Expat OR Immigrant? A Lesson in Grammatical Racism

“The Mexican restaurant had a kitchen full of [expats].”

Expat: a person who lives outside their native country whether temporarily or permanently.

Immigrant: a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.

Is it me, or do these two words seem to mean the exact same thing? Linguistically, yes. In the real world? No. In reality, any white person (European, Australian, etc.) traveling outside of their native land can afford the luxury of distinguishing themselves as an “expat.” I’ve heard the title used numerous times. Anyone, it seems, not of Caucasian decent settling outside of their homeland is referred to as an immigrant.

So, at what point will we admit that this is about race? The truth is that the word immigrant is used as a powerful tool for fear mongering and hate. Why? Because of an underlying prejudice many fail to recognize. “Immigrant” has become synonymous with the false idea of the “others” coming to steal jobs and committing heinous crimes. Brexit and the U.S. Republican campaigns of 2017 were unabashedly xenophobic, promising a heavy handed crackdown on “loose” immigration laws. When it comes to the idea of an immigrant, many people envision a person of color, although the term immigrant is by definition comparable to expat. Both terms should yield no further connotations than their established meanings. 

We can all sit around talking about the semantics of the two words, the origins and historical implications. Academically, neither term alludes to race and the two words should be interchangeable. But, unfortunately they’re not for many people. There’s obviously no easy remedy. Immigration has become a trigger to divide and conquer a world already moving rapidly toward globalization. For now, the word immigrant is a powerful tool in political plays for control.


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