Why is it white people are 'expats' and everyone else is 'an immigrant'?

Imagine if it was white people. Imagine if one of our politicians got up in front of cameras and microphones and started complaining about white immigrants in Australia, about how English and Irish people all seem to congregate in certain suburbs, about how they're all living in "ghettos" in North Bondi, refusing to mix with proper Australians, refusing to assimilate into our society.

They'd complain that these immigrants just go to Irish pubs and drink beer and watch Premier League. They refuse to lose their accents. They hang out with their own.

You can't imagine that, because it wouldn't happen. We don't demonise white people in Australia. There are no points to be scored. No hysteria to whip up.

Instead we concentrate on those who look a little different. Once it was Italians and Greeks we were worried about. Then it was the Lebanese. Then we were being "swamped by Asians". Then anyone of Muslim faith became a problem. And now we have African gangs and, apparently, "Bantustan-style" ghettos.

A few weeks ago, footage emerged of Alexander Downer, our former foreign minister, wheeling out that old racist dog-whistle to a Hungarian audience at a migration summit. Migrants to Australia are living "Bantustan-style" lives in "separate ghettos", he said.

"If you do take people as migrants, you want to make sure they integrate," Downer added. "Migrants who come to our country should try to integrate into our community, not set up separate ghettos."

I searched for the obvious caveat. For the admission that it's human nature to gather together with your own, for safety, for familiarity, for comfort. That it's natural to hold onto your own culture and your own traditions, to hold onto a slice of home. And that Australian travellers are guilty of this behaviour too, that we've always grouped together in "ghettos" in London, in New York, in Dubai, in Singapore.

But I didn't find it. I looked in the comments, too, and found a few people making that point, talking about Earls Court in the 70s, Putney in the 90s. But they'd been rebutted by other readers saying things like, "Nah, that's different. We were just in London for a good time. Save some money and drink some beer."

Ah, so there's the difference. There are immigrants, and then there are "expats". White people get to be expats. They get to live in other countries just to work and have a good time. Everyone else has to be an immigrant, with all of the job-stealing, dole-bludging stigma that that label carries. They're different.

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It seems incredible to me that there can be one group of people that travels to have the time of their lives, and another group that travels to save their lives, and we think only one of those is acceptable. And, mind-bogglingly, it's the ones having fun.

Welcome to white privilege, friends. Welcome to a system that says it's OK for white people to move about the world as they like, living where they like, working where they like, integrating when it suits them, sticking together when that's more comfortable.

We don't have to abide by the same set of rules that applies to people of colour. We're not held to the same standards.

Take, for example, me. I'm a terrible migrant. Right now I live in Spain, and have done for the last eight months. I still don't speak Spanish. I can get by with the basics, but I can't have proper conversations with anyone who doesn't speak English.

That's mostly because it's hard work learning a language. You really have to apply yourself. You have to set aside a lot of time. But I've got a job to do and a baby to care for. Verb conjugation can wait.

I haven't made friends with any Spanish people, probably for that reason. I've made friends with English expats, and with American expats. And that's a natural thing. We have similar experiences to share. We understand each other. We laugh at the same things, roll our eyes at the same behaviour.

I guess Alexander Downer wouldn't be happy with that. Except, of course, I'm a white Australian and I can do whatever I want.

I'm not saying we should necessarily change our behaviour when we travel. I'm not saying I should change, though I could probably stand to do a few more Spanish lessons.

I'm just saying that next time we consider railing against migrants in Australia and their supposed lack of interest in integration – which I'm not even sure is a thing – we should just picture Earls Court. Or Putney. And realise we're no different.

Just better off.

Do you think Australians are guilty of grouping together overseas? Have you been an expat? Did you hang out with other expats? Or did you "integrate" into your local society?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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