The Great Expat vs Immigrant Debate: Why “White People Get Special Treatment”

Are you considering a move to Japan? If so, you may be wondering what to call yourself once you arrive. Will you be an expat or an immigrant? The answer may depend on the color of your skin.

The Controversial Difference Between Expats and Immigrants

According to many people on social media, the term “expat” is reserved exclusively for white Westerners who move abroad, while everyone else gets labeled as an immigrant.

As Mawuna Remarque Koutonin writes in The Guardian, “Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants. However, Europeans are expats because they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’.”

This double standard is reflected in official policies and everyday language.

In Hong Kong, for example, “Anyone with roots in a western country is considered an expat … Filipino domestic helpers are just guests, even if they’ve been here for decades. Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese are rarely regarded as expats,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

The Privileged Position of White Expats

So why the special treatment for white Westerners? It all comes down to privilege and outdated notions of white supremacy.

As one African migrant worker puts it, “I work for multinational organisations both in the private and public sectors. And being black or coloured doesn’t gain me the term ‘expat’. I’m a highly qualified immigrant, as they call me, to be politically correct.”

Many white people deny that they benefit from a racist system, but the evidence is clear. Calling yourself an expat rather than an immigrant is just one way of asserting your supposed superiority over others.

Embracing the Immigrant Label

But some people are pushing back against this discriminatory language.

One German Reddit user who has lived in Italy, the UK, and the US writes, “I am German and I was a immigrant in Italy and I was a immigrant in the UK and in the US. And that’s perfectly fine it’s something to be proud of. But now you are a immigrant in Germany and that’s amazing be proud of it.”

Others argue that the distinction between expats and immigrants comes down to intention and length of stay.

“Expat has the connotation of well paid professional in an MNC but it really doesn’t matter,” writes one commenter.

“Immigrant usually means someone making the move permanently. Expat usually means they are intending to live and work in another country for a limited or even pre-set time period.”

What Do Real People Think?

Here’s what some actual immigrants and expats have to say about the debate:

  • “I always refer to myself as an immigrant to my more right leaning friends back home in order to challenge there stereotype of what immigrants are.”
  • “The connotations they have for me are that an expat seems to be someone who had a choice and could have done fine in their own country but decided to move abroad, and has an image of privilege. An immigrant has the connotation of being someone who went overseas to seek a better life because of poor conditions at home.”
  • “I am French. I call myself ‘French in Japan’.”
  • “I can count the number of people I know who are immigrants to Japan on one hand. The rest leave at some point.”
  • “Call yourself what you want.”

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, whether you call yourself an expat or an immigrant, the most important thing is to recognize and reject the racist double standards that privilege white Westerners over everyone else. As one commenter puts it, “There are no expats only immigrants.”

One Comment

  1. Hello,
    In my mind and Expat is as it states, someone who is not a patriate of there country of origin. Migrant is someone who is moving from one place to another. Actually this could be intercontinental or transcontinental, but either way I believe to mean long term “moving”. Then there are people who are travelers/vacationers, again intercontinental or transcontinental, but short term, i.e., not moving.
    This discrimination seems to be from other, as how they think of the traveler and not how they think of themselves. I travel internationally and am just that a traveler. I’m not migrating as I plan to return at some point.
    Just my opinion.

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