An article by Mawuna Remarque Koutonin in the Guardian last Friday has been making the rounds. The piece asks, “why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?” and concludes without much nuance that it’s white racial supremacy at work. I disagree, mostly.


Koutonin, from the African nation of Togo and editor of, begins his piece by explaining that he believes the term expat is a remnant “hierarchical word” that was “created with the purpose of putting white people above everyone else.”

What is an expat? And who is an expat? According to Wikipedia, “an expatriate (often shortened to expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of the person’s upbringing. The word comes from the Latin terms ex (‘out of’) and patria (‘country, fatherland’)”.

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’.

As a man who started a site utilizing a self-depreciating, and generally considered derogatory, word for “foreigner” in its title; I tend to be a bit relaxed about language. However, I fully recognize that this is a luxury afforded to me by the lucky lottery I won at birth — by being born white and in a wealthy “Western” nation. I respect that Koutonin, coming from a very different experience than me, sees it in a rather polarizing light of “us” and “them”. But I don’t think it’s that simple, nor do I think it helps to position it as such.

The problem I have with Koutonin’s argument is that it makes some grand assumptions regarding the intention of language use both past and present. While I doubt few would argue that racism and colonialism are intrinsically connected, this idea that “expat” means “white old boys club” is patently false in a modern context. Granted my experience is limited to China, but in the decade that I’ve been here, I’ve been to my fair share of social events for the expat community, and they always contain a good deal of people of all shades, tones, and (after a few drinks) hues — but most tellingly, they also host people of many non-Western nationalities.

This isn’t to say there aren’t divisions among foreigners in China, and as is apparent from a few minutes watching Chinese news, it can run along racial lines. However, Koutonin’s explanation that the term “expatriates” is a word white people reserve for other white people rings hollow. His example of “proof” is a WSJ blog post in which the complexities of identity for residents in Hong Kong is discussed. The thin hyper-contextual (note, Hong Kong is neither white nor western) point is then stretched to apply to expat/immigrant populations the world over.

And while he clarifies in a more recent post on his blog that he means “white” as a brand, not as a skin colour, it seems a bit like back peddling on an argument that was initially too widely cast, and exudes some of the same stereotypical thinking that on the surface he appears to be denouncing.

Koutonin’s conclusion is:

Most white people deny that they enjoy the privileges of a racist system. And why not? But our responsibility is to point out and to deny them these privileges, directly related to an outdated supremacist ideology. If you see those “expats” in Africa, call them immigrants like everyone else. If that hurts their white superiority, they can jump in the air and stay there. The political deconstruction of this outdated worldview must continue.

This seems like crab in a bucket mentality to me. Why pull someone down for the sake of sameness and point-making? If your goal is the furtherance of equality, which I believe Koutonin’s is, why wouldn’t you be advocating that immigrants ditch the term “immigrant” if it feels derogatory, and instead begin referring to themselves as expatriates? If modern Western culture has proven anything, it loves to get behind more politically correct word usage, so I suspect adoption of the term would not be problematic. If the premise of your argument is that “immigrant” is a lesser term used to subjugate the “lesser races”, why would you wish to throw it at people with malicious intent based on the colour of their skin or where they happened to be born?

But all of that ignores and clouds what the terms “expat” and “immigrant” really represent, in my experience at least. The term “expat” in a modern context applies to a person who resides in a place that is of roughly equal or lesser economic development as the place from which they come. An “immigrant” is a person who resides in a place that is of better economic development than the place from which they come. An expat is someone who largely chooses to live in a place (maybe for a job, maybe for love, maybe for the experience) with little initial interest in becoming a citizen of that place, and while retaining the ability to return to their home country without much hardship or change in quality of life. An immigrant is someone who moves someplace with the intention of bettering their quality of life and usually with the goal of becoming a citizen of the place they immigrate to. These are different groups with different motivations, that language would have two separate but similar terms for the groups seems like a function of language, not a consequence of repression.

And that’s where the original article loses me — it hangs its point on words making the distinction of the value of people by other people. It’s people that make this distinction and drive the definition; and, for that matter, not only wealthy white people. Koutonin’s over-arching point is that we need to lose the classism that labels one group inherently better than another simply by way of where they come from. I agree with this. Absolutely. Getting mired down in what words we use to describe that classism shifts focus from what actually continues to perpetuate that classism. Worse, making me focus on my skin colour as part of the problem, or my unintentional privilege as potentially not part of the solution, seems horribly short sighted.


  1. Expats are in a country temporarily to work. Immigrants are there permanently, and will take the citizenship of the country they live in. China doesn’t allow immigration. There is the green card program but that is a joke. None of us are here permanently, even those of us married to Chinese. Upon divorce (likely) or death of spouse, we’ll be kicked out just like anyone else.

    This is just another witch-hunt by a social justice warrior. Wow, you mean a man who spent his entire adult life obsessed about racism, has found racism? Whatta surprise. It is a poor witch-hunter who cannot find witches.

    • This guy gets it.
      I’ve seen people of all races being referred to as “expats” in China – since none can become immigrants, as you pointed out – so I assume the author of this article hasn’t spent a lot of time outside of his “white circle”.

  2. Yeah, this article is laughably short-sighted and lacking in nuance.

    I find the conclusion particularly offensive, because it seems to imply that all white people in Africa have a “feeling of white superiority”. This is just inverse racism.

    • Actually whites in africa are white supremacists and are contributing to white supremacy, and they care more about the animals there then actual african people, or their albino’s. 99.8% of all Whites living in Africa need to be kicked out or prevented from living there permanently and be given temporary residence as a choice. Whites are intruders there benefiting from being white and yes that is a fact, but that’s the fault of dumb black Africans not whites.

      Of course, the blog writer himself being White doesn’t understand the white pathological self-centerdness and hidden web of white favoritism and sociopathy that runs amok the world and is a direct product of covert and insidious brainwashing on former colonies. Whites seriously need to be kicked out back to Central Asia and Siberia WHERE THEY ACTUALLY COME FROM, NOT EUROPE!

  3. Seems a bit of ado about nothing. Grammatically, expat means you are temporary and not looking for citizenship. Expats are certainly of all ethnicities. Immigrant implies moving forever, changing passport, the next generations of your family will be expected to live in the new country forever, and that sort of thing.

    Also, expats can exist in other white/Western countries. There can be an American expat scene in France, and so on.

    However, there is a certain point to be made about privilege. Westerners who move to Asia are generally not expecting to immigrate there. Why is that? Partly because it is a Western tradition itself to immigrate, not a tradition in China or wherever. Do Chinese really expect Europeans to permanently move? However, the reason for all that is because Western countries tend to have more economic advantages. And that is the primary reason *both* why the immigrants go there to gain new nationality AND why westerners “expats” do not intend to immigrate instead they will return to their own privileged land eventually.

    It is what is is. History happened that way. We can discuss the history of colonialism and exploitation further perhaps, but it seems petty to make a big deal about this one word expat.

    • Then again, foreigners could move to China and settle there permanently in some periods of the past. For instance during the Tang Dynasty, one of the periods when China was most open to foreign influence, a Jewish community was formed in Kaifeng, Henan, as a result of foreign Jews moving to China from Central Asia through the Silk Road.

      Their descendants maintained Jewish traditions alive all the way until the eighteenth or even nineteenth centuries, although they were eventually completely assimilated. They basically considered themselves Chinese Jews, while most Chinese saw them as equivalent to the Chinese Muslims, since they also didn’t eat pork. Many of them passed the exams to enter the imperial court.

      This shows that it has been possible for foreigner to “become Chinese” in the past, although it was necessary to accept Chinese mores and customs to do so. Nowadays this would be impossible, but let’s hope it might change again in the future. China is potentially more open in this sense than Korea or Japan will ever be.

    • Actually Whites have permanently migrated and immigrated to different “non-white” territories, such as when the Germanic migrations into the non-white Greco-Roman empire happened, and the Visigoths and Vandals invaded North Africa and the Middle East, or when the Arab empire conquered former territories in Europe and Asia and Africa.

      Whites are the cultural nomads of the world, they never built their own civilization, they never came up with their own alphabet or writing system, they never invented farming, they had to TAKE AND FORCE OTHERS TO TEACH THESE THINGS TO THEM!

  4. I haven’t read the original article (maybe tomorrow), but–on the surface–I’m seeing a very basic misunderstanding of the terms. And the motivations and realities behind them.

    ExPats are people who live in other countries, but retain their original national identity. e.g., an American living in Rio de Jinero will identify themselves as “American”.

    Immigrants are people who become members of other countries and adopt the nationality of the new country. e.g., a Brazilian immigrating to Miami will identify themselves as “American” (born in Brazil).

    It’s not about “white superiority”, it’s about where a person defines as “home”.

  5. At the end of the day, we can all sit at our computers and debate about the grammatical and even historical implications of the word “expat.” It is no doubt easier to talk about an issue you do not have to experience everyday in your life. As an African-American, the more you travel the world the more you get to enjoy its diversity. However, you are also confronted with issues of place and identity. Where do I belong? What really is my history? In terms of China, the term “expat” typically refers to any foreigner, but sometimes it is taken to mean those of lighter complexions (Caucasian, or otherwise). Being the only person of color in a group of eleven, I was often referred to as the “black person” while others were just 外国人. It didn’t necessarily change my experiences, but it didn’t go unnoticed. I love China and I love the Chinese people. I love my hometown in America and I love Americans. Have you all ever considered that this guy has been hurt? Is what he saying right? No, but is picking apart his hurts and faults any better? ABSOLUTELY NOT. Try your hand at compassion. I love LostLaoWai, but I’m disappointed in this article. Seems like everyone has taken the role of victim or accused. I’d like to 1. see more positive articles about diversity and 2. more articles about people of color in China. Thank you and God bless!

    • Moriah, it may be that Koutonin has been hurt in some way, and this informs his views on the matter. I say as much in the post. However, that’s not how he framed it. It is not insignificant that his soapbox, The Guardian, is no small thing. You’re right that it’s easier to talk about an issue you don’t have to experience every day — but implying that because I’m white and I’m an expat that I am somehow perpetuating the history of racial subjugation shouldn’t go unanswered in my opinion. I don’t think anyone is picking apart his faults or hurts, the post and (most) comments are picking apart his argument. An argument he made public on a much bigger platform than this.

      Regarding the two things you’d like to see — we’re in 100% agreement there. I’d also love to see more of both of those things here. If you know of anyone who has anything to say about either topic, please send them over to this page.

  6. “The term “expat” in a modern context applies to a person who resides in a place that is of roughly equal or lesser economic development as the place from which they come. An “immigrant” is a person who resides in a place that is of better economic development than the place from which they come.”

    That’s the prejudice and closet racism right there.

    • For it to be prejudice, it would have to be disparaging towards immigrants or people seeking better economic development; which it isn’t/I’m not. For it to be racist, even racism in a closet, it would have to even remotely be about race AND be prejudice. The argument in the OP is that “immigrant” is a bad term and “expat” isn’t. My argument is that they are just different terms to describe different things. If you believe that “immigrant” is a negative term with negative connotations, then I can see why you feel it’s prejudice (still don’t understand how race fits into it). But why do you feel immigrant is a negative term?

      • well you don’t seem to grasp that non-whites in general are referred to as “guest workers” in places like the emirates, while Europeans are referred to as “expats”. Again you being White, you don’t seem to fully grasp the invisible and subliminal racist system that has been specifically crafted to benefit Whites EXCLUSIVELY ALL OVER THE WORLD THROUGH THE CENTURIES! And this is the truth, and it’s something that non-whites are fed up and tired of putting up with.

        Because by facing these thing things, non-whites who, due to their personality and intellectual abilities may want to excel and full fill their own destinies and choices, are not able to do so because they are put inside a box of stereotypes and a race ranking position that they are not able to ever get out of, because of the crab in the pot mentality that non-whites bestow upon each other in the form of conforming to the system and getting even with each other of the same non-white race in response to this insidious system and because of the obvious gears of white favoritism that prevents and attacks any non-white that may may outcompete, outperform or threaten whites in any way shape or form in ANYTHING.

        Please try to understand!

  7. I am surprised nobody mentioned what I see as the original usage of the word: it’s an HR term for people who are not sent by the parent company to work temporarily in another country, and therefore are treated differently to local hirees, foreign or not.

    Obviously the term is also widely used by people who are locally hired, but what differentiates them from immigrants is that they don’t want to settle there permanently. Simple as that, that’s the definition of an immigrant, “A person who comes to a country from another country in order to permanently settle there.”

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