Tackling Xenophobia: Are We There Yet?

MDNG NeurologyFebruary 2011
Volume 13
Issue 1

The mental health effects of xenophobia can have far-reaching consequences for children and adolescents.

The mental health effects of xenophobia can have far-reaching consequences for children and adolescents.

We have met the enemy and he is us.

-- Walt Kelly in Pogostrip on Earth Day, 1971.

The phenomenon of xenophobia has been affecting children in the form of racism, discrimination, and anti-immigrant policies for some time and has been brought into sharper focus after the events of 9/11 and the ongoing immigration debate. The media is filled with stories in which recent immigrants are denigrated, belittled, and discriminated against. Incidents of anti-immigrant prejudice are common, yet often are under-recognized as being related to underlying attitudes based on fear, dislike, or hatred of foreigners. It is imperative that we understand the nature of this phenomenon and recognize its consequences, especially for children and adolescents.

Xenophobia, according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, is the “fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign” and is a form of attitudinal, affective, and behavioral prejudice. It is socially observable and is usually experienced as a group phenomenon, but it can also be experienced and acted upon by individuals in daily life and in relationships in the workplace, schools, and other community settings. It may be used to justify warfare or negative action against a group of people (which often disguises more utilitarian motivations) and can become a convenient device to project blame for adversity (including economic adversity, adverse social change, or even personal misfortunes). Negative attitudes, discrimination, avoidance, violence, and bullying can emerge as a result.

In a nation with a large immigrant population, xenophobia leads to many adverse psychosocial consequences. Because it fuels violence and bullying, a xenophobic environment inhibits assimilation into a new culture and contributes to the further marginalization of immigrant populations. A sizeable body of literature has shown that xenophobia has significant adverse impact on child/adolescent ethnic identity formation, which can result not only in marginalization, but also negative identity formation and deviant behavior (http://hcp.lv/e1DIhw). Studies have shown that limited English proficiency and English as a Second Language programs may also contribute to social isolation and xenophobia. Images of immigrants in popular culture and media are often negative and inconsistent; they are often stereotyped into roles depicting criminality, illiteracy, terrorism and gang culture (http://hcp.lv/f5SKbU). For children and adolescents, there is risk of acute stress and post traumatic stress symptoms, being exposed to bullying by mainstream youth, and exposure to ethnic slurs, which lead to challenges in ethnic identity formation and, at times, ethnic self-hate. Additionally, for mainstream white children and youth, there is the risk of being caught up as perpetrators of violence toward immigrant groups, which traumatizes them and adversely affects their development and lives.

Ethnic identity formation becomes more challenging for children and adolescents when the culture and political milieu may not be supportive of positive ethnic identity. Since the events of 9/11, for example, Muslim adolescents in New York City have reported pervasive misperceptions and negative stereotypes about Islam in their school. This results in adolescents feeling more isolated in schools and experiencing more marginalization. Girls who wear the hijab or headdress may feel most vulnerable.

We bring this issue into the spotlight because we are now beginning to see a generation of children and families who have suffered because of xenophobia. The American Psychiatric Association (http://hcp.lv/gIQ2bZ) has adopted a formal position statement against xenophobia and its adverse mental health consequences, and has advocated a rational approach to discussions about immigration and refugee policy free of derogatory stereotypes, attitudes, and language. It is also important for our society and the child mental health community to make significant investments in the health, education, and social welfare of immigrant children and children of immigrants, a population that includes more than 20% of all America’s children and youth. Additionally, it is critical for America’s economic and social well-being to integrate immigrant youth into the social fabric of this nation and ensure their educational and vocational success. The United States faces major global economic competition, and historically its advances in science and technology have primarily come from immigrant and second-generation Americans. Addressing these challenges proactively ensures a healthier and more peaceful tomorrow.

Andres Pumariega, MD, is chair, Diversity and Culture Committee, AACAP, and Chair, Department of Psychiatry, Cooper University Hospital, Camden, NJ. Ayesha Mian, MD, is assistant professor, Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX.

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