This article analyzes the term ‘expat’ and how it reflects social biases and stereotypes—hot take ahead.
Let’s start with the basics.
According to Wikipedia: “An expatriate (often shortened to expat) is a person who resides outside their native country. In common usage, the term often refers to educated professionals, skilled workers, or artists taking positions outside their home country, either independently or sent abroad by their employers. However, the term ‘expatriate’ is also used for retirees and others who have chosen to live outside their native country. Historically, it has also referred to exiles. Expatriates are immigrants or emigrants who maintain cultural ties such as the language of their country of origin.”
Whereas an immigrant is a person who leaves their country of origin to settle permanently in a new country. Immigrants are often motivated by various factors, including economic opportunity, political instability, or persecution. The process of immigrating can be difficult and time-consuming, as it usually involves navigating complex legal and administrative procedures.
The whiteness in “expats” #
The word’s connotation is often upbeat and associated with adventure, opportunity, and a cosmopolitan lifestyle. Hence some folks believe that the term “expat” is used to refer to well-educated and well-traveled individuals typically from a Western background.
Whereas expats (immigrants to some) from other ethnicities are often portrayed as workers coming from lower-income backgrounds and may be subject to negative stereotypes, such as being seen as a burden on the host country’s resources or taking jobs away from citizens. This stereotype can be seen as a reinforcement of class, racial and ethnic prejudice.
“Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants. However, Europeans are expats because they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races.’” - Mawuna Remarque Koutonin, theguardian.com.
It’s important to note that the term or title does not always indicate a person’s background or circumstances. Minorities having high education and professional experience levels should be called expats, not guest workers, immigrants, or migrants. However, the incorrect usage of these terms in popular culture and media reinforces certain stereotypes and biases.
Here are some examples of how the terms “expat” and “immigrant” may be used in different contexts and how they can reflect certain biases or stereotypes:
① In the media, a white person working at an international company and moving to another country for work might be referred to as an “expat,” while a person of color leaving their home country for work due to economic hardship might be referred to as a “guest worker” or “immigrant.” This distinction can reflect a bias that associates the term “expat” with privilege and opportunity, while “immigrant” is associated with poverty and hardship.
② In a casual conversation, a person from a Western country living in a non-Western country may be called an “expat” by their friends. In contrast, a person from a non-Western country living in the same setting would be called an “immigrant.” This distinction can reflect a bias that associates the term “expat” with people from developed, Western countries. Whereas “immigrant” is related to people from developing or non-Western countries.
③ An international student from a privileged background studying in a Western country for a limited time may be called an expat. In contrast, a student from a less privileged background working part-time to support themselves while studying in the same country will never be addressed as an expat. This distinction reinforces the stereotype that expats are wealthy and privileged while other ethnicities are of low level.
It’s crucial to note that these examples are only sometimes applicable, and there can be many variations and nuances in how the terms are used.
Still, they illustrate how the connotations and stereotypes associated with the term “expat” can reflect certain biases and prejudices. And it’s essential to be aware of these biases and to use the terms thoughtfully, recognizing that people from different backgrounds may have different experiences and perspectives.