Ever since I read this article on the use of the word “expat” being exclusive to white people from western countries, I have been thinking about my own experiences living in a variety of places, through that lense. The words we use are not the only difference.
When it comes to my immigration situation, there is what is legally true, what is in practise true, and what people believe. In particular, there is a vast difference in what is legally true and what people believe, which creates this disconnect as people make assumptions. For example I can’t visit America without people asking if I will be moving there, which would in practise be a 10-month-long legal ordeal (that can only start in January) involving lotteries etc, and then having to live in a precarious situation where if something happened to my job I would have to leave immediately.
What is Legally True: As an EU Citizen I can live and work anywhere in Europe. Anywhere else I require a work permit to stay for any length of time. This is typically tied to my employer with an expiry on when I need to leave the country should I leave that job. It’s likely I have spent enough time in Canada that it would help me obtain Permanent Residency there, but in practise they denied me health insurance for travelling too much so who knows. There are visas which allow young (<=30 yo) to live abroad, typically these are limited to a year in duration and have further restrictions on employment.
What People Believe: It is easy for me to live anywhere, particularly other “anglo” countries. Getting a visa will be a process that takes weeks, and merely a formality. Being from “The Commonwealth” makes it easy to move to other “Commonwealth” countries.
What is in Practise True: As an educated white woman (with savings) I will eventually get a visa. Countries will enforce the law when it comes to immigration but in practise will believe I am OK, let me in, allow me to transfer my visa should I find a different job.
So. Strange things arise from this disconnect. Amusingly, the only time people ever talk about “The Commonwealth” is when referencing my ability to move somewhere. Reality is, the Commonwealth is a cultural rather than a legal entity. Horrifyingly, people make racist comments about “immigrants” to me, thinking that I will agree, that I will be amused, when aside from anything else in practise I often have less right to live in that country than the people they are complaining about (e.g. the difference between PR and work permit).
Anyway, when white people say that racism is over, I think about this disconnect, about the gap between what people think and what the legal system says, about the gap between what the legal system says and the selective application – and I remember when I was trapped in Canada for months because I was given the wrong work permit. It was too good, I didn’t qualify for it, and as a result it couldn’t be renewed. This was not a problem my friends with Iranian passports were having.
A final story that captures what happens in practise better than anything else I could tell you: I was at US border control after they introduced the ESTA, but living in Canada I hadn’t heard about it and so didn’t have one. I was detained, and I sat in the detention area anxious about whether I would be denied entry to the country, and a border guy said to me, “we’re gonna let you in, we’re always gonna let you in, just sometimes we’re going to make you sweat a bit first”.