There has always been one thing that has remained the same during my travels abroad, no matter which particular country I’ve happened to step foot upon. Of course, it hasn’t been the weather, nor has it been the food; it’s the reality that white foreigners are called “expats” while the rest of us who have moved abroad are thrust into the category of “immigrants”.
According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, an expatriate refers to a person who has made the decision “to leave one’s native country to live elsewhere”. When it comes to the definition of immigrant, however, Merriam-Webster dictates that an immigrant is “a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence”. One would think that the two terms are interchangeable, no? So then why is the term expat almost always exclusively reserved for white people?
Often times- especially in the U.S.- the term ‘immigrant’ conjures up imagery of a person from a ‘developing’ nation who has left their home country in pursuit of their dreams elsewhere- most of the time, to a western nation where they may be allotted opportunities that would otherwise not be accessible.
An ‘expat’, however, is often used to refer to white foreigners who have left their home country to work abroad. The American student studying abroad in Morocco, or the French UN worker who has relocated to Senegal- these people would all be referred to as expats.
Although there are many people of color who have moved abroad for business purposes, rarely do you ever see this group of people being referred to as “expats”. Even African diplomats who have relocated to western nations continue to be labeled as “immigrants” as opposed to “expats”.
While I was living in Cameroon, I came across this phenomena on many occasions. My white friends at school- many of whom had families who had lived in Cameroon for years- constantly referred to themselves and their parents as expats. But what is the difference between Jean-Luc’s parents, who have spent 10+ years living in Cameroon, and Fatou’s parents, who have also spent 10+ years living abroad, just in the states?
The reality is that as long as white people are allotted fancier, more sophisticated names for doing the exact same thing that people of color have been doing for decades, we can see how the legacy of colonialism continues to infiltrate even our vocabularies. If you move abroad and plan to settle there permanently, then we need to just call it what it is: immigration.