What word is that? Expat.
I used it proudly and frequently, ever since I was one. I embraced the word as much as I embraced the identity of an American living and working abroad.
But some recent articles (and some shocking linguistic data) have called out the way we apply expat, and now, a bit shamefully, I’m convinced it’s time for me to retire the word completely.
You can read the original discussions above, but the long-story-short is this: expat, as it is actually used, is basically a special term for white (often wealthy) westerners living abroad, as opposed to non-white, non-westerners who are categorized as migrants or immigrants.
Now, maybe these aren’t the definitions you thought you were invoking when you said expat. Maybe (hopefully) that’s not what you, consciously, explicitly were going for when you used those words. I know I wasn’t. But as demonstrated very clearly in the recent discussions, the discriminatory meanings are present, whether we realize it or not.
And not only are the terms themselves poorly, unequally applied, there is a bushel of stigma that tags along with them. The data in the third link above displays the grossly divergent way in which the words immigrants and expats are applied, with the former being connected with many more negative, stereotypical, and harmful attributes than the latter. Whether Webster’s recognizes it or not, expat is a word we’ve carved out specifically for a privileged group of people to reinforce race, ethnic, and class distinctions.
As I watched the discussions around these articles, I see some resistance to recognizing the discriminatory effect of these words – words that many, like myself, have used forever without even thinking. There’s a lot of pointing at definitions and saying BUT THAT’S JUST WHAT THESE WORDS MEAN!
But the terms expat, migrant, and immigrant aren’t as simple as going some place forever and going some place temporarily.
(And protip: if you rely on dictionaries to understand the far-reaching, human effect of words in the real world, you’re gonna have a bad time.)
I can only speak from my personal experience. But even though I didn’t think about my own linguistic biases, until it was brought to my attention, the critiques of it rings true.
In China, I met (white) westerners who’d lived there for years and years and years, or who made careers out of traveling outside their country of birth, and weren’t likely to return. I called them expats without even thinking about it. On the other end of the spectrum, many westerners had every intention of returning, and even many of those in it for the long haul still moved from country to country, picking up every few years to find work elsewhere. But they still got the special title of expat. What tied these two groups of people together under the same term? Well, it wasn’t their residency status.
Obviously, I didn’t mean to perpetuate such loaded and negative distinctions. But I – and pretty much everyone around me – did nevertheless. It may be awkward or embarrassing to consider how oblivious we’ve been for so long, but being called out on it is a good opportunity to reconsider our words.
So I am completely fine with listening to the critics and stepping away from expat. I feel literally zero need to defend outdated or bad terminology, because it isn’t just words that are harmful. It’s the ideas behind them; it’s the way we categorize people in a way that puts some above others. And that’s not something I want to support going forward.