Josna Rege

206. Xenophobia

In 1960s, Britain, Childhood, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, Politics, Stories, Words & phrases on April 27, 2013 at 11:46 pm

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.

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  1. That is a great sign. Looking back on things we did in our youth that we wish we hadn’t is so difficult. Always seems like it would have been so easy to just do right.

    • Isn’t it, Kristin? I found it on the site of a community organization working to address the violent xenophobic reactions in South Africa against the presence of migrants from other parts of Africa.
      About the mistakes of one’s youth, I suppose it’s pointless to fret about them. As you say, it hindsight it seems as if it should have been easy to do the right thing, but of course, it wasn’t. Still, one can hope that it’s possible to learn something by looking back.

  2. Bigotry is the most frustrating thing, I think. It serves no social or developmental purpose.

    • Well put, Kellie. The vehemence with which people can hold xenophobic positions always frightens me. How can people whom they don’t know inspire so much hate? It seems that all the ills and injustices of society and all the individuals personal frustrations are projected on to them. I suppose that’s how scapegoating works. But as you say, it doesn’t lead to anything good.

  3. We grow from our ability to analyze our past actions and admit if we were wrong. Well written…

    • Thank you, Udita. I hope you’re right, and that we don’t only see the error of our ways in retrospect, but can actually be mindful enough to put the new understanding into action.

  4. A great perspective on xenophobia. Like you, I look back to a time when we were irritated with expats being critical of South African culture. Today, being an expat myself, I understand the resistance of some locals while also realizing that criticism of one’s host country is really a part of culture shock – your need to acknowledge, and express your feelings, at the differences.

    • Thank you for your comment. I’ve read and re-read it and am still not sure I fully understand all the situations and dynamics you’re referring to. When you speak of expats being critical of South African culture in the past, do you mean foreigners living in South Africa for a time and voicing criticisms of the dominant group’s culture? Or do you mean South Africans living abroad and voicing criticisms from afar?
      In the example I gave, the newcomers to our school were Indian, and had returned to India after having lived in England for some time.
      What you say about an expatriate’s criticism of their host country is very insightful. As you note, it is part of processing the newness of everything, a necessary way of coming to terms with the experience and trying to make sense of all the differences.

      • Well, yes, you’ll find it in the description of culture shock; it describes the various phases most – though not all – people go through to adapt to a new culture.

  5. One thing I seem to have learned is that people are often insecure in a new situation and they try to use their experience, foreign or otherwise, to boost their own self esteem by pointing out how different or “special” they are.
    Unfortunately, this usually has the opposite effect because it can be irritating to those of us who feel just as insecure. As youngsters we were all trying to learn what aptitudes we had that would later make us successful adults, and being immature, we didn’t yet realize how affirming it is to cut each other more slack.

    • This is such a wise observation, Marianne. You’re absolutely right about all of us feeling insecure for one reason or another. I know I was guilty of taking refuge in my “special-ness” when in a new situation. Why were/are we all so judgemental? x J

  6. I was similarly a jerk when I was young. I remember distinctly in high school that a girl moved in from somewhere that seemed very exotic, perhaps Eastern Europe, which in the ’60s seemed more distant and exotic than it does today. All the teachers liked her and gave her lots of attention. She wore very old-fashioned clothes, and I, who thought of myself as smart and open-minded and certainly didn’t care about anything so trivial as clothes, looked down on her with contempt for the way she dressed. I was ashamed of my feelings, and I don’t think I said anything to anyone about them (I hope not), but I felt them strongly. It’s absurdly easy to see in retrospect how much of an outsider I felt myself to be. It’s the old story about kicking the dog because everyone else is too big to hurt. Anyway, I’m glad that travel and age conspired to grow me up and out of such stupidity.

    • Except that you didn’t kick her, Sarah, not in deeds, not even in words, only in thought–which you later thought better of. And you did your stint in Eastern Europe, no doubt being the recipient of people’s projections about the U.S.!

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