Why you should care
Because colonialist talk is so 1800s.
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Expat. The word just sounds sexy, doesn’t it? The mere whisper of it conjures the image of a dandy-looking bearded man making people laugh at a cocktail party with his tales of the African life. Or a couple of adorable British retirees reading Agatha Christie novels while slowly roasting under the unforgiving Spanish sun. I’ve personally enjoyed the many benefits of being called an expat for years. And that’s why it pains me to say this: We need to stop using the word. Now.
Why? Because it’s racist. Before you roll your eyes and mutter something about political correctness gone amok, let’s examine the evidence. Unlike the word “immigrant,” used to describe anyone who moves to another country, “expat” is used mainly to describe highly skilled Western (aka white) immigrants. And while the former often has a negative connotation, the latter usually signals prestige. Hence the implicit racism; when whites move from their countries they are modern-day explorers, cosmopolitans, citizens of the world. When anyone else does it, they’re humanitarian cases at best, criminals at worst, and most likely job thieves.
Some developing countries, like Rwanda, exercise very strict immigration control over pale, highly skilled foreigners.
Of course, clichés are sometimes true, but Maria Vincenza Desiderio, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, says they’re not true enough to justify using a different term to refer exclusively to Western migrants. “The term ‘expat’ is obsolete,” she says: Expats may once have been highly educated folks who moved around the world (versus unskilled immigrants who stayed in one place), but that’s no longer the case. Everyone’s moving around these days. Plus, Desiderio argues, using a separate term for white folks is dangerous because “the words we use influence everything from policymaking to integration.”
Indeed, the “expat” plays out in real life to demarcate realms of advantage and disadvantage. Being part of the expat club comes with advantages most can only dream of even at home. So, besides stopping the use of the word as soon as you finish this article, maybe it’s time that developing countries get rid of expat privileges too. Things like easy visas (or no visa required), expedited work permits, exclusive clubs and networking opportunities, and tax breaks. These double standards aren’t just insulting; they can make it tougher for locals to find work or leave officials scratching their heads trying to remember how many Westerners they have roaming their nation.
That’s actually what happened in Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, when an already weak government basically collapsed, and a tidal wave of do-gooders crashed over the border. Just what were they doing? Hard to tell, except that the multifarious initiatives and projects and funding sources tended to add to the chaos. To prevent that situation, some developing countries, like Rwanda, exercise very strict immigration control over pale, highly skilled foreigners. Tanzania is actively trying to keep them out: In March, its parliament approved a tough new law aimed at curbing foreign employment that requires companies employing foreigners to have a “succession plan” to help locals eventually take the jobs.
To be sure, giving Westerners a taste of their own migratory medicine is a risky move, economically, diplomatically, practically. Even if you’re down to “stick it in the eye to the ex-colonialist,” these policies don’t necessarily work, says Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, an associate professor at the UCLA Latin American Institute. That would require change that goes beyond the lexical: “Fairness should come from developing countries decriminalizing immigration,” says Hinojosa-Ojeda.
Still, Europe and the U.S. look like they could certainly use a little nudge in that direction. Maybe developing nations no longer treating “expats” with kid gloves and yes sirs could help. Yes, letting go of the sexy label and the feeling that borders are revolving doors will be tough. But we might take solace in the fact that hundreds of millions of fellow immigrants feel the same way.
Expat rehab anyone?