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Xenophobia, the fear of the unknown and sociocultural ignorance

Brazilian society sells an image of a welcoming and receptive country towards foreigners, but these attitudes change when the person belongs to certain countries or regions considered by certain groups as “inferior” – socially and/or economically. This feeling of superiority opens the door for xenophobia to occur. Dr. in Anthropology Joana Porto talks about the importance of fighting oppressive attitudes and addresses the main doubts on the subject.

What is xenophobia?

For Porto, “xenophobia is a feeling of aversion, distrust, fear, antipathy and rejection towards foreigners who come from another country or from outside a region”. That is, xenophobia is a type of prejudice that refers to discrimination against foreigners and their national identity.

The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) has defined xenophobia as “attitudes, prejudices and behaviors that reject, exclude and defame people based on the perception that they are aliens to the national community or society”. Thus, it can be perceived by the demonstration of hatred towards the foreigner/migrant, with discriminatory attitudes and behavior.

This bias often involves the idea that there is a conflict between an internal group of individuals and a specific external group. For example, Arabs and Muslims are targets of this prejudice in Europe; Latinos, in general, are targeted by the United States. In Brazil, xenophobia is directed towards Venezuelan and Haitian immigrants and the population from the northeast of the country.

types of xenophobia

To further elucidate, Porto explains that there are two main types of xenophobia, but both involve prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behaviors:

  • Cultural Xenophobia: This type involves rejecting objects, traditions or symbols that are associated with another group or different nationality.
  • Immigrant Xenophobia: This type has to do with the rejection of people that the xenophobic individual believes are not part of society.

The word ‘xenophobia’ originated in Greece, by combining ‘xénos’ (foreign or stranger) and ‘phobos’ (fear). In other words, ‘fear of the different’ or ‘fear of foreigners’. But why are people so afraid of the different? The next topic attempts to clarify this issue.

Why does xenophobia happen?

For the specialist, “one of the main reasons for xenophobia to occur is the fear of the unknown, which happens due to sociocultural ignorance”. However, there are several other reasons, one of which is times of economic crisis, as the economic issue is also a parameter that creates a dichotomy.

Also, the fear of losing status social is also involved, as xenophobia becomes a way of guaranteeing a national identity, of maintaining superiority in the midst of difficulties and the desire to blame someone for moments of crisis.

Porto states that “this type of prejudice is manifested through discriminatory comments about a certain group based on its origin, government policies of specific foreign groups, intimidation and acts of violence against people and their cultural elements”.

Is there xenophobia in Brazil?

Despite the cultural and ethnic variation that exists in Brazil – where the majority of the population is descended from indigenous peoples, white Europeans, Africans, Muslims, Jews and Orientals – the existence of this prejudice is noticeable.

In his master’s thesis, researcher Reinaldo Venâncio states that “the Brazilian reception, both public and private, presents itself as welcoming and guarantor of Human Rights at first. Subsequently, social behavior changes as the immigration wave strengthens and acquires a permanent character.

Despite all the miscegenation present in Brazil and the advances in debates on the subject, this prejudice continues to grow due to the alliance between racism and xenophobia. According to Porto, “immigrants with lighter skin tones, such as Europeans and Orientals, are well received, while black and Muslim populations are incisively rejected”.

consequences of xenophobia

People migrate out of necessity, as they need to be in a different place from where they came from due to unemployment, natural accidents or civil wars. According to the expert, “these individuals need the help of the population to feel included in the social sphere, and the social exclusion and marginalization of these people can negatively impact their health”.

For this reason, hindering the inclusion of foreigners is the same as contributing to unequal and differentiated treatment. Xenophobic behavior has socioeconomic effects for the population and also negative consequences for the mental health of immigrants.

Examples of xenophobia in everyday life

According to Porto, “the xenophobe uses any opportunity to make the immigrant inferior”, so it is important to know how to identify these moments to protect himself or to reprimand these behaviors. Below are some examples:

  • Jokes: the xenophobe creates offenses in the form of ‘humor’. You are probably suffering from xenophobia if someone makes fun of your place of origin in order to diminish or belittle your roots.
  • Constant vigilance: feeling constantly watched is one of the most frequent characteristics. Mall security guards or even passers-by chase foreigners to create an uncomfortable situation.
  • Loss or denial of a job: You are also experiencing xenophobia if you are properly qualified for a position but end up losing your job because you are a foreigner.
  • Physical aggression: in more serious cases, the victim can suffer aggression. If this occurs, it is essential to go to the nearest police station and report your aggressor, because, according to Law No. 7,716, xenophobia is a crime.
  • Verbal aggression: it is very common for the xenophobe to verbally offend, as a way of intimidating and harming the foreigner’s morals.

Porto warns that “like racism, xenophobia can be expressed very subtly”. Thus, it is common that only cases involving more serious aggressions and violence have greater relevance, while everyday cases are ignored or interpreted as a ‘joke’.

Xenophobia and racism: what is the relationship?

Xenophobia is often associated with several other types of discrimination. In this way, racism is not left out, given that it is a type of prejudice associated with races, ethnicities or physical characteristics of individuals. In Porto’s view, he states that “in addition to the cultural issue, xenophobia is quite motivated by the racial issue”. According to the expert, “the only difference is that racism refers to disaffection with race, and xenophobia is due to disaffection with the foreigner/unknown”.

It is very common for racism to be behind cases of xenophobia, as in some cases it is even difficult to determine the extent to which xenophobic prejudice exists on its own or is based on racism. In this sense, Porto adds that “when there is racism in xenophobia, what predominates in prejudice is ethnicity”. Thus, it is common for European immigrants to suffer less from xenophobia, while black immigrants are treated with disdain.

The case of Moïse, a young Congolese man beaten to death in his workplace, can be interpreted as racism and xenophobia. At the time, Moïse’s family was only informed of his death 12 hours after the event, making it clear the total disregard for the young man’s life.

How to fight xenophobia?

“The fight against xenophobia is about respecting differences, without using the other’s nationality as a form of recreation, in order to belittle and discriminate”, begins Porto. In addition to this shift in thinking, there are other, more active ways to combat xenophobia:

  • Approaching: Approaching and dialoguing with foreigners is the best way to dive in and learn more about other cultures. After all, sociocultural ignorance is the main cause of xenophobia.
  • Lectures and debates: through events of interaction between the public and interlocutor, it is possible to provide dialogues and publications that address the topic to raise awareness among society.
  • Partnerships: institutions can also (and should) create projects for the integration of foreigners into society.
  • Positive actions: actions that promote the collaboration of other peoples for the development of the country is a way of showing equity.
  • Respect: Above all, respect and the active fight against racism can also help to control xenophobia.

As you’ve noticed, creating awareness is a way to undo sociocultural ignorance, such as racism and xenophobia. In this way, understand what machismo is, violence directed at women.


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