X is for … Xenophobia

 In Speak Up Month

Dr Neil Cockling
Freedom to Speak Up Guardian
Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust

“You can’t trust Asians” or “I don’t like Americans” are xenophobic statements. Xenophobia [pronounced zennoh-foh-bee-ah] means ‘fear of the stranger’. It is often used to describe the reason behind the attitude of people who don’t like foreigners. But you don’t need to say things out loud to be xenophobic! Xenophobia includes not liking things from other cultures simply because they are from other cultures. This might include a lot of different things – headscarves, turbans, curry, spaghetti, chopsticks, baseball, or the way someone spells “neighbor”. It might even be a dislike of someone who speaks perfectly acceptable English – but they have an accent which is not like ours. From Bangladesh or Burundi. Or even Birmingham.

Xenophobia is a problem for Speaking Up. Because if we only like people who are like us, it might mean that we do not listen so well to people who are different from us. We might take sides when we hear two people talk about the same incident – we believe the person who is “one of us” more than the person who is “not one of us”. Or we ourselves might be in an “outsiders” group. So, we keep our mouths shut and our heads down. “Life is hard enough without rocking the boat”. But xenophobia has shut down the communication.

So where are you on the xenophobia scale? Do you recognise your own prejudices or discomfort in the presence of a ‘stranger’? If so, all well and good – only when a problem is noticed can you begin to deal with it. And if you haven’t thought about your likes and dislikes, then do so now. And ask yourself if they are based on xenophobia. And also ask yourself if your own attitude means people do not feel safe to speak to you. Then get to work on that attitude – only you can change it! One way might be to get to know about other people’s cultures. Find out what’s important to them. You might also discover something new that becomes important to you.

And if you are in a minority group and feel you won’t be listened to, then take courage. You might be pleasantly surprised that the white male in his 50s isn’t quite as xenophobic as you had imagined before speaking to him. And you might discover that your own ‘fear of the stranger’ was entirely misplaced. But unless you speak up, you’ll never know…

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