The Polite Language Of Racism

Immigrant or Expat?

I am an Australian man, who married a Swiss woman. We met, and lived in Australia for many years, but of course travelled to Switzerland quite often.

However, as is sometimes the case, circumstances in our professional lives changed and we made the decision to settle permanently in Switzerland.

So I immigrated. Or emigrated. Or migrated. I wasn’t expatriated, nor did I expatriate myself.

But by doing so, I became known by many people in Switzerland as an expat, not an immigrant or migrant. Even years later, when I gained Swiss nationality, I was still referred to as an expatriate and not an immigrant. This is true today. I’m an Aussie expat living in Switzerland, even though I am Swiss.

This bothers me, because an expat is someone who is working and living temporarily in a foreign country and expects to return home once the mission is completed and does not intend to take a new nationality. I am not here temporarily, and I have taken a new nationality.

The word expat is not used when referring to many of my friends here, though. One, who was born and educated in Switzerland, but holds Portuguese nationality, is an immigrant. His wife, who is American, is an expat.

Many British people have lived in Switzerland for most of their lives, have children born here, and have dual nationality. Naturally, all of these people are expats and certainly not immigrants.

There is a large Sri Lankan community in Switzerland, particularly in the Zurich area, and in Valais, it is Italians who have lived there for generations. But these people are of course all immigrants.

Our next door neighbour is from Reunion. Immigrant. Another neighbour is from Rwanda. Immigrant. Another is from Belgium. Expat. On the floor below us lives an American neighbour. Expat of course. Our American’s neighbour is from Portugal. Immigrant.

You know what? I do not like being called an expat. I am an immigrant. I migrated to a new country, separated from my family, learned a new language, adapted to new customs, struggled very hard to find a job, accepted my new country’s laws and way of life, and was fortunate enough to be granted citizenship and the right to vote in my new home. I am not here temporarily, I emigrated.

I dislike being called an expat, simply because I am a white Caucasian male. I also dislike the fact that it is only white Caucasian expats who call me an expat. Thankfully, my great friends from Reunion, Portugal, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, India and from almost anywhere else in the world, allow me to be one of them. A content, happy and proud, fellow immigrant.

Immigrant and expat. Two seemingly interchangeable words, which are used ever so politely and politically correctly, yet by their selective application, usually smack of racism.

The Polite Language Of Racism
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8 thoughts on “The Polite Language Of Racism

  • 01/07/2016 at 8:51 am

    Yes, the way we use words, rather than the words themselves, is crucial. We are all prejudiced, it is impossible to be human and not have a personal opinion, and we are all brought up with subtle and not so subtle variances of word usage even within single families. I constantly despair of people being labelled as such and such because of nothing more than mixed or changing use of words and phrases. But yes, at this current moment in history, the differing applications of the words expat and immigrant, particularly in Swiss society, often very thinly veneers prejudiced opinion. That is undeniable. At what point prejudice morphs into racism is impossible to measure. Fortunately, face to face we can usually at least pick a sense of the extremes, but even then we need to hear the feeling behind the words, not just the words. Interestingly, the words expatriate and immigrant are the same in French and I think are used in the same ways. I’m sure linguists, which I’m certainly not even with the loosest of fashionable meaning, will shoot me down if I’m wrong. I have to admit though, that my view is very much confined to Anglophone word usage, in a country where most people can communicate with some efficiency in at least three languages.

    • 01/07/2016 at 9:00 pm

      Thank you for your comment, Richard.

      Yes, I think expat and immigrant is an English issue, but all languages have these almost synonyms that can be used to express positivity or negativity.

      Then there are other words in themselves that can carry differing connotations depending on the context. In my own case being Australian, the word colonial is one that springs to mind. Used as an adjective, it is fine in such expressions as my colonial ancestors, or colonial music. But if someone uses it as a noun in reference to me personally, I would be deeply offended.

      As we both live in Switzerland it seems, you would also know that in French the word, frontalier, (those from across the border) can be both neutral, or quite negative.

      As always in language, it’s about the context in which a word is written. In speaking though, one can add facial expression and intent, which becomes a completely different kettle of fish.

  • 06/07/2016 at 7:56 am

    Thank you for your article. Once again you’ve elegantly encapsulated a problem. Language is exquisitely nuanced and you’ve demonstrated a fine example of how it can be used to define ‘them’ and ‘us’. And how easily a practitioner of this form of discrimination could claim innocence and maintain the terms were interchangeable

    • 06/07/2016 at 9:00 am

      Thank you for your comment, Penelope. So a fellow author, a Kiwi and a namesake? What a combo!

  • 06/09/2016 at 11:00 am

    I try to use the words in their normal sense — expat is someone who intends to return home, immigrant is someone who intends to stay. But add refugees, exiles and asylum-seekers to the mix, and the edges can be blurred. When I went to the UK to study, I referred to myself as a semi-exile. I intended to go and study but left prematurely and in haste — if I had not done so the cops would have stopped me going. But I intended to return, and when I did, the cops confiscated my passport. But I never thought of myself as an ex-pat or an immigrant. I was a foreign student, a wog, as my English friends called me, and a semi-refugee,, semi-exile. Taking refuge from the police, but not seeking asylum. A friend of min, who arrived a few months after I did, was a full exile. His passport was taken before he left, and he was given an exit permit on condition that he never returned. But he did return, when there was a change of government in South Africa, and became an ambassador, so I suppose he was then an ex-pat.

  • 01/01/2017 at 12:47 pm

    It seems to me that this specific anecdote could be virtue signaling about a greater issue built on a tenuous politically-correct distinction.

    Personally, I have only ever heard Expat used in conversation for people who leave their birth nation permanently with either an aim to assimilate into a non-birth country or to reside there for a longer period of time with little intention to return to their origin.

    Technically, the term can be used interchangeably for temporary or permanently, but in the context I have always heard it, expat suggests you either already have or plan on renouncing your birth nation’s laws and taking on the new nation’s laws, as well as possibly the culture.

    Looking around online, I can see that isn’t a common-held understanding and it seems to be the opposite for older generations (40+), but this is strange to me because I can’t remember any time I’ve heard expat used in real-life that pertained to a short-term stay in another country.

    Maybe because I am American and an American expat can be considered a literal ex-patriot (especially in our legal system). From this perspective, an expat is not a good thing to be.

    I haven’t actually heard expat used as a term for any immigrants here, no matter where they come from or what they look like. In my experiences, expat has been strictly used for those who have left their home country and legally moved to anywhere else in the world that isn’t the USA. If they came to the USA, they are an immigrant… though I will admit I have noticed that the British like to refer to themselves as expats no matter where they are, even the US, regardless of what others label them as.

  • 08/02/2017 at 1:24 pm

    very true.say hi to your fellow immigrant neighbor from Rwanda.Amahoro

  • 03/07/2017 at 2:30 pm

    If expats call you an expat, and immigrants call you an immigrant, what do the native Swedish residents call you? This is interesting to me because as an American, specifically a southerner, I have often heard the term immigrant or refugee, but never expat. Actually, most people just say “oh, he/she is a foreigner” – regardless of country of origin or length of stay.

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