This all came up because several months ago my friend Linda shared a link with me on Facebook, a link to a piece on the Guardian’s website that discusses this very topic. All of which is part of the story. I tried to write a response at the time, but I was of two minds and after weeks of trying, I just couldn’t finish the post.
Then, today, I read about how Al Jazeera has announced that they will no longer use the word “migrant” when talking about the people, nearly all of them refugees from war or worse, trying to cross the Mediterranean to get to Europe. They argue that word “has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative.” I think they have a point.
The Guardian link from last March, the one that started this line of thinking for me, was to a blog post called “Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?” by Silicon Africa blogger, Mawuna Remarque Koutonin.
He begins his post by staking out his thesis in his first paragraph:
“In the lexicon of human migration there are still hierarchical words, created with the purpose of putting white people above everyone else. One of those remnants is the word ‘expat’.”He next mentions the standard definition of expat explained by Wikipedia, a definition I’ve used on my blog many times, in many posts (such as one this past February). All of this is to get to his main point:
“Defined that way, you should expect that any person going to work outside of his or her country for a period of time would be an expat, regardless of his skin colour or country. But that is not the case in reality; expat is a term reserved exclusively for western white people going to work abroad.”To be completely honest, my eyebrow was firmly raised by then. The word expat was implicitly racist?
I never really thought about the word until I came to live in New Zealand and encountered the word frequently. Up until that point, when I thought of expats, I thought of Americans of long ago hanging around in Paris with Gertrude Stein. But, Gertrude Stein was white. So was Hemmingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sinclair Lewis, and—in fact, all the people I'd thought of when I thought of Gertrude's expats were white. Uh, oh…
Three years ago, Ritwik Deo, an Indian writer living in London, wrote “The British abroad: expats, not immigrants”, also published by the Guardian. He talks about British people living overseas basically act like the British Empire still exists.
Both of these writers see the word expat as being something of an imperialist throwback, something applied mostly to white people. It’s hard to argue with their perception, particularly with the concrete examples they provide. But could they actually be talking about a problem for British people? Maybe this isn’t actually a white problem as such, but a remnant of colonialism?
Christopher DeWolf, a Canadian writer and photographer who has lived in Hong Kong since 2008, wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal in December last year, talking about who is, and who is not, considered an expat in Hong Kong. The dividing lines in Hong Kong are primarily ethnic, even among Chinese. He also suggests that the term expat is more about privilege than race.
In New Zealand, the term expat is used for a variety of people, not all of them white, and the term immigrant is frequently used to describe people of all races, cultures and classes who have moved to New Zealand. I’ve seen no evidence that in this country, at least, the term is used to classify people by race. It also seems to me that the word immigrant is starting to be used instead of the word expat, with the word migrant also being used more.
From what I’ve seen of Americans liiving overseas, it seems to me that expat is used to refer mainly to business migrants, not worker migrants, so it does imply a class distinction, though not necessarily a racial one. The term immigrant is a highly politically charged term in the USA, often used as if it always means “illegal immigrant”, an even more politically loaded term. When the word immigrant is used so negatively—and even pejoratively—in the USA, it’s little wonder that Americans living overseas would prefer the term expat.
Personally, I don’t care what term others use to describe me. I’m an immigrant, obviously, so being called that doesn’t bother me at all. However, I’ve often used the word expat to describe myself because to me it better describes the modern nature of immigration. Where once migrants had to leave their homelands forever, and often had little or no contact with the folks they left behind, that’s not necessarily true for modern migrants.
A good example of this is what led me to this topic in the first place. Linda and I met and became friends when we worked at the same place, and that was nearly (gasp!) 30 years ago. Facebook allows us to easily keep in contact, despite me living in another country in a different hemisphere.
Similarly, I am in frequent contact with family and friends in the USA, through all sorts of technology, as well as friends around the world I know only through social media. All of that has developed since I’ve been in New Zealand.
For me, being an immigrant is completely different than it was, say, for my great grandfather, the last of my ancestors to migrate to the USA, around 1870. It feels less permanent because it IS less permanent, and national borders themselves matter less than they ever have. Now that Nigel and I are married, I could sponsor him for US immigration, something that only became possible quite recently.
So, I think the term expat implies a status that’s a bit more fluid, a bit more flexible, than traditionally has been true for immigrants. I don’t personally see it as racist, but I do think there are class overtones.
The point in all this is that people moving from one country to another, for whatever reason, are people, not labels. It’s why Al Jazeera dropped use of the word migrant, and it’s why I now think we should avoid casual use of words intending to label immigration.
For example, I could be called an “American-born New Zealander” instead of an “American expat”. After all, it’s what I call myself in the banner for this blog and other sites.
I’m a human being, and so are all immigrants, migrants, expats, and refugees. Maybe if we started thinking of them that way first—as human beings—we might not need labels as much, and maybe then we could calmly and rationally deal with migration policies.