What Is Xenophobia?

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What Is Xenophobia?

Xenophobia, or fear of strangers, is a broad term that may be applied to any fear of someone who is different from us. 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.


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.


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.

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.

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. 

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.

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8 Sources
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