Xenophobia is derived from the terms phobos (meaning “fear”) and xenos (“strangers”). Thus, xenophobia is defined as fear of strangers or of the unknown or of anything that is different. The fears are unwarranted and triggered by unfounded beliefs and generalizations. These fears sometimes incite hostile behavior and attitudes toward the unknown target.
Some scholars suggest that xenophobia is at the root of racism such that individuals see themselves as part of a superior racial ingroup of similar individuals and see other people as part of an inferior outgroup. The outgroup members are perceived as physically and psychologically dissimilar. Thus, prejudiced attitudes and discrimination toward the outgroup member are by-products of a xenophobic climate. Expressed preferences for ingroup familiarities are problematic and reinforce intolerance in a supposedly pluralistic society. In most societies, there are individuals who are socially, culturally, or otherwise different from the majority.
Xenophobia can lead to either overt discrimination or subtle exclusion of certain individuals. This exclusion is also problematic. Persons who present an unbiased attitude but act in subtle ways that reflect implicit biases regarding race are characterized an aversive racists. The subtlety is in justifying the racist behavior based on some factor other than race. Beyond racism, xenophobia is believed to underlie heterosexism or homophobia. These irrational and irreconcilable fears of human beings based on sexual behavior and practices are also based on gross overgeneralizations and misunderstanding.
Xenophobia is important in the context of counseling in that practitioners and clients are atypically matched by race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or a number of fixed factors. Xenophobia potentially contributes to racial microaggressions, subtle verbal and nonverbal communications that demean others as a function of their membership in some stereotyped group. On an implicit level, subtle behavior negatively affects therapeutic experiences and may contribute to the underuse of professional mental health services by certain groups.
People are believed to naturally categorize themselves, preferring similar others and minimizing those who are different. Although this process allows individuals to reduce complex human characteristics to simplified categories, the side effect is demeaning attitudes and behavior toward underrepresented persons across multiple contexts.
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- Dovidio, J. F., Gaertner, S. L., Kawakami, K., & Hodson, G. (2002). Why can’t we just get along? Interpersonal biases and interracial distrust. Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology, 8, 88-102.
- Jones, J. M. (1997). Prejudice and racism. New York: McGraw-Hill.
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