistic ones.

If your or a loved one's xenophobia is more pervasive, recurring despite exposure to a wide variety of cultures, then professional treatment might be in order. Choose a therapist who is open-minded and interested in working with you for a long period of time.

Xenophobia is often deeply rooted in a combination of upbringing, religious teachings, and previous experiences. Successfully combating xenophobia generally means confronting numerous aspects of the personality and learning new ways of experiencing the world.

What Is the Opposite of Xenophobic?

While xenophobia describes a fear of strangers, foreigners, or immigrants, xenophilia, or the act of being xenophilic, describes an appreciation and attraction to foreign people or customs.

History of Xenophobia

Xenophobia has played a role in shaping human history for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks and Romans used their beliefs that their cultures were superior to justify the enslavement of others. Many nations throughout the world have a history of xenophobic attitudes toward foreigners and immigrants. 

The term xenophobia originates from the Greek word xenos meaning "stranger" and phobos meaning "fear.

Xenophobia has also led to acts of discrimination, violence, and genocide throughout the world, including:

  • The World War II Holocaust 
  • The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II
  • The Rwandan genocide
  • The Holodomor genocide in Ukraine
  • The Cambodian genocide

Recent examples in the United States include discrimination toward people of Middle Eastern descent (often referred to as "Islamophobia") and xenophobic attitudes towards Mexican and Latinx immigrants. The COVID-19 pandemic also led to reports of xenophobia directed toward people of East Asian and Southeast Asian descent in countries throughout the world.

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Lisa Fritscher
Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer and editor with a deep interest in phobias and other mental health topics.