Expatriate, Immigrant, Racist?

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Expatriate, Immigrant, Racist?

I’ve always assumed I’m an expatriate (please, let’s be clear that this is not an ex-patriot. please). Lately, this has come into question. Quite a few people have forwarded, shared on Facebook, or tweeted to me an article picked up by The Guardian: Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? One person left a comment on my last piece for Brain Child (The Expatriate at the Parent Teacher Association Meeting). She said she wondered why I thought I was an expatriate. She seemed to think I was wrong to use that word.

expat or immigrant

I confess that I hadn’t given this much thought. Is my use of the word ‘expatriate’ racist? Have white people appropriated the word and are non-white people limited in their ability to claim it? As it came to my attention more and more I decided it was time to think about it. There are two levels (at least) to this. One is the dictionary definition level. The other is the experiential level.

So, I looked up the official dictionary definitions and found this at the Global Coach Center:

According to Miriam-Webster:

  • the word “Expatriate” is actually a verb or an adjective and means someone “living in a foreign land”.
  • the word “Immigrant” is a noun and means “a person who comes to a country to take permanent residence”.

If we go only by these definitions above, I see one major distinction that sets them apart.  Immigrants have an intention to stay – whereas for the expatriates this intention isn’t mentioned and isn’t clear.

Turns out immigrants can be expatriates but expatriates are not necessarily immigrants. According to Google an expat is someone living outside their native country. An immigrant is someone permanently residing outside their native country.

This idea of permanence is significant both in how it relates to the new country and the old country. An expatriate tends to engage less in the host country and maintains a stronger tie to the old country. An immigrant might feel a greater sense of loss toward the old country and also a greater sense of responsibility and intention in engaging in the host country. Kind of like renting versus owning. An expat is a renter, an immigrant is an owner.

By definition then, I am an expatriate. I don’t intend to stay in Djibouti for my entire life and since that is very clear, I can’t claim the immigrant term.

Now, that is in the dictionary. Frankly, I was at first surprised at the fury with which the article is written. It kind of seems like a rant and I’ve heard at least one person refer to it as total bullshit. I’m still willing to address the issue because I think it brings up something really important and complicated. But I was surprised because I looked at my experience:

My first thoughts took me to the most diverse place I know well – the protestant church I attend here in Djibouti. There are people from Uganda, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Kenya, Congo, Nigeria, Burundi, America, England, Switzerland, Korea, France, Germany… I think of us as expatriates. Some have lived here for decades, some for weeks. Myself, I’ve passed the decade point. I never thought of any of the others, regardless of skin color or economic or social class, as immigrants. We are here for work and we are expatriates.

Because none of us intends to stay forever.

We might stay here a long time. We might even die here, though that isn’t our intention. But we maintain residency and passport and voting rights and tax-paying responsibilities, etc. in our home countries which are not this one. To me, that is an expatriate. We’re here but we’re also slightly not here. We’re renters.

An immigrant is someone who comes, possibly against their will or preference, like a refugee, and goes all in. They will stay in this new country. They might go back but that isn’t in the plan as far as they know it. They invest in a different way, a more personal way, weaving themselves into the fabric of the new country and letting it weave itself into them. They are owners.

I had never considered that skin color or country of origin had anything to do with what we call ourselves.  There are white immigrants in Djibouti. There are black expatriates.

But that is just my experience and I’m learning that in different parts of the world, this is very different. I was helped by Hana Omar who commented on my FB page that in Europe there does seem to be a strong class and racial component to which term is used. And that is where this article in the Guardian is coming from – experience, which for the author, clearly included racism and hurtful interactions.

In raising this topic among others, it is clear there are related words that are much more racially charged (the following examples come from the comment thread on my FB page for this Guardian article). Words like migrant worker, which seems to apply exclusively to non-white people even though they are technically expatriates. Or in some places Foreign Domestic Workers who are also technically expatriates but that word isn’t applied to them. In Texas, the guys on the oil rigs are expats but the gas station employee, also in the US on a work visa, isn’t. One person mentioned that this could be because status (and the words used to convey that status) is affected by the terms of employment and his comment stuck with me because these examples turn the focus of the conversation from race to wealth and class, also problematic but not necessarily racist.

But expatriate and immigrant? Both words are beautiful and should be worn with pride by those to whom they belong. Expats are (generally) curious and open and passionate about two worlds. They are bridge people who can take the best of two places and cultures and blend them or use them to sharpen each other. Immigrants are (generally) curious and open and passionate about two worlds. They are also bridge people who can take the best of two places and cultures and blend them or use them to sharpen each other.

But the terms matter, they aren’t conveying the same thing. For example, expatriates have the struggle of doing the splits, of keeping a toe in two countries and the longer they live abroad, the further apart the two countries become, the deeper they must sink into the split. This hurts.  And immigrants have the struggle of grief, they have left behind a place they knew and instinctively understood and are straining to fit into a place that doesn’t inherently recognize them. This also hurts. We have something in common but we are not the same.

What do I conclude? Two things. One, I can confidently say I’m an expatriate. And two, I can’t assume by looking at someone that they are an expatriate or an immigrant. I have to talk to them and hear their story. What?! That’s right, always and ever back to getting to know people. Listening, asking questions, hearing where they came from and where they are going and not jumping to conclusions based on previous experience or expectations or skin color or job title.

So while it is rather easy to simply answer the question based on the dictionary, it is much harder to dive into these areas of race and class and assumption. I stand by my belief that I’m an expatriate and I feel comfortable using it without feeling like doing so labels me racist or elitist but I’m thankful for this conversation. It help me analyze and consider the experiences of others and it challenge me to examine how I make assumptions based on externals.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Expatriate or immigrant? Racist? Elitist?

By |March 25th, 2015|Categories: Expat Thoughts|Tags: , , |28 Comments


  1. Tamie March 25, 2015 at 6:44 am - Reply

    Thanks Rachel. The articles you link to keep coming across my FB feed or people keep asking me about them, but now instead of replying I think I will just link to your excellent thoughts here!

  2. The Cowgirl March 25, 2015 at 9:49 am - Reply

    My husband and I have had this conversation many times. We think of ourselves as expats…and we think the same of others like us. I have never thought of it as a racist term, nor have I heard others (white, black or other) think that it’s racist. However, having grown up in California, where the term ‘immigrant’ is used frequently for farm laborers who come back and forth, I can understand the issue. Perhaps it is more an issue of where you’re living at the time and what the current culture is.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones March 25, 2015 at 4:39 pm - Reply

      That’s what I’ve learned I think more than anything in thinking and talking about this – that the experience of people varies widely depending on where they live.

  3. John March 25, 2015 at 9:56 am - Reply

    Rachel, I was a little surprised to read about the differing views of the word Immigrant and Expatriate, and that some people were upset with use of the term expatriate. Personally, to put it delicately, I think its a load of cow manure. I wonder if the offended readers actually knew what the words meant before you explained them.

    When we were in Botswana we were expatriates, along with a range of other professionals from all corners of the globe, although mostly from Africa. Doctors, nurses, vets, teachers, chartered accountants and a couple of architects. All there on contract, some had been there for 2 years and some for 20. Like your church, people of all colours, cultures and nationalities. There were immigrants too but they were considered Batswana, nobody bothered with the ‘immigrant’ tag. Maybe that’s an American, British or European issue for people who live in the UK, US and Europe. It certainly wasn’t for the expatriates or immigrants in Francistown.

    Now in China we’re all foreigners. I never hear about immigrants or expatriates, just foreigners, one size fits all.

    I realise you write for a global audience so I guess it’s important that you’re sensitive to their concerns. For me, there are far more important problems and issues to deal with, real problems and issues, living in strange places far away from home. Expatriate or foreigner, it really doesn’t matter. After 21 years on the road I’m not even sure I know what ‘international’ means any more.

    I love reading your blog and all the stuff you write about. Bless you and your family.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones March 25, 2015 at 4:41 pm - Reply

      I was surprised too! I am finding it really interesting, though, to hear the words people use around the world and what emotions are attached to them. Like in China, being ‘foreigners.’

  4. Taylor March 25, 2015 at 11:06 am - Reply

    Rachel– I echo your observation that the expat/immigrant experience in Djibouti is very different from the context of the viral article referenced. Because of the economic realities in Djibouti, no one ever assumes that a foreigner in Djibouti has the intention of living there permanently (even the domestic workers tend to go back home when they get too old to earn money).

    The racism accusation in the original article came from the observation that people with essentially identical skill sets and even working in the same office receive different labels from European society depending on the color of their skin and assumed nationality. People tend to assume that a dark skinned person from African plans to stay in Europe (and is thus an immigrant) while a light skinned person is perceived as being likely to eventually return home (and thus an expat).

    In Zambia, I noticed that white Americans never got labeled as immigrants even if they were 3rd generation living there with no plans to move back to the states. (Yes, the hadn’t switched citizenship, but I don’t think the same labeling system was applied to folks who had relocated from neighboring African countries and not officially become Zambians) So I say there is definitely something to the argument that there is a racial (or at least socio-economic) bias to how society labels someone an expat vs immigrant.

    Ultimately, I think it is about perception of whether economic opportunities are better/worse/same for the person in his/her country of origin.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones March 25, 2015 at 4:42 pm - Reply

      Well said Taylor. And I’ve wondered that same thing about the 2nd and 3rd generation French or Greek people here in Djibouti. How do they see themselves? How do people see them? How do they compare to, say, an Ethiopian of similar length?

  5. Amanda March 25, 2015 at 11:06 am - Reply

    Very well written! Great post!

  6. Dan Rudd March 25, 2015 at 12:10 pm - Reply

    Thank you for dealing with this issue. I objected to the article because I looked at much the same way that you did. My experience here in Japan is that there are people here from all over the world, of many different hues and colors and they are all expatriates. Here in Japan the idea of being an immigrant is difficult. One may become a Japanese citizen, but to say that they fully become Japanese is inaccurate. I know of one beautiful black family, from Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka, that gained Japanese citizenship, but they will never be fully integrated into Japanese society. Then there are the many married to Japanese spouses. The non-Japanese spouse will never be fully accepted and their “half” children are only beginning to be accepted. In Japan, among the Japanese, there is no designation of either expatriate or immigrant. We will always be foreigners.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones March 25, 2015 at 4:44 pm - Reply

      Good point about being foreign, even after doing so much to integrate. So interesting to hear these viewpoints from around the world. Thanks Dan.

  7. veronica March 25, 2015 at 12:39 pm - Reply

    I saw the original article on this and have been thinking about this a lot since. Like you, I distinguish between expat and immigrant based on their dictionary meanings. To me there is quite a clear demarcation. I guess having grown up in Fiji where expats come from New Zealand, Australia, USA, Europe, Africa, India, Sri Lanka, Philippines, and so on, I don’t associate it with race, we are a developing nation, that is a centre point for the pacific region. We have expats from every country and organisation. It comes as a bit of a shock to think there are other who dont think the same way, and differentiate on racial lines. We have immigrants from everywhere as well, it they tend to come not with the big organisations, but with a genuine desire to make this their home. The intentions of the two groups are quite different. I guess we are all different, but I don’t see why racial lines should determine which group you are classified under.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones March 25, 2015 at 4:47 pm - Reply

      Thanks Veronica. Sounds like your experience has been really similar to mine.

  8. Jessica March 25, 2015 at 12:40 pm - Reply

    I think these comments are useful and your thoughts are valid – from your experience. But, I also think that 1. You’re currently living within the privilege associated with being an expatriate 2. You’re not living in a country where those labeled immigrants are vilified. I’m not positive, but I think a lot of the people disagreeing with the article don’t suffer the abuse associated with the less fortunate term.

    Expat for most people brings up breezy lives in exotic international locales, eating at cafes, and visiting museums OR those serving out of compassion in other countries because they have the means to do so. Immigrant, while connoting permanency, never calls up a life of luxury or privilege. I realize that people doing work in other countries – like you and your family – are not eating grapes off gold plates while lounging next to a fountain, but the very fact of CHOICE – the conscious decision to live where you do because you want to and not because of political upheaval or refugee status or economic pressure is one of the issues with the terms.

    Also, the dictionary definitions are not always the social definitions – otherwise, “literally” would still mean the opposite of “figuratively” in daily life (in the US). So, of course, own the terms you feel most comfortable with and clarify definitions. I get that and thinks it’s right to do so.

    But, I also think the original article is correct in saying that the people who are “allowed” to claim the term are a very limited bunch and that the terms are used in mainstream media and everyday conversations to create specific images about the people described. They are loaded, charged terms and I think there is an issue of racism involved even if you don’t feel it while living in your non-original location. Part of this, too, is that the conversation/article rose out of the countries in which the immigrants are coming and the expats are leaving – so an element of xenophobia rises when discussing the “immigrants” but one of fantasy or dreams of escapism arise when imagining “expats.” And, to say that it’s just economic or class status erases the fact that those often coincide with race, so it’s an intersectional issue that includes racism.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones March 25, 2015 at 4:53 pm - Reply

      You raise really good points Jessica. I’ll start with your last one – that race and class and wealth are intertwined – absolutely. I don’t mean to ignore that reality. And you’re also right that the way the media portrays expats or immigrants isn’t accurate or right and is, often, racist. I’m not trying to say the words don’t have problems associated with them and I do see how they are used at times to convey privilege or lack of privilege. But at the same time, many of the people I mentioned, like from my church, are working low class jobs and are not in positions of prestige or privilege, yet they are still seen as expats. From that I conclude that it really does differ from country to country. I suppose here a comparable negative term might be refugee, which people assume of many from certain countries who live here. I see a lot of weight behind your comment of ‘choice’ and want to reflect on that more, that seems really important.

  9. Holly Newman March 25, 2015 at 4:04 pm - Reply

    I too had the experience of being an expat in SE Asia along with many other nationalities (I am American). Singaporeans who had moved permanently to a place like Australia or Canada were appropriately said to have immigrated. They are mostly Chinese, and proudly use the term immigrant.

    Where I live in California, migrant workers move around for their work, it is not a term of what nationality or even ethnicity they are. They migrate. While I fully respect the experience or the writer of the article in Guardian, it just seems incorrect. Racism, classism, tribalism, and just plain human “I am better than you” is alive and well, but these particular terms are not properly used to express it.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones March 25, 2015 at 4:54 pm - Reply

      Thanks for sharing this Holly – both from abroad and from California.

  10. MommaBean March 25, 2015 at 8:16 pm - Reply

    Thanks for your thoughts on this one. I just blogged about it as well, referencing yours. My experience has been much the same as yours, I think. Interestingly, I’ve lived in two different Middle Eastern countries, one where I might have been termed an immigrant and one where I am clearly an expat. In either one, neither carried negative connotations. While I have no doubt the author’s experience has been real and hurtful, I think he overgeneralized the problem by assuming it applies everywhere… I appreciate your insight!

  11. Jonathan March 25, 2015 at 9:01 pm - Reply

    I think it is also a matter of perspective and who has the ability to define their own status publicly. Probably many people would consider THEMSELVES expats, and continue to strongly identify with their home culture. I worked with some Liberian people in Minneapolis, “immigrants” from my perspective, who were not eager to become US citizens because they firmly intended to go back home some day. They viewed themselves as Liberian expats, but outsiders viewed them as American immigrants from Liberia.

    I actually found the WSJ article linked to in the more provocative Guardian article to be more useful and interesting than the Guardian one (http://www.wsj.com/articles/BL-272B-222). When there are differences in status, privileges, and treatment ascribed to the terms that a society assigns foreigners, then I think there is rightly some discomfort and anger about it. How we define ourselves has smaller consequences than how societies systematically view and categorize foreigners. A lot of times, differences in treatment and life outcomes have a lot to do with race — even though no one believes they are racist or intentionally trying to be hurtful. It has been much easier for me to fit in in Europe as a white person than for the people of color here — though xenophobia is also more complicated and not as fully about race as I am used to from the US.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones March 26, 2015 at 4:24 am - Reply

      you make a really good point about the difference between how we see ourselves and how society sees us. One thing that strikes me through these comments is the difference in a predominantly white country vs. a predominantly black one. Like looking at experiences in Africa vs. in Europe. It sounds like in Europe I, as a white foreigner, would have a much different experience and have different assumptions made about me. And the same for an African foreigner there compared to here.

  12. Anna March 26, 2015 at 4:39 pm - Reply

    I agree that it is most likely personal experience that gives us our connotation for different words. Even when I was still living in the US, talking to other Americans, I would sometimes be amused at how we can use the same words, but not be talking about the same things.
    I’ve always understood ex-pat and immigrant by their dictionary definitions. When I lived in Montana, there were white migrant workers, so I never thought of that as a racially charged term. I can see how in an area where all the migrant workers were another race, that might be used to refer to them as a class of people, almost like a synonym.
    I like the image of a renter vs an owner. That makes sense to me. 🙂
    As a related note, racism and the way we treat people different than us is so sad. Even here, where pretty much everyone is black, there’s a lot of xenophobia, tribalism, regionalism, and much mistrust and abuse based on that. Shows how we are in our sinful natures and that we all need God.

  13. Dan McCurry March 26, 2015 at 11:43 pm - Reply

    I recently had a discussion about this with my students. I teach English to international students at a university in the US. They were from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Colombia, China, and Korea. They wanted to know if they were immigrants. I said no because none of them are planning to stay in the US. They are only here to go to school and when that is finished they will return home. I’ve never thought of these terms as being racist but I suppose a term like migrant worker does carry racist and classist connotations. I don’t believe that immigrant and expatriate are racist or classist though.

  14. F March 29, 2015 at 7:04 am - Reply

    “But expatriate and immigrant? Both words are beautiful and should be worn with pride by those to whom they belong.” Yes! Honestly, we identify more with the immigrant community and feel like immigrants ourselves, but we’ve seen people (in our original country) get offended when we’ve called ourselves that.

    We live in the borderland of Europe, and here, I haven’t really heard this distinction. Because of the USSR, there are people with other colours of skin, who are citizens. So, skin colour doesn’t necessarily mean any kind of immigrant/expat. African usually means “student,” though.

  15. Flavia April 13, 2015 at 4:30 am - Reply

    Great article, yes, I wrote a post on it as well last month. I never had thought of it that way and I am not sure why it seems like everything needs to come down to skin color? I hope someday things will change. Great blog, by the way.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones April 13, 2015 at 6:49 am - Reply

      Thanks Flavia. And I completely agree – hopefully someday things will change.

  16. Andrea McConnell May 24, 2015 at 5:09 pm - Reply

    Great article- very well said!

    I wonder if a part of the reason people from the States blanketly use the term “immigrant” is because of the history and culture of the States. There seems to be a heavy immigration history (for example, look at Lady Liberty and Ellis Island) as well as the idea of the American Dream. I think this might have developed into an ethnocentric ideology that has permeated part of the everyday mentality. “America is so great, why WOULDN’T people want to move/live here permanently?” and “Well, I knew a family that moved here for (insert reason) and they applied for citizenship so that new family down the road must be doing the same thing.”

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