Xenophobia Essay

The term xenophobia derives from the Greek words xenos (“foreign”) and phobos (“fear”), literally meaning a fear of foreigners. This origin is reflected in dictionary definitions, which almost inevitably describe it as a fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners. Despite a clear parallel between xenophobia and prejudice, the former refers solely to an emotional reaction to the other, while the latter is typically defined in ways that suggest both cognitive and emotional components. To the extent that this is the case, xenophobia has a more restrictive usage than prejudice. On the other hand, xenophobia and ethnocentrism are essentially two sides of the same coin, the latter referring to an excessive love of one’s own “people”—be they defined in ethnic, racial, religious, national, or civilizational terms.

Given the word’s origin, in the premodern world certain visceral reactions to the “other” appeared to be, if not typical or universal, at least very common. Contact with strangers within and foreigners from outside accelerated with the advent of the modern age, and a considerable literature developed in Europe that addressed this reality. In the case of strangers within, the classic example was Jews on a predominantly Christian continent. From a relatively early point in time, intellectuals were divided between those who harbored virulently anti-Semitic views and those who promoted tolerance. Anti-Semitism had deep roots in Roman Catholicism, and in this regard there was a remarkable continuity between Catholicism and Protestantism. Indeed, many experts consider Luther’s notorious screed against the Jews, after it became apparent that they did not plan to convert to Christianity, as one of the foundational statements of European anti-Semitism. The Jews he despised, forced to reside in segregated ghettos, were physically close but socially distant. Given that their religion constituted the formative grounding of Christianity, it would be reasonable to assume that they would not be perceived as the stranger within, but clearly this was the predominant sentiment among both intellectuals responsible for the ideological basis of anti-Semitism and ordinary people.

At the same time as Europeans began to venture into heretofore uncharted areas of the globe, thus beginning the era of colonialism, a fateful encounter with the other commenced. The image that emerged to characterize the other was to contrast civilized Europeans to savage or barbarian others. When Montaigne published his famous essay “Of Cannibals” in 1577, his contention was that Europeans offered evidence that they, and not the exotic outsider, were more capable of barbaric acts. His argument clearly presented a position that ran against the current of opinion in Europe. Likewise, in the famous Valladolid debate that pitted Bartolome de Las Casas against Juan Gines de Sepulveda, the former argued that the indigenous people of the Americas indeed possessed souls and thus shared with Europeans a common humanity. His was a minority position at that time.

Since the 19th century and the emergence of mass immigration, the newcomers came to represent the other. This was evident during the earliest wave of immigration in the United States, when the Irish were singled out for contempt. Hostility, fueled by anti-Catholicism, shaped the belief that the Irish represented both a social problem and a threat to democracy due to their presumed willingness to obey the authoritarian dictates of the Vatican. In the following wave of immigration, all Eastern and Southern European immigrants were the victims of xenophobia, but none was hated and feared more than Jews. Accused of being both ruthless capitalist exploiters and, paradoxically, as responsible for fomenting a communist revolution, they were depicted as being intent on world domination. Nowhere was this more on display than in the circulation of the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

In the current wave of migration from the world’s poor nations to the rich ones, the closest counterpart to this earlier instance of xenophobia is what has become known as Islamophobia, a phenomenon more in evidence in the nations of Western Europe than in North America, in no small part because the former nations have absorbed far larger numbers of Muslim immigrants. Shaping the animosity directed at Muslims is the claim that the cultures they bring to their new setting are antithetical to liberal democracies and pluralist societies, and therefore they are both incapable of, and uninterested in, becoming incorporated into the larger society. Such views have been exacerbated since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent attacks in Madrid and London intensify the fear factor, according to public opinion research.

Given that the evidence suggests xenophobia extends throughout recorded history, some scholars argue that it is a universal feature of the human condition. This thesis has been especially evident among those who seek to locate in human biology the key causal factors producing it. This was apparent in the past in eugenics and more recently in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. However, if hostility to outsiders is a universal condition, it would lead to the maladaptive situation in which individuals were limited to interacting only with ingroup members. Moreover, the record indicates that attitudes toward the stranger vary depending on time and circumstance. Nowhere is this more vividly and tragically on display than in the genocide campaigns in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. In both cases, the deeply rooted tensions between groups—Serbs and Muslims in the former case, Hutus and Tutsis in the latter—did not lead to persistent conflict and violence. On the contrary, for extended periods of time these groups peacefully coexisted and in fact often interacted in positive ways (including intermarriage). The potential for xenophobia increases during times of societal crisis, which appears to be a necessary but not sufficient reason for xenophobia to lead to violence. The additional essential ingredients include a leadership committed to inciting mass hatred and a mass media prepared to serve the interests of those elites.

The reverse is also true. Political leaders committed to multiculturalism, with Canada being the most successful example at present, have managed to reduce levels of xenophobia. Thus, new immigrants in Canada confront considerably less hostility and fear than in many other immigrant-receiving nations. Moreover, although tensions between separatist nationalists in Quebec and the rest of Canada are a reality, they do not manifest themselves in terms of hatred or fear. The result is that intergroup conflict has the potential of being managed in constructive ways. Xenophobia, in short, should be viewed as socially constructed and not as an inevitable feature of the human condition.


  1. Brown, Rupert. 1995. Prejudice: Its Social Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
  2. Higham, John. 2002. Strangers in the Land. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  3. Horowitz, Donald L. 2003. The Deadly Ethnic Riot. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  4. van den Berghe, Pierre L. 1999. “Racism, Ethnocentrism, and Xenophobia: In Our Genes or in Our Memes?” Pp. 43-61 in In-group/Out-group Behaviour in Modern Societies: An Evolutionary Perspective, edited by K. Thienpont and R. Cliquet. Brussels, Belgium: NIDI CBGS Publications.

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