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!