Why I call myself an expat when The Guardian says I shouldn’t

By Grant Hall

The author with other expat staff working at a resort in Vietnam.
The author with other expat staff working at a resort in Vietnam.

In Mawuna Remarque Koutonin’s recent article for The Guardian, Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? the author argues that ‘expat is a term reserved exclusively for western white people going to work abroad’ and that ‘expats’ should be called ‘immigrants like everyone else’.

As a person who hates racism, considers himself an expat (more correctly, an economic migrant) and writes about cultural and expat issues for wherewordsfailblog.com, I thought I should read the article to see if ‘expat’ is a racist term and if I should stop using it.  It’s not a term I’m particularly attached to or wear like a badge; I’d be happy to call myself an immigrant if it makes the world a better place.

The article has some salient points but is largely problematic.  To start with, its premise is wrong; contrary to the authors statements, ‘expat’ isn’t ‘a term reserved exclusively for western white people’. Granted, not all countries are the same, but having lived and worked on four continents, I’ve met many non-white and non-western people from abroad, most of whom comfortably referred to themselves and were accepted as ‘expats’.

Secondly, it could be inferred from the article that non-white and non-western people are wrong to call themselves expats.  Now if this is the case, who has the privilege to define words like ‘expat’ for the rest of us?

Thirdly the author largely takes his interpretation of the term ‘expat’ from a blog on the website of the Wall Street Journal, which he points out is ‘the leading financial information magazine in the world’ as if to strengthen his argument.  The blog details one Canadian’s expat experience of living in Hong Kong from where he observes ‘a more current interpretation of the term “expat” has more to do with privilege’, before offering a conclusion, selectively ignored by the Guardian writer, that ‘maybe that’s what an expat is today: not a foreigner, not a sojourner, but someone who lives between worlds’.

As The Guardian author correctly points out:

‘Most white people deny that they enjoy the privileges of a racist system. And why not? But our responsibility is to point out and to deny them these privileges, directly related to an outdated supremacist ideology’. 

So let’s adopt the author’s logic and follow his instructions to ‘point out’ and ‘deny’ a privilege.

The only ‘privileged’ relevant to The Guardian article are those who published it and are driving the idea, newspapers owned and governed primarily by rich, white men.  Accordingly, they should be denied the privilege of defining words and telling non-white and non-western people who is an ‘expat’ and who isn’t

To deny them this privilege, let’s call out the publishing of articles that trivialise racism at the expense of those that address less contrived and more serious issues concerning racism in our world.

I think I’ll stick with calling myself an expat for now.

Am I wrong?  Tell me if I am, I’m keen to hear your thoughts!

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