Expatriate or migrant? The racialised politics of migration categories and the ‘space in-between’

Expatriate or migrant? The racialised politics of migration categories and the ‘space in-between’

Sarah Kunz

“Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?” Mawuna Koutonin asked provocatively in a 2015 blogpost reprinted by The Guardian. Widely shared on social media, the article struck a chord with many and made two critical points in the on-going debate about the term ‘expatriate’: that categories of migration are rarely neutral and that they are racialised. The expatriate, or ‘expat’, is an especially contested term. Widely used by migrants themselves, it has also become the quintessential example of white privilege and the persistence of colonial power relations in migration.

However, heated debates about the term ‘expatriate’ often overlook that categories never work on their own. While ‘expatriate’ is frequently scorned, ‘(im)migrant’ often retains the veneer of a technical category, used self-evidently in academic, political and public debates as if we all knew and agreed who immigrants were. Yet, as I have argued in a recent article, any critique of the term ‘expatriate’ necessitates a critique of the category ‘(im)migrant’. Both terms might seem obvious but actually have several co-existing meanings: they are strongly polysemic. Their polysemy and flexibility are political, and they are, again, racialised. To argue this, I review definitions by institutions, states and scholars, and draw on ethnographic research I conducted in Nairobi and The Hague, where I examined how privileged migrants, and also Kenyans, deployed the categories ‘expatriate’ and ‘migrant’.

Contested terms: Expatriate or (im)migrant?
So, who is an ‘expatriate’? I argue that there is no definite answer, nor should we strive for one. Instead, it is more interesting to see how people and institutions actually use the term, for what purposes and with what effects. The English word ‘expatriate’ consists of the Latin ex (‘out of’) and patria (‘one’s native country’). Oxford’s dictionary Lexico accordingly defines ‘expatriate’ as ‘a person who lives outside their native country’ while also adding that ‘expatriate’ is used to denote exile or being ‘expelled from one’s native country’.

Actually, in the U.S., ‘to expatriate’ literally means to give up – or be stripped of – one’s citizenship, as Nancy Green discusses in a 2009 article on the history of the term ‘expatriate’ in the U.S. context. Today, U.S. citizens frequently de-naturalise for tax purposes and the ‘expatriates’ of U.S. federal tax law are “U.S. citizens who have renounced their citizenship and long-term residents […] who have ended their U.S. resident status for federal tax purposes”. Ironically, this is quite unlike the ‘expat’ generally evoked by popular imagination and media, who is a U.S. citizen who refuses to give up their citizenship or cultural identity while living abroad.

The term ‘expatriate’ has also become common business lingua and the Financial Times Lexicon defines an ‘expatriate’ as “an employee who is sent to live abroad for a defined time period” – traditionally by a multinational employer and on a generous employment packages. Yet, not all assigned employees, not even all those on generous packages, are called ‘expatriate’ (as the term ‘inpatriate’ evidences). The fact that those labour migrants who are called ‘expatriates’ often enjoy privileged lives and are frequently white, male and Western, is bound up with wider inequalities and attests to the imperial roots of our ‘global economy’. This resonates with the above argument that ‘expatriate’ is a term reserved for and by white, Western migrants.

As such, the label ‘expatriate’ can work to naturalise racialised labour migration regimes, where white, often male ‘expatriates’ are positioned as naturally skilled leaders and a desirable segment of mobility – unlike ‘(im)migrants’. However, not all those who identify as ‘expats’ are white, as evidenced by the website blackexpat.com and the South African magazine The African Professional, previously called The Expatriate. Moreover, the label ‘expatriate’ is also used for less advantaged labour migrants, for example in Gulf states, who might not be highly-skilled or white, let alone privileged. There ultimately is no one true ‘expatriate’ and arguing about the term’s ‘real’ meaning is not only futile but potentially counterproductive.

It is tempting to claim that ‘expatriates’ are ‘just migrants’, but the migrant is itself an unstable term. Definitions are numerous and hardly clear-cut. Like the ‘expatriate’, the ‘migrant’ or ‘immigrant’ do not constitute legal categories in many countries and statistical measurement of migration is frequently inconsistent and contested. As Bridget Anderson and Scott Blinder discuss for the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory, there is no definition of ‘migrant’ or ‘immigrant’ in UK law and numerical claims of how many ‘migrants’ enter or live in the UK vary depending on which data source one consults. That means it is far from self-evident who will at any one point be classified as a migrant.

Technically, the migrant can be defined based on foreign birth, foreign citizenship, or change of residence – and migrants further be differentiated by purpose and nature of their move. Perhaps the most widely used definitional criterion is residence, although international legal consensus on the term ‘residence’ is lacking. Generally, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs suggests that a long-term or permanent international migration refers to “a change of country of residence for a duration of one year or more”.  According to this definition, most people commonly labelled ‘expats’ are indeed immigrants. This could be the end of the story if it wasn’t for the fact that hardly anyone – including politicians and media – sticks to official definitions of the ‘(im)migrant’. This raises the question, if migration is such a slippery and chameleon-like phenomenon, what are impassioned debates on (im)migration actually about?

Multiple meanings and the everyday uses of migration categories
Throughout my research, I encountered many uses of ‘expatriate’ and ‘migrant’ which were frequently racialised and classed. If compared to ‘expats’, migrants were positioned as moving involuntarily, as being unskilled, poor, persecuted, unemployed, or even as per definition ‘illegal’. They were also frequently associated with racialised minorities, with ‘Eastern Europeans’, or with ‘Muslims’. When I asked ‘Robert’, a British migrant living in Kenya, how he would define ‘the expat’ he responded:

Robert: Someone living in a country they weren’t – didn’t grow up in, I suppose. Not necessarily where they’re born in, because a lot of people are born somewhere and then – it’s someone who has proactively chosen to live in a foreign country, I’d say.

SK: How does that differ from, let’s say, a migrant?

Robert: Migrants don’t often have choice, do they? They’ve got to leave their country, whereas we’ve chosen to. That’d be fair? Migrants, yeah. Migrants are in a pretty shitty position, aren’t they? They’re generally escaping from some kind of repression or a lack of jobs or – trouble is, they’re often coming into a country that doesn’t have many jobs either and can’t give jobs to their own people and there is migrants [sic] who somehow think they’re gonna get money, hand-outs. And in England we’re particularly good at giving hand-outs.

SK: Are you? What kind of hand-outs?

Robert: Unemployment benefits, free healthcare. […] You know, we’ve got a problem in England with the Muslim community, in my view. There’s about a million Muslims living in England, who don’t recognise our law and they say our goal is that you will recognise Sharia law. It’s a disaster. We should say ‘get the fuck out of our country’. If we did that in Australia or Bahrain, they’d say go…

Robert first distinguishes the ‘expat’, and thereby a general ‘we’, from the ‘migrant’ by highlighting the voluntariness of their move. His conception of ‘having a choice’ then excludes the poor and unemployed, alongside those fleeing repression. This ignores that Robert, a self-identifying ‘expat’, himself first migrated after being made redundant.

Even Robert’s ostensibly well-meaning pity for ‘migrants’ indirectly works to distance him from ‘them’. Moreover, Robert’s figure of the ‘migrant’ works to critique the British social security system, further evidencing that the politics made with migration extend beyond the policy realm of migration. The Othered ‘migrant’ ultimately leads Robert to the figure of the ‘Muslim’. By framing Muslims as ‘migrants’, he constructs a homogenised, essentialised and ultimately threatening Other outside and against, not of, ‘England’. This ignores that many English Muslims are not immigrants, whatever definition one might deploy. Moreover, Robert ‘forgets’ British imperial politics in Australia and Bahrain, which arguably depended on British migration and involved exactly the sort of impositions that Robert now charges ‘Muslims’ with. Through their very separation, the categories ‘expatriate’ and ‘migrant’ here perform symbolic work together, reproducing intersecting classed and racialised hierarchies rather than achieving legal or technical descriptions of movement.

The racialised politics of migration categories and the ‘space in-between’
Both terms then hold various meanings – official and colloquial, broad and narrow, positive, negative and technical, non-racialised and racialised. Like Robert, my respondents mobilised various, sometimes contradictory, readings of the ‘expatriate’ and ‘migrant’ and often shifted between them instantaneously. Among the plethora of uses of the ‘migrant’ I encountered, consistently not mobilised were the ‘official’ definitions provided for instance by the UN or governments. ‘Expatriate’ and ‘migrant’ can be used as synonyms, opposites, or as subtypes arranged in multiple ways and by different logics. This polysemy and flexibility is important because it enables what I have provisionally called ‘polysemic games’ that do racialising work. For instance, ‘migrant’ can furtively change from ‘scientific notion’ to ‘folk notion’ within the same sentence, ‘zigzagging’ between technical and racialised meanings (Fields & Fields 2014). ‘Random’ examples or ‘code words’ in seeming asides can provide racialised clues.  The repetitive naming of a particular example to the general type can establish racialised prototypes while frequent ambiguity allows racialised meanings to linger.

The categories ‘expatriate’ and ‘migrant’ are central to the racialised politics of migration. Yet, while ‘expatriate’ retains a privileged association with white and Western migrants, it does not always map exactly onto ‘race’. One of the reasons why racist thinking works so well through migration is because migration and its categories are ostensibly not about race at all. Indicatively, none of my interlocutors position themselves as racist. Their’s are not ‘racial slurs’, some accounts are critical of inequalities, some explicitly anti-racist. Most, including Robert, would have been offended if called a racist.

Rather than viewing the ‘expatriate’ – ‘migrant’ distinction as a neat racialised binary (though it can be that, too), racialisation works through these categories’ polysemy, their partial overlap and the ambiguity that this space affords. ‘Expatriate’ and ‘migrant’ frequently work together as flexible signifiers – variously as others, synonyms or subtypes – to reify migration inequalities. Political scope lies in the terms’ plasticity and the tactical mobility that their partially overlapping meanings allow. As Bigo (2002, 71) argues, it is the plasticity of the term ‘immigrant’ that makes it such a useful political tool for Europeans, allowing them to agree about their differing and shifting ‘unnamed enemies’. If migration categories like the ‘expatriate’ and ‘migrant’ are sites for racialised politics, staying within their bind appears unpromising.

This implies that rather than using categories like the ‘migrant’ and the ‘expatriate’ we should more often study them. It implies asking not whether ‘expatriates’ are migrants, and which type thereof, but how, in particular instances, they are positioned as different or the same and with what effects for political debates and people’s daily lives. In other words, the question becomes what the stakes are of arguments about ‘expatriates’ (not) being migrants or being a particular type thereof. Migration categories are often used in ways that rationalise or mask racialised power relations and we ultimately need to dissect and dismantle them if we want to arrive at a more just politics of migration.

Bigo, D. (2002). Security and Immigration: Toward a Critique of the Governmentality of Unease. Alternatives, 27(1), 63–92.
Blinder, S. 2015. “Imagined Immigration: The Impact of Different Meanings of ‘Immigrants’ in Public Opinion and Policy Debates in Britain.” Political Studies 63 (1): 80–100.
Fields, B. J., & Fields, K. (2014). Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life. London: Verso Books.
Kunz, S. (2019). Expatriate, migrant? The social life of migration categories and the polyvalent mobility of race. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Published first online, 1–18.


Sarah Kunz received her PhD in Geography from University College London in 2018 and currently works as a Research Associate at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. Her ESRC-funded PhD research interrogates our understanding and uses of the migration category ‘expatriate’ and the category’s multiple histories and postcolonial politics. Researchgate webpage and Twitter

Image Credit: Author’s own

2 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    October 21, 2019

    I’ve been classified as both an expat and an immigrant myself (depending on context) and have done a lot of work with both, so it’s a subject I’m very interested in. I think one of the differences the expat community in Geneva, for example, highlighted between themselves and ‘migrants’ is that they were only there temporarily and then might move to another country. Never mind that quite a few of them chose to stay on indefinitely in Switzerland or swore they would never return to their home country.


  2. Avatar
    June 08, 2020

    Thanks for this. As white N American on my way to live (perhaps permanently) in Mexico, I realize these are issues I am going to confront. I left the US in the 70s and have lived in 6-7 different countries since, but most in or near Europe so race was never a factor. This time, I know, will be different.