X is for Xenophobia

It was in 1971.  I was 15 years old and in the 11th grade.  My English teacher, whose name escapes me, gave us vocabulary words each week.

It was in this class I first learned the word, “xenophobia”—hatred or fear of strangers, foreigners, and their customs or culture.  Though the word was new to me, the concept was not.

With all of changes we faced in the 1950s and 1960s, and as media coverage became more prevalent, there were daily reminders of the challenges faced by so many people as inequalities in human rights were exposed.  The leaders of the time were no longer willing to sit on the sidelines and remain silent.

At home, there were family members who perpetuated the beliefs that were taught to them decades earlier—people who came from a different culture, ethnic background, or skin tone were to be looked at suspiciously, avoided, feared or hated.

Although I received this message from many others, I never bought into  this belief.  In fact, I was curious about others who looked different or spoke another language, had an accent, ate foods that were unusual to me, or anything else that set them apart from me in some way.  I had a desire to learn and figure out what was so “scary” about them that would compel me to stay away.  The more I learned, the more I wanted to discover.

Joining the military in 1973 gave me an opportunity to challenge the beliefs that society and family taught me, and I learned firsthand that human beings are really not much different from one another. Our experiences were what made us unique.  Becoming independent and living away from home, I began to have more experiences that solidified my openness to others without the constant fear of criticism from my family.

I often wonder if we, in this world, have lived and learned past our xenophobic ideas.  In the circles I keep, I would answer in the affirmative.

But this week, as we have watched the media tell the story of the killing of known terrorist, Osama bin Laden, I have come to a realization that we have not evolved much, if at all.

Terrorism exists and is based on hatred of others who do not share beliefs and customs.  Osama bin Laden certainly terrorized many based on that hatred. And fear exists and is based upon suspiciousness and reaction to those terrors carried out against other human beings.  We learned that lesson on September 11, 2001.

Yet, when I see the American people display frivolous jubilation at the spilling of the blood of the man we have so vehemently criticized for his evil-doings, it simply turns my stomach.  Those who arrogantly claim to be righteous and civilized  have now celebrated bloodshed with the debauchery of a frat-house beer bash.

To seek out and guarantee justice against those who are intent on spreading evil and destruction is certainly justified, in my eyes.

However, was celebratory reaction necessary?  Was it justified?  Is it not, in some fashion, on the same level, similar to the taunting and celebration Osama and his supporters displayed regarding the perceived “victory” against those they considered the infidel?

It saddens me that, though we have advanced in many ways in this country and the world in the 40 years since I was in that 11th grade class, xenophobia not only exists, but so many of us continue to define our lives by the very fear and hatred so many others have worked so hard to change.

13 thoughts on “X is for Xenophobia

  1. I’ve traveled all over the world. (I’ve never been to Thailand, but I’ll visit in about 4 weeks.) I don’t a have fear of other cultures – far from it. However, I’m annoyed at the criticism of Americans who have celebrated the death of Osama bin Laden. This is an individual who was responsible for the death of many Americans and many Muslims. People who express hatred for Osama bin Laden are not monsters. Osama bin Laden is the monster. The focus should be on the victims of Osama bin Laden, not on the actions of people who are happy he’s gone.

    1. Jolie…thank you for your candor in answering this question. I agree with you that Bin Laden was a monster, and I assure you that I am not unhappy that he has been killed; nor do I suggest that those who are happy that he is gone are monsters. My reflection is simply a realization that we, as human beings, really haven’t changed. And it saddens me deeply that this is the case.

      All of us–humans–are capable of acting as hungry, ravenous animals, without regard to humanity and the impact our actions may have on others. Thankfully, I haven’t had to experience much of that in my life/travels.

  2. Xenophobia is the word I first was going to write about, and the post would have been similar until you criticized Americans for celebrating a victory. I believe you’ve misunderstood what people were celebrating. Yes, I think it was necessary. It was an important win for our country, and our military. Justified, YES. Have you never known a country or a military not to celebrate a victory? People celebrate the end of fear, they celebrate closure for families who’ve lost loved ones because of him, the celebrate the hope that with him gone things will improve.

    I think you’ve taken a nasty leap when you say people were celebrating the loss of blood. To compare a military victory to “debauchery of a frat-house beer bash”, is really uncalled for. You’ve shown a great disrespect, it seems to me to men and women who’ve lost their lives.

    Personally, it makes me sad to read people putting put down like this.

    1. Sandy…thank you for your sharing your criticism. As far as my having “shown a great disrespect,” as you stated…it seems to me that you are also “take(ing) a nasty leap, reading much more into my intent, as you claim that I am doing.

      I am a military veteran and was willing to and have experienced many things in service to my country. I have lost friends to war…to terrorist acts…to the senselessness that we humans perpetuate on others. In NO way did I criticize my fellow military brethren for what they did or how the mission was carried out. Period.
      It was not our brave military men and women displaying the distastefulness I saw in the media coverage.

      American soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen are proud, yes; but we are a humble lot. We do our job. We do it well. We stand for freedom. We fight for the right, as well, to free speech, even when in disagreement. … and yes, just as you and I are disagreement.

  3. I think that when Sandy referred to “an important win for our country, and our military”, she is acknowledging that we civilians are an extension of our military servants. WE celebrate a military victory because the military has done what we have asked them to do.

    I too like your writing Coral, but find fault with your comparing those who celebrated the downfall of the towers and their thousands of innocents, with those who celebrated the removal of Bin Laden. It was bad people celebrating the invasion of Poland in ’39, and good people celebrating the landings on D-day in ’44. The qualitative differences can easily be identified.
    To justify their idea that they destroyed only “the infidel” by comparing it to our idea that we have killed a “murderer” perhaps requires the formation of a new word: Reversexenophobic.

    Xenophobia certainly does not apply to any situation where self-defense is required because of a real and ongoing threat.

  4. Coral, you are absolutely right in your assessment of the situation. When I saw the people celebrating on TV, I wanted to hang my head in shame. We are a civilized culture. When we party in YES a fraternity like atmosphere, we are no better than the people celebrating after 911. True this is the death of one guilty rather than hundreds of innocents, but since when is a human death a time for celebration? Those who have partaken in a Passover seder will note that we spill a drop of wine out of our cups for each plague that was cast upon our enemies because one should never celebrate another person’s suffering. Furthermore, although I see the death of Osama Bin Laden as a great accomplishment for our country, it does not represent an end to terrorism. The only thing that can come from showing celebrants on TV is the further anger of those who want to destroy us.


  5. Pingback: X is for Xenophobia Revisited | Beyond Life's Challenges

  6. Reblogged this on BEYOND THE CHALLENGES OF LIFE and commented:

    It has been 7 years since I wrote this piece on Xenophobia. I wish that I could say that we, as a nation, have become kinder where differences are concerned, but I think that we have lost some ground recently.

    I invite you to read my thoughts from 2011…

  7. priscillaking

    Well…in my family there was a perception that xenophobia was an Ignorant People’s Thing. As in “Those poor slobs had no chance of getting into college, the military, interesting jobs, or even marrying people who did…how pathetic…probably inbred, or inbreeding!”

    When I went to college my mother said “Try to get a foreign roommate so you can practice a language free of charge in your room.”

    I don’t know whether some of the more jingoistic-sounding tweets I’ve seen came from people who realized how much elitist prejudice they’re forcing their Tweeps to confront…or from people who actually intended to defend U.S. *sovereignty* rather than express bigotry or xenophobia…or from foreigners who imagine that pretending to be American bigots on Twitter will affect the next popular vote somehow.

    Gloating over the death of anybody…I tend to read it as depending on how much an individual suffered (or imagines having suffered) from the “enemy” in question. Last night I picked caterpillars out of Mother’s hibiscus bush and killed them thinking “Poor little things, why didn’t God give them the sense not to overpopulate and destroy their hosts?” At the same time I killed Asian Tiger mosquitoes thinking “Hah! Got you first!”

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