Xenophobia: an undue or irrational fear of foreigners or outsiders
Okay, some will say, but this is a natural human fight-or-flight response, stemming from the days when outsiders were a threat to one’s very survival; for that matter, they still can be, and are.
Fair enough; but allow me to make just three points.
First, note the “undue” and “irrational” in the definition: a natural instinct to be a little wary of outsiders at first encounter is understandable; but a paranoia that persists even after the outsiders are a known quantity is unreasonable.
Second, ask yourself if you know who these outsiders are. Do you mean the people who come from outside your community or country or who speak a different language from your own? I submit to you that any of us can feel like or be perceived to be an outsider, even if we share the same nationality and language as our peers and have lived in the same community from birth. Once you recognize the impossibility of knowing who the outsiders are, xenophobia becomes all the more irrational.
The third point is the kicker. I propose that the fear of foreigners or outsiders often stems from the secret knowledge that you are an outsider yourself. A story from my own experience, not a pretty one, may serve to illustrate.
When I was at boarding school in India two new students, a brother and sister, thirteen, perhaps fourteen years old, joined us. It might have been mid-year, I don’t remember. What I do remember is that they had just come from England where they had been living for a time, their parents having returned to India. Naturally, everything was new and strange to them, and they couldn’t help but compare much of what they were encountering with their experience in England. It seemed to us, though, that every five minutes they were saying, “In England this” or “In England that.” We claimed to find it intensely irritating and started jeering, “In England,” whenever they opened their mouths.
They were pleasant, quiet, and good-natured, those two. The problem was ours, not theirs, but we made it theirs by the way we treated them. Why were we so unkind and intolerant? The obvious answer is that in the 1960’s, barely 20 years since Independence from British rule, we didn’t take kindly to anything Indian getting compared negatively to its English counterpart. But if I search my own motives, a still more troubling—and telling—explanation emerges. I was arguably at least as much of an outsider as the two newcomers were, perhaps more, in that I was half-English, had been born in England, and, at 13, had lived outside of India for almost half of my life. Of all people, I ought to have had some empathy for them, to have been able to reach out and make them feel welcome. But I didn’t, however ashamed I feel about it now. If they ever read this story, I hope they will be able to forgive me.
I could attempt to justify my behavior with the protestation that at the time I was unaware of the personal motivation for it, for the fears about my own belonging that made me challenge theirs all the more vehemently. But that is precisely my point: I contend that many of those who engage in xenophobic behavior are unaware that what drives it is their own insecurity about their status as insiders.
We are all foreigners. And it is our human task to help one another feel a little more at home.