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X for Xenophobia

By Maansi Vohra

In Season 3 of Sex Education, Hope, the new headteacher at Moordale Secondary, constructs a culture of divisiveness at the school. To maintain her dominance, she pits students against each other because, as the age-old adage goes, it is easier to divide and conquer. She actively separates the two non-binary students at Moordale, Cal and Laylah, creating an atmosphere of hostility between the two. However, in a moment of defiance and sheer clarity of thought, Cal asks Hope why. Why does she create divisions instead of bridges between students? Is it because “there is too much power in multiple otherness for you?”

Oof. I was shook by the profundity of this question in a seemingly “light” TV show. It really made me think – what is it about the “other” that creates discomfort or fear for some? And, where does this fear of the “other” come from?

Wait what is otherness, and aren’t you supposed to talk about xenophobia?

Otherness as a term and as an experience is linked to xenophobia. If xenophobia is the fear of the other, a “psychological state of hostility or fear towards outsiders,” then in my opinion, othering, is a byproduct of a xenophobic mindset. When you participate in the othering of an individual, you are labelling them as outside of the norm, which can often result in negative assumptions that “negate an individual’s humanity. ,” These practices contribute to building barriers of prejudice, malice and marginalization of certain people’s that don’t fit within the carefully constructed bounds of “the perceived normative group”1 and that perpetuate a xenophobic mindset.

“Othering” as a concept and practice has been discussed in plenty of radical and postcolonial theories particularly focused on race, as Othering was a key component of colonial exploitation. Edward Said, acclaimed academic and post-colonial theorist, in his book, Orientalism, suggests that the “other” is a construct that was developed by the Western world as a result of imperialism. Imperialists sought to maintain their power and control over a large, and diverse group of people but needed a reason beyond the accumulation of capital and power to justify their actions. In order to rationalize their acts of subjugation, those in power needed to believe that they were different from their subjects – ie. that they were better and therefore worthy of wielding their might over others so that they could enforce their power. Thus, in an effort to define themselves as “better than”, they portrayed their subjects as the “other”, creating an entity that is not better but instead, one that is foreign, and therefore unknown, and outside of the accepted structures of society.

While clinicians are still debating whether or not xenophobia can be classified as a mental disorder, philosophers and historians have thoroughly explored “otherness” and xenophobia and many have hypothesized on the genesis of the concept. One can then extrapolate why some psychologists have often linked the fear of the unknown to xenophobia. While it is difficult to ascertain what causes such deeply rooted and complex psycho-social issues as xenophobia, what is clear though is that social biases and identity politics play a role in the development of a xenophobic mindset. One such bias is in-group bias, which is a psychological tendency for humans to favour those who are literally in their groups.

However none of the research I found helped me understand why, in both a historical and modern context, xenophobic behaviour can be so violent, gruesome and unjust. For example, there has been a rising number of hate crimes against those of East and South-East Asian heritage linked to COVID-19 – behaviours that are so futile and so wrong. There is nothing that can justify xenophobic violence and hate crimes against innocent individuals or groups of people. These incidents can make me feel quite helpless and make it difficult for me to believe that there are ways in which we can bridge the gaps that have been created in our world – that the valleys of dissonance and difference that exist in some of our minds are too large to cross.

How do we mitigate the spread of xenophobia?

Xenophobia exists as a functioning part of the continued hierarchies of white supremacy and the domination of colonial powers, despite the fact that territorial or “formal” colonisation as we know it from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has ended. But that doesn’t mean we are powerless as individuals. We’ve seen numerous social media movements raising awareness of xenophobic hate crimes. And within struggle is solidarity between communities, who protect each other and aid each other’s needs when they are “Othered” by society.

To take an idealistic and somewhat naïve view, the world is a living, breathing dynamic organism of billions of minds that are trying to make sense of their realities and although the complex mosaics of our identities and the sources of our fears are beyond my comprehension, what gives me solace is our innate oneness. We have a lot to unlearn as a species, but I sincerely believe that one way to begin this process is by unleashing the power of compassion – for ourselves, for each other and for the world we live in. Living with compassion is a practice, similar to developing a practice of gratitude. There are many ways of cultivating compassion, but one simple way is to broaden your social circles and engage with a diverse set of people, ask them questions, and learn from their experiences – the more we engage with each other, the fewer assumptions we make about “them” vs. “us” and the more likely we are to empathize deeply with those around us. I have hope that these simple acts of kindness and compassion can begin to stitch together the tethered fabric of the world we live in.


About the author

Maansi Vohra is a venture capitalist looking for the next big thing(s) in Indian consumer tech. She is passionate about helping break down barriers around mental illness in India and encouraging conversations on seeking and receiving mental health support.


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