Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? The view from lifestyle migration research

By Michaela Benson

What is an expat? And who is an expat? According to Wikipedia, “an expatriate (often shortened to expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of the person’s upbringing. The word comes from the Latin terms ex (‘out of’) and patria (‘country, fatherland’)”.

Defined that way, you should expect that any person going to work outside of his or her country for a period of time would be an expat, regardless of his skin colour or country. But that is not the case in reality; expat is a term reserved exclusively for western white people going to work abroad.

Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants. However, Europeans are expats because they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’.

— Mauna Remarque Koutonin 2015

Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? This is the question that heads up the article, first published on Silicon Africa as Don’t call them expats, they’re immigrants like everyone else and published yesterday in the Guardian. Undoubtedly, this is a powerful political point. It is also one that gives us, as lifestyle migration researchers, the chance once again to reflect on how we work with the privilege of the populations that we study.

For those unfamiliar with lifestyle migration, this is a concept that has been developed to capture and explain migrations oriented primarily towards lifestyle considerations; it focuses more on migration as consumption rather than migration as production, a rendering that underpins most migration research. Recent projects in this area have included the study of North Americans moving to Latin American destinations, British and Japanese people living in Malaysia, the HK Chinese moving to the Chinese mainland, complements to the established research that often focussed on intra-European migrations. Importantly, we refer to these populations, who are often relatively affluent and privileged, as migrants. This is no accident; it is political. Simply put, referring to these populations as migrants has been an act that intends to subvert their privilege.

Koutonin stressed the racialisation that the label of the ‘expatriate’ implicitly includes, used mostly to refer to white, Western populations. This is one of the structures of privilege that underpins the lifestyle migrant experience, and which is now being reflected on more systematically. Within academic research, a focus on whiteness has been a central feature of the analysis of such migrant populations in Asia; works by Caroline Knowles (Goldsmiths), Pauline Leonard (University of Southampton), Meike Fechter (University of Sussex) and Catrin Lundström (Linköping University) reflect clearly on the formation of white radicalised identities among these privileged populations. My own recent work on North American migration to Panama – a predominantly white population – reflects on how privilege and postcoloniality intersect, with the result that the migrant experience is structured along axes that include ‘race’, class and ethnicity.*

So why is this important? In a wider context where migrant populations are stigmatised, it is important to turn the lens back in on itself and think again about who counts as a migrant.

*Please email me (michaela.benson@gold.ac.uk) if you want copies of these:

Benson, M. (Forthcoming) ‘Class, race, privilege: structuring the lifestyle migrant experience in Boquete, Panama’, Journal of Latin American Geography.

Benson, M. (2013) ‘Postcoloniality and privilege in new lifestyle flows: the case of North Americans in Panama’, Mobilities 8(3): 313-330.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s