Xenophobia: What is it?
Most simply, xenophobia refers to a fear of people. More specifically, it targets people that are different than you. This is a term not to be confused with racism, as xenophobia is much more broad. It can refer to race, but also to culture, belief system, political viewpoint, social class, etc. How is it that fear causes hateful behavior and attitudes? Is it in our nature as humans to label those who are different from ourselves as a threat? If history has taught us anything, fearing people who are different than us leads to a vicious cycle of distrust and hate that inevitably weakens us as individuals and as a society much like a disease.
Xenophobia: A historical look
In the 17th century, English settlers began swarming the lands of North America in search of freedom from religious persecution and new opportunities. They brought with them hope for the future, weapons, spices like sugar and pepper, and plants like garlic and lettuce. They also brought smallpox, influenza, yellow fever, and rats. This presented a major problem for the Native Americans as they had never encountered these diseases before, therefore, they had no immunity to them. Suddenly, tribes were being wiped out from disease. Some scientists theorize that a great majority of these deaths are attributed to Leptospirosis, a bacterial disease spread through urine from black rats that were common to England who were aboard every English ship that washed ashore.
This mortality brought with it another problem: xenophobia. This led to fear and hatred on both sides. The Native Americans’ fear of disease from abroad became the rationale for fearing the foreign-born, and the English were stigmatized as carriers of disease. On the other side, Native Americans were defined by their differences in behavior, dress, and culture rather than by their differences in environment. This led to tremendous amounts of persecution brought on by the English as the natives were viewed as savages. If you know anything about history, you know this did not end well for the Native Americans.
In Times of Crisis, Fear Cultivates Discrimination
In December, 2019 the first case of the novel coronavirus, Covid-19, was discovered in Wuhan China. Since then, it has spread to almost every country in the world leading to a pandemic. Today, there are 131,366 confirmed cases in the United States alone. Just as with previous outbreaks of disease, this instance has also been characterized by feelings of uncertainty, societal, corporate and governmental disruption, and is harboring an overall climate of fear and distrust. Yes, xenophobia has reared its ugly head once again.
All over the world people of Asian descent are being discriminated against and looked at as “disease carriers” or “gross people”. It’s so odd to me. How are people minding their own business on a metro looked at as gross when the xenophobic behavior being projected on to them is deemed as acceptable. There have been many similar stories of xenophobic behavior towards people of Asian descent.
How do we eradicate this disease?
When viruses invade our cells, the cell is looked upon as a factory. The virus uses up the cell’s energy, shuts down the cells normal pathways of acquiring materials and creating new proteins. This leads to changes and damage within our DNA. And it ends with an overall invasion our bodies that inhibit our innate defense systems that allow us to fight off the infection.
Xenophobia attacks us in similar ways. When introduced to fear, our bodies go into a “fight or flight” mode. This initiates certain behavioral responses. In the case of xenophobia, the response is hatred. This hatred then invades our bodies and minds. It competes with the part of us that has compassion and empathy for others until those behaviors become blocked. This could very well lead to changes in our DNA that allow xenophobia to be passed on from generation to generation.
When we contract a virus, our bodies must adjust to the presence of these foreign bodies and produce the antibodies needed to fight them. So, in order to fight xenophobia we need to develop “antibodies” against it.
We must remind ourselves that we are ALL human. We are ALL in this together. Immigrants are not infectious. Cultural differences cannot be wiped away no matter how much bleach you use. People who are “different” are not foreign invaders attacking our well-being.