A commentator in The Guardian poses a great question: Why are white people living abroad called expats, while people of color are immigrants?
Defined that way, you should expect that any person going to work outside of his or her country for a period of time would be an expat, regardless of his skin colour or country. But that is not the case in reality; expat is a term reserved exclusively for western white people going to work abroad.
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’.
The commentator comes around to the point that most white people deny that they enjoy the privileges of a racist system. This is from a worldwide perspective, but can easily be applied just to the U.S.
One person in the comments section – yes, we know but the Guardian’s comment section is better than most – says that it’s not jut about race but about class:
I think it’s probably to do with economic dynamics, immigration is usually perceived as poverty driven. For example, relatively poor Bulgarians moving into France or the UK to work for better wages are considered to be ‘immigrants’ (although they are white). And a rich Qatari oil Tycoon living in a ridiculously luxurious flat in London is not considered an ‘immigrant’ (although he is not white).
Poor people are ‘immigrants’. Rich people are ‘expats.’ Whether it’s economics or race or both, it’s important to remember that language matters.