Am I Racist for Being an ‘Expat’?

A while back, a friend of mine posted an article on Facebook. The title was total clickbait: “Why Expats are Racists”. Allow me to make a little correction: It’s not like all ‘expats’ are racists, but the word ‘expat’ sure is.

I am being addressed as an ‘expat’ all the time here in Kenya. It is a term you encounter everywhere. There are Facebook groups like Nairobi Expat Housing or Nairobi Expats Marketplace. I have heard more than one bar be referred to as “Expat Central” because a good part of the crowd is white. Even my insurance tariff is called “Care Expatriate”.

The term ‘expat’ usually describes a certain type of person. Namely someone like me, someone who came from the Northern and Western countries of Europe or America to work in another, not so wealthy part of the world. Nairobi, being the East African hub for many NGOs and International Organizations, is teeming with this kind of people. Many of them find themselves in the so-called Expat Bubble.

I first made acquaintance with the bubble at a party. It was hosted by a lovely couple from Europe in their beautiful home. Everyone was very welcoming and charming, but something felt very wrong to me: I was in the middle of a Sub-Saharan African country, but everyone in sight was white. Myself included.

Why would you move to another continent, only to hang out with the same kind of people you could have easily encountered at home? Don’t you want to immerse yourself in the local culture?

It is an easy trap to fall into. You’re being thrown into a stressful situation, in an unfamiliar environment, with a local population that you may feel like you have nothing in common with. Under these circumstances, it can be comforting to meet people who are experiencing the exact same thing and happen to share your cultural frame of reference.

It goes without saying that this phenomenon is not specific to people from wealthier countries moving to the developing world. Minorities in a foreign country exhibit similar behaviours everywhere. There is a Turkish “enclave” in Germany, a Pakistani one in Britain, an Algerian one in France. The difference is that in these cases the minorities are often accused of being “unwilling to integrate” or forming “parallel societies”.

Why do we not apply the same standard when it comes to ‘expats’? What makes the Expat Bubble different from those other “parallel societies”? Nothing, really, apart from its inhabitants’ countries of origin and, in many cases, their skin colour.

So yes, the term ‘expat’, the way we usually use it, is racist. It conveys a colonial way of thinking, by which people who move from the global North to the South are adventurers or good Samaritans who want to teach the poor “savages” how to become more successful, more efficient, in other words: more like themselves. What a horrible idea.

Yet, according to the Oxford Dictionary, an ‘expat’ (short for ‘expatriate’) is simply a “person who lives outside their native country“. Technically, the Syrian refugee in Germany or the woman from Burkina Faso who came to France to build a better life for herself and her family are as much ‘expats’ as I am here in Kenya.

Let’s be grateful to the countries who take us in without subjecting us to demeaning and dehumanizing bureaucratic processes, as is so often the case for people who want to come to our own home countries.

Let’s try to get rid of this charged terminology and call ourselves what we really are: Immigrants.

Read the article mentioned in the teaser “Why Expats Are Racists” here. Please feel free to disagree with me, join the discussion and share your thoughts on the issue!

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5 thoughts on “Am I Racist for Being an ‘Expat’?

  1. I do disagree. To me an expat is a very different thing to an immigrant. An expat is someone moving temporarily to a host country, with the intention of moving back again usually within 2-4 years. They live in a bubble partly because it takes a lot longer than that to integrate into the local community (unless you marry a local). As humans we are social beings and I for one wouldn’t want to have to live for a few years without friends in case I’m accused if living in an “expat bubble”. There are of course exceptions to this but really why should we expect locals to become our best buddies knowing we’re going to move on? However, one of the beauties of expat life is meeting people and making friends from all over the world rather than just your home country. I’m glad you point out that congregating with your own people isn’t just a “western” concept; however I wonder if most nationalities take it as totally natural to mix with their own rather than get themselves tied up in knots about it? Finally (sorry! This is a very interesting post 😄😄), I’ve always disliked the notion that expats are white. I agree there is a certain difference in terms of wealth etc between an expat and an immigrant or migrant worker and that is probably a better way to distinguish than skin colour. After all, what would the Nigerian diplomats think of that?

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  2. Just found your blog and love it. This post is particularly interesting to me – I’ve also been here almost a year. I know what you mean by the expat bubble. But, I’m curious: have you had much luck integrating within Kenya? I have made exactly two Kenyan friends. Granted, a lot of ex-pats don’t even try (for many reasons, including the transient lifestyle).

    But, for those of us who plan to be here a while, or have been here for many years, it is difficult to make Kenyan friends. Personally, I’ve felt deliberately excluded. Others have had similar experiences. Has your experience been different? I’m wondering if you had better luck, are finding different venues for meeting people, or maybe it’s something you’re doing right that I’m not.

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    1. Hi there, I agree, it’s not always easy to make local friends. I kind of had that experience when I was living in Spain, so I don’t think it has anything to do with Kenya per se. I would say I have three different groups of friends here, with some overlaps obviously: 1. International immigrants who have been living here for quite some time and are not planning on leaving any time soon; 2. Kenyan locals; and 3. typical ‘expats’ like, say, UN interns. In my experience, it’s like a domino effect: Once you have some local friends, you go out with them, you take part in their lives, you’ll meet others and connect with them. At least if you’re open to that, which you sound like you are. We can connect on Facebook or something if you want to chat about our experiences. Chances are, if you have not been living under a rock in Nairobi for the past year, we already ran into each other somewhere 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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