Xenophobia. John Snelling.


Ask most people to name something beginning with ‘x’ and they will likely say ‘X-Box’, ‘X-Factor’ or ‘xylophone’.  Far fewer will think of ‘xenophobia’.  This is a sad reflection of an oversimplification that has crept into our political discourse.  Much time and many words are expended on debates about whether various attitudes and concerns about immigration are racist or not when they are clearly xenophobic.  They may or may not be racist as well.  This is not to suggest that the identification of racism is unimportant or a misguided enterprise, far from it.  Indeed, I would suggest that in being clear about the distinction between xenophobia and racism we make the identification of racism easier and facilitate efforts to combat it.  We also need to be aware that the concepts are linked in that racism is a subset of xenophobia.  Thus all racists are xenophobic but not all xenophobes are racist.

One way into the distinction is to consider the extent to which members of communities whose recent forebears were immigrants to Britain buy into the narrative that problems in employment, housing and education are caused by the numbers of current immigrants entering the country.  They argue that British people should have priority in these areas and, in doing so, identify themselves as British.  Others, who think of themselves as ancestrally British, (even if mistakenly) accept these people as British too and may hold identical views on immigration.  The fact that people of African, Caribbean, Asian and other origins can all identify as British and accept each other as being so is a triumph of the fight against racism.  How then are we to regard it when people from all of these diverse communities are agreeing that the Poles, the Romanians and so on are a problem and a burden on this country rather than contributors to it even when their own parents and grandparents have suffered from exactly these attitudes in the past?  The concept of race is intellectually incoherent in biological terms and if any meaning can be attached to it, it must be a sociological one.  In that sense, we see a racially diverse group of people united in a sense of national identity and seeking to exclude other people not on the ground of their race but because they regard them as alien to that national identity.  This is xenophobia, the fear and consequent dislike of the stranger.  At the same time, there are people who express themselves in much the same way while hiding racist attitudes and feelings and some who don’t even hide their racism.  These people do not feel united with others of different races in a common national identity and tend to feel that national identity is threatened by racial diversity.  Inevitably, they too will fear and dislike the stranger and may, however uncomfortably, make common cause with xenophobic members of racial groups they despise.  In my view, this is why UKIP, a party whose core beliefs are entirely xenophobic, attracts so many racists.  In the same way as racists see members of other races as the stranger, misogynistic men see women as the stranger and homophobic people see lesbian and gay people in that way.  Thus, sexism and homophobia are forms of xenophobia as well and expressions of those attitudes are also particularly associated with UKIP supporters.

Why is it important to distinguish xenophobia from the particular ideologies of hate that it underlies? The answer is rather disturbing.  None of the traditional big three British political parties would dream of endorsing or pandering to racism, sexism or homophobia.  All of them claim to be seeking more women candidates and greater diversity.  All of them point to the fact that there are now a number of lesbian and gay MPs who are out and have been elected and re-elected.  Unfortunately, all of them fail to challenge, or even promulgate the notion that our problems in housing supply, NHS waiting times, shortage of school places and difficulties in providing employment are partly the result of excessive immigration causing unmanageable levels of demand for these things and that increased control on immigration is, therefore, needed.  By promoting this analysis they divert attention from obvious questions such as why we couldn’t solve these issues by building more houses, schools and hospitals, training more teachers and medical staff and investing in schemes to create productive jobs.  If these questions were more to the fore of the national debate, the austerity agenda and the reasons for it would become subject to much wider and deeper scrutiny and, in my view, would not survive it.  This diversionary focus on immigration plays to xenophobic attitudes and it is playing with fire.  Xenophobia is the soil from which grows, racism, anti-Semitism, islamophobia, sexism, homophobia and sundry other hate-filled noxious ideologies.  Even before it gives rise to those infections of the body politic it impoverishes us.  No one person is the repository of all truth, wisdom and value and no more is any one culture or nation.  We learn and grow, both individually and collectively, through contact with others and openness to what they can show us.  Xenophobia is alive and, because of it, we are not well.  We need to be more aware of it and its consequences.  The X-Box and X-Factor should not be the first ‘x’s we think of and, if you have a xylophone, I would encourage you to use it to play The Internationale.

John Snelling © 2015.