- Xenophobia is the natural human tendency to be fearful of people classified as the other.
- The bases on which this classification rests, such as “race,” are culturally constructed and change across time and space.
- Human beings can be divided into any category imaginable, inevitably resulting in xenophobia.
In public discourse, but often within psychological literature, racism is regularly portrayed as a natural tendency rooted in human nature. We often hear how racism is the natural consequence of our tendency to fear strangers, or the other.
However, this assumption is false because it conflates xenophobia with acts of racism. Xenophobia is the human tendency to be fearful of strangers and seems to be rooted in human nature. However, the question becomes how we classify people as strangers. This changes over time. Therefore, the classification of people as strangers is culturally constructed, with racism being one of its many forms.
To better understand the distinction between xenophobia as a natural behavioral expression versus racism as a socially constructed behavioral expression, we must go back to when the majority of humankind lived their lives as hunter-gatherers. In those days, simply being a member of a different tribe meant that you were deemed a stranger. While people of another tribe phenotypically looked the same, for example, based on skin color, hair color, and facial features, their outfits or language were different. Therefore, based on these distinctive characteristics, people were judged as strangers, triggering xenophobia.
Thousands of years later, we developed religions, and people began judging others as strangers based on religious beliefs. Very recently, approximately 500 years ago, racism was invented by European colonists who started classifying people with different skin colors as different from each other. Consequently, because European colonialism had such a tremendous impact on most of the world, this unscientific classification system based on the idea of “race” globalized, resulting in xenophobia expressed through racism.
To understand why we are naturally xenophobic, look at the animal kingdom. For example, chimpanzees, our closest relatives, become highly alert and nervous when they encounter chimps from another tribe. But many other animals also show wariness when encountering species members from different tribes, such as wolves and lions. As a result, these animals’ tribes often claim and defend their territory against each other. Therefore, we can confidently say that xenophobia, as a behavioral universal, arose very early.
However, this does not mean that xenophobia is reasonable or still adaptive. What may have worked once can be highly problematic or even destructive now. For example, considering that our complex societies are now highly diverse, we may question if it still makes sense to judge people as strangers based on tribal features such as religions. Additionally, because complex societies now consist of people of all colors, it does not make sense to judge people as “racially” different based on this superficial characteristic.
I hear you asking, if xenophobia and its many expressions such as racism do not make sense anymore, then why is it still so prevalent? In psychology, we call this minimal group paradigm (Diehl, 1990), which suggests that it does not matter on what basis one creates categorical distinctions. Creating categories of people results in ingroup favoritism and outgroup derogation — that is, any categorical distinction will suffice. If, for example, I stand in front of one of my classes and divide people up based on some nonsense characteristic — people with a backpack versus people with another type of bag — immediately after this separation into two groups, students will start to experience favorable sentiments toward their ingroup and more ambivalence and weariness toward the outgroup. This is an exceptionally powerful tendency of human beings that is universal, which means we see it among human beings worldwide.
However, as mentioned before, the categorical distinctions on which xenophobia rests are socially constructed. They are made up by us and changed throughout history. Race and racism were non-existent during most of human history. The Romans and Egyptians had rulers of all skin colors. Race as the categorical distinction that we know today did not yet exist.
Similarly, having freckles or being tall are human features that are currently not used as categorical distinctions. However, the moment we systematically highlight these arbitrary distinctions, people will begin to become xenophobic based on them. Consistently portraying people with freckles as the other and different would result in the same problem as racism toward that group of people. Simply lumping people into social categories inevitably creates some form of xenophobia.
Hence, the targets of xenophobia are arbitrary and fluid. They can change at any moment. We can observe it with geopolitical events: The moment Muslims were repeatedly portrayed as the other during George Bush’s war on terror, stigmatization of Muslims increased globally. A similar effect could be observed when racism against Jews in Nazi Germany increased after the systematic classification of Jews as “The Other.” Societies that have been harmonious for hundreds or even thousands of years can suddenly become severely divided by focusing on (made up) social categories and portraying groups as different from each other.
The European colonial powers were exceptionally efficient in using this human tendency. Take Malaysia as an example. The British would pit the Malay, Chinese, and Indian ethnic groups against each other by assigning them to different societal roles, resulting in them becoming divided and xenophobic toward each other based on ethnic distinctions such as religion, skin color, and the infamous idea of race. We can still observe severe intergroup discrimination in Malaysia, a society that remains divided along ethnic lines dating from colonial times (Goh, 2008).
That brings us to why xenophobia is so often used and abused by political rulers. The answer is simple: Xenophobia is an efficient tool to keep people divided. Colonial powers knew this early on. By separating people based on superficial characteristics, such as skin color, and then assigning qualities to these features (such as being civilized vs. barbarian, or intelligent vs. backward), people started to believe that they were different from each other based on these highly unscientific classifications. Hence, xenophobia had multiple advantages to those in power:
- (a) Xenophobia ensured that people in colonies would stay divided and not join hands to rise against an elite that tended to oppress them for their gain. Historically, political elites enriched themselves while other people in their societies lived relatively impoverished lives. By keeping the people divided and fearful of each other, they would not join hands to overthrow their oppressors.
- (b) Xenophobia diverts the blame. By blaming people of a different religion, race, or skin color for one’s troubles, political elites can make you think that bad situations are not due to the government's mismanagement but because of people classified as different. Take Covid-19 as an example. In many countries, China and Chinese people were blamed for the virus, and people started to fear those who look Chinese. This was an exceptionally efficient way to divert the blame from the often total mismanagement of governments to help their populations deal with Covid-19.
- (c) Finally, xenophobia benefits exploitation. To get back to the roots of racism, when colonizers portrayed non-white, non-European people as different and often sub-human centuries ago, they created the mental justification to oppress and exploit the non-European world because one could simply think that it was natural to rule over people who cannot govern themselves. This effectively eradicated any sense of cognitive dissonance within the colonists that would otherwise stop them from harming other groups of people.
In summary, to eradicate racism, we must become aware that our ancestors invented the notion of race for self-fulfilling reasons rooted in unscientific assumptions. Educating ourselves by understanding our history of inventing arbitrary social classifications that result in the xenophobic rejection of others may be the first step toward a world rooted in egalitarianism instead of social hierarchies.
Diehl, M. (1990). The minimal group paradigm: Theoretical explanations and empirical findings. European review of social psychology, 1(1), 263-292.
Goh, D. P. (2008). From colonial pluralism to postcolonial multiculturalism: Race, state formation and the question of cultural diversity in Malaysia and Singapore. Sociology Compass, 2(1), 232-252.