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The blindness of expat privilege

Being a white expat makes me special

Being a white expat makes me special

“An expat is anyone who lives in a country outside their birthplace.”

Right, so that would make South Asian ‘guest workers’ in Dubai expats, right?

Well, no. Those guest workers are manual labourers who work for low wages.

OK, so to be an expat you have live outside your passport country AND have a well-paying job.

Well, that would make many immigrants expats but we wouldn’t call them expats because they plan on staying.

So expats live outside their passport country, have white-collar jobs and don’t integrate into the society where they live?


The problem with the term ‘expatriate’ is that the definition has evolved. Originally, the word stems from the Latin ex meaning ‘out of’ patria meaning ‘fatherland’. To be expatriated is to be outside your ‘homeland’.

But the noun, ‘an expatriate’, has come to indicate those individuals who are, in fact, the most privileged among the world’s mobile populations: the employees and families of multinationals, international organisations and the diplomatic corps. Their children go to the best private schools the host nation has to offer; their salaries are paid in a safe currency in a stable country; their jobs are relatively secure. Expats generally move within the upper tiers of local society and have extensive travel opportunities.

I am fully aware that there are growing numbers of globally mobile individuals who do not fit nicely in this definition: entrepreneurs who start up a business in another country; those who move themselves to take up opportunities in local companies; those who work under local terms in foreign organisations… These individuals may or may not identify themselves as ‘expats’.  Much depends on the conditions they have, the laws of the country they live in, and how locals and other foreigners regard them.

My point is not to try to define exactly who is or is not an expat, but to call attention to the hierarchy of privilege that exists within the globally mobile community. From refugees, to migrant workers, to immigrants, to knowledge migrants, to expats: the difference lies in the ability of individuals to make choices over how and where they want to live. Often, the people we call expats are those who have the greatest control over their expatriation experience.

There is a second issue in the hierarchy of privilege that must be openly acknowledge: that of race (or at least skin colour which is often a knee-jerk sign of race). A lot is said these days about how Caucasians or westerners are blind to the privileges of being white. The Swedish study ‘Blond, Sexy and Immigrant’ looks at how much easier it is to be a white female migrant than of any other racial background (

This race or colour issue is important when we realise that much of what is written about expatriation is written by white women (like me). Because of this, I worry that big issues are being missed. For example, the difficulties surrounding the question ‘where are you from’ or ‘where do you belong’ are far bigger for non-western expats than they are for white Anglophones. Just the simple logistical issue of obtaining visas is so much easier if you hold a European or North American passport (yes regardless of colour but you get my point).

I think that we, and I include myself at the top of the list, who write and research issues around expatriation and international mobility, need to be aware of our biases and our privilege: where possible we should try to reflect on a wider segment of the expat world in order to gain a perspective that may be more appropriate or useful to more people.

Just a thought…

One Response to “The blindness of expat privilege”

  1. MikeOghia says:

    Great points! I couldn’t agree more. You said it in a very short but on point way.

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