Fearing and Desiring Outsiders
Over the last decade or so, tensions and violence around the world have produced alarming numbers of refugees and immigrants seeking asylum in foreign countries. In discussions of these issues, there tends to be a focus on the negative consequences of accepting migrants and refugees into a new country. The reasons for this emphasis vary, but one of the reasons is that many people hold xenophobic perspectives.
Broadly speaking, xenophobia is a fear or dislike of outsiders, particularly immigrant groups. For example, if you pay much attention to American politics, you've likely heard comments or concerns about Mexican immigrants stealing jobs and committing crimes. These comments are generally not based in fact; rather, they are the product of xenophobia.
Xenophobia is indeed a problem around the world, but what many people don't know is that there is an exact opposite perspective known as xenophilia. Unlike xenophobes, xenophiles have an affection for unknown or foreign people.
It goes without saying that phobias (from the Greek word for irrational fears) have serious negative consequences. Yet despite their more positive spin, philias (from the Greek for abnormal affection) can also have unintended negative consequences. This is because both perspectives aren't rooted in reality, but are usually an irrational response to something else. For example, an American can be afraid of or harbor ill will towards a Mexican person without ever having met one. Likewise, another American may love Mexican people, even if she's never met one.
A Positive Aspect of Xenophilia
While it is indeed irrational and abnormal, there's a positive aspect of xenophilia. Consider a refugee group fleeing a war-torn country. The refugees will need a place to resettle and begin their new lives. The global political community does have systems in place to accommodate the needs of these groups, but there is nothing that they can do about how the refugees will be received by the public in their new home country. Given that, xenophiles in the new country can make the resettlement process less stressful for the refugees by giving them a warm, welcoming reception. (Along those same lines, consider oppressed people in various communities around the world. For centuries, groups of religious, racial or sexual minorities have experienced marginalization and mistreatment because they were different from the cultural majority. Were they met by xenophiles, however, they would have been treated with kindness, which would have contributed to their well-being rather than their stress levels.)
The Construct of Cultures
As previously mentioned, xenophilia probably sounds good; after all, who doesn't want acceptance and tolerance, right? The problem, however, is what motivates that acceptance and tolerance. In simple terms, xenophiles don't necessarily have affection for real foreign people; rather, they are in love with a construct. In the social sciences, a construct is an idea or a theory that people use to define or conceptualize a person or thing. Continuing with a previous example, imagine that someone were to tell you that she 'loves Mexican people because their food is amazing and their culture is so fun!' Is this person really describing a culture - or is she just describing an idea of a collective population that she's based on bits and pieces of information? More often than not, these generalizing comments are based on subjective perceptions rather than facts, evidence or experience. These types of generalizations may seem harmless, but they could just as easily be negative assumptions in which an entire group of people are considered to be criminals.
The Problem of Xenophilia
Now that you know what xenophilia is, you're probably wondering what would cause someone to feel intense affection for people they've never met. That's where things get complicated. People develop feelings, beliefs and perspectives for different reasons and it's hard to say definitively what causes xenophilia. The predominant theory is that it's a response to one's negative feelings about his or her own background.
In a sociological context, the term cultural cringe describes a person feeling guilt, shame or inferiority about his own culture or heritage. As a result of these feelings, the person will construct an alternative in his mind in which he enthusiastically embraces a new culture to distance himself from his own culture. Some Americans, for example, find their country's colonial history shameful and they feel guilty about the way that Native Americans have been treated. Rather than accept that history and form a realistic viewpoint based on available evidence, they go completely the other way and profess a deep love and appreciation for Native Americans.
Xenophilia is largely problematic because it leads to the objectification of groups of people. This can often lead to cultural appropriation, which is when members of one culture adopt aspects of another culture for their own purposes. Cultural appropriation isn't necessarily done with malice, however, it can dramatically affect the culture which is borrowed from, particularly when that group has a history of being marginalized or oppressed by a dominant culture.
The opposite of xenophobia, which is a fear of foreign people, xenophilia is an unusual affection for foreigners or unknown people. Xenophilia may be preferable to xenophobia, but it still operates on constructs rather than knowledge of or engagement with actual people, sometimes to the point of objectification.
Xenophilia is a complicated matter and there is no universal cause. Nevertheless, the predominant theory is that it is a reaction to cultural cringe, in which an individual rejects her own culture in favor of another. This is generally not done with bad intentions; however, it often has negative consequences, particularly when it reaches the point of cultural appropriation.
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