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David Barnett

British Council

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To what extent is xenophobia a natural and normal behaviour?

It sounds contentious, I know, but I was thinking. For hundreds of thousands of years, whenever a stranger came to town or strangers, it was bad news. Most of them came to conquer, enslave, rape, steal and murder. They burnt villages, destroyed crops, brought new diseases and wiped out whole populations. This has always been the case, and only in the last century have we started questioning at all whether this was a good thing or not.

Now, in modern multi-cultural cities, where people from all over the world have been living shoulder-to-shoulder, people are starting to realise that we are all basically the same. They value one another for their similarities and differences. In many places, however, there is not so much of a cultural melting pot as in big cities, and many countries, cities and towns still exist with relatively little exposure to foreigners and foreign culture. Is it not normal and natural then, that these people are still finding it difficult to throw off hundreds of thousands of years of conditioning?

I know that we are rational creatures and can learn quickly, but cannot we accept that the attitudes so often displayed by racist individuals or groups are, although undesirable in this modern world, at least natural and normal?

Topics: Ending Racism
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  • Jan 20 2012: I think there is a difference between xenophobia (a fear of others) and racism.

    Xenophobia is natural, and at times, warranted. Racism is not.
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    Jan 17 2012: Just saw a programme called Redes, hosted by Eduardo Punsett, talking with Steven Pinker. It was on the subject of the history of violence and it confirmed that our ancient ancestors lived an ultra-violent life with daily confrontations. Many picture Neanderthals living a peaceful existence in harmony with nature...far from true. Luckily, with the coming of the state, that violence has gradually declined to negligible levels compared with those of the past. The media, I suppose, plays a big part in playing up any violent and racist episodes in the world and so things seem bleak...but in actual fact they are far better than they were. Just as people emphasize global warming, they forget that we are in fact, in an ice age.
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    Jan 17 2012: I would say it's common, and natural, but culture has tried to decide that it is not normal... And, "normal", is a cultural distinction. We are all trying to evolve past our ancient ingrained "fear of the other". It is more difficult in communities where they rarely encounter people from outside of town. Sensitivity to that, couldn't hurt.
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    Jan 15 2012: I am not sure about Spain, but here in the United States we teach our children about the dangers of strangers. Entire police campaigns called "Stranger Danger" help parents reinforce that people outside of our group are potentially dangerous and harmful. So the conditioning continues...
    Then we turn around and tell them it is not appropriate to exhibit exclusionist behavior - at school, church etc.

    What it boils down to is that we teach our children that it is not polite to be racist in mixed company.
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    Jan 12 2012: Where are you from and why are you asking?. . . just kidding ;-}.
    Actually, any phobia is outside the boundaries of "normal and natural". So my answer to your question is, it is not normal or natural to any extent. It is inculcated into our knowledge base by the dominant influences of our immediate culture.
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      Jan 12 2012: I know that phobia is often defined as an irrational, or abnormal fear and with most phobias that definition does seem to hold true...but is it not fairly normal and natural to be afraid of heights, especially those people who are not accustomed to them? Is it not normal to be afraid of snakes...they kill people. A friend of mine from the Ivory Coast was absolutely terrified of the water....because he sank when he got in it. Perfectly normal, I think. And if, for hundreds of generations, a people has infrequent but continual exposure to something which has a negative and devastating effect on them, then isn't it normal for them to be afraid of that thing?

      I am not searching for justification for racist behaviour. I am merely searching for understanding. Why does it exist? I get tired of the same old black and white arguments, good vs bad, right vs wrong. The world is more complex than that. I just think that if we understand the origin of it better, then the easier it will be to eradicate. Prolonged close contact seems the best method to overcome a fear, irrational or not...to demonstrate the lack of risk. If every family were to adopt a baby of a different ethnicity, racism would be over in one generation.

      I was wondering if there were any anthropologists out there who might have some decent evidence to confirm or disconfirm my idea. The problem is, when you touch on a subject as delicate as this, few people step up to present an argument which goes against, or may be considered to go against the present way of thinking. Thank you for replying, Edward.