What causes Xenophobia?

The word “xenophobia” comes from the Greek words for “foreigner/stranger” and “fear.” Xenophobia is the “fear of strangers.” Is xenophobia a true “phobia,” however? It is classified as an anxiety disorder, but the number of people with a true phobia of those from other countries is extremely rare. It’s so rare that experts remain divided on whether it is even a real mental disorder. The vast majority of the time, “xenophobia” refers to racist and/or prejudiced views on non-nationals, including immigrants. What causes xenophobia? There are four main factors:

#1. A genetic fear of the unknown

The foundational cause of xenophobia may be biological. In the human brain, there’s an almond-shaped region called the amygdala. This part of the brain holds the fight or flight response. It also plays an important role in memory. The amygdala is hardwired to respond to the unknown and unfamiliar with wariness, even fear. On the surface, this makes perfect sense. In the very distant past, it was smart to be cautious around strangers. Life was hard and humans often stole resources from each other to survive. Strangers could also bring new diseases, and without modern healthcare, a new disease might wipe out a group. Consider what happened to the indigenous people of North and South America when smallpox arrived through explorers and colonists.

This biological fear of the unknown meant that people who looked and acted like each other naturally drew close. Though times have changed and we better understand the benefits of diversity, humans still have an unconscious bias that survival depends on conforming.

#2. The belief that outside cultures/groups are inferior

While the amygdala tells us that unfamiliar things are dangerous, other parts of the brain are at work, too. The hippocampus is closely connected to the amygdala. Along with the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus gives context to our fear, letting us know if the emotion we feel is justified. Depending on the worldview we hold about non-nationals, we might believe the fear is logical. That’s xenophobia at work. Why would someone think xenophobia is a reasonable response? They most likely believe in a racial or cultural hierarchy.

Nazism is arguably the best-known example of ethnocentrism, which is the belief that one’s own group or culture is better than every other group. If this is true, every other group that tries to exist and thrives within a nation’s borders is a threat. If one group or race is superior, it’s only logical for them to seek dominance. For the Nazis, the “Aryan race,” which was Hitler’s vision of a racially-pure German race, was superior and therefore destined to rule the world. Anyone who wasn’t an Aryan was impure and a threat to Germany. For the Nazis, Jewish people were the biggest threat. Today, we can still see nations holding to the view that there’s a cultural/ethnic hierarchy and that leaders must protect their countries from non-nationals. Their reasoning might be less blatant than the Nazis, but when one digs further, the belief in superiority becomes clearer.

#3. Economic and political shifts

Xenophobia tends to flare up in times of global economic and political shifts. As people begin to cross borders and immigration increases, “host” countries can feel threatened. A belief that “these immigrants are stealing our jobs” fuels distrust and hatred. People start panicking about depleting resources and cultural changes. This resentment and us vs. them mentality can boil over and lead to violence.

Oftentimes, the political and economic shifts within a nation aren’t even related to immigration, but non-nationals are a convenient scapegoat. Increased immigration might merely reveal the instability in a nation, but politicians, public figures, and the media can fuel the flames of xenophobia. Why? For leaders, blaming outsiders for long-standing problems shields the powerful from accountability and reframes the actual issues. Instead of finding solutions that get the economy back on track, society starts talking about whether certain groups should be banned from the country. The fact that the economy wasn’t doing well before the surge in immigration gets lost in the discussion.

#4. Traumatic events that fuel and reinforce fears of non-nationals

In frightening and uncertain times, people often look for a target for their fear and anger. The rise in Islamophobia after September 11, 2001, is a good example. The FBI reported a spike in hate crimes against Muslims. Violent attacks aren’t the only events that can facilitate xenophobia. Since January 2020, reports of harassment against AAPI people have increased as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. In both these cases, the rhetoric of public figures has contributed to fear and hatred. While people may not say things as blatant as “All Muslims are terrorists” or “Every Chinese person is responsible for Covid-19” (though sometimes they do), an intense focus on a violent attack or traumatic event sends the message that “outsiders” can’t be trusted.