Being a Third Culture Kid (TCK) is both a unique and common experience, but rarely are Black children associated with the term. TCK describes individuals whose parents are from different cultures and who have spent a significant part of their lives growing up in a culture different from both their parents’ cultures and nationalities. Although TCKs can come from various backgrounds and ethnicities, many Black children in the United States and around the world are TCKs without realizing it. Why? The short answer is that being a TCK is associated with privilege – much like the subtle difference between the terms expat and immigrant.
Black TCKs grow up navigating multiple cultures, including Black cultures in their home country, as well as the norms of their parents’ ancestry, but most are not aware of their TCK experience until much later in life. From going to school in another country to bringing your family along to a job transfer, families can create TCKs without realizing they are doing it or acknowledging the unique challenges that come along with it.
There are many famous hidden Black TCKs. Let’s start with Idris Elba, born in London to a Sierra Leonean Creole dad and Ghanian mother. What about Cardi B? She was born in New York City to a dad from the Dominican Republic and a mom from Trinidad. Is Lupita Nyongo’o a TCK? By pure definition, she has dual citizenship (Mexican – where she was born – and Kenyan – where her parents are from and where she grew up), but the fact that her parents are from the same cultural group (Luo) and she was raised within that culture, she doesn’t have a third culture label to attach. See how easy it is to be both in and out of the TCK club?
Of course, many non-famous Black individuals and families also live the TCK experience or dream of it in some form or another. As an nth generation (i.e. been here so long we have no immigration origin story) African-American diplomat, I’ve lived in several countries, including India where I met my husband, who is from Mozambique. Our two young children have grown up in third countries, like Peru and Angola, and have been exposed to different languages and cultures. My husband and I have chosen to raise our kids as TCKs, but it is a unique and challenging task.
Each time I get the opportunity to work in a new place, I get to decide if I want to keep the TCK label going or if I’d prefer to go to the U.S. or Mozambique “for good.” Thus far, we’ve appreciated our children’s diverse personal and cultural experiences. Portuguese is my oldest’s first language and Spanish is my second’s first language. We think that allowing them to grow in different places that even we, their parents, don’t know well, makes them adaptive and independent, free thinking individuals. But, we know there will come a time when they will challenge our definitions of Blackness and our own beliefs about our national identities.
Even farther down the line, we expect that they’ll confront the unwritten rules of how to behave in America or Mozambique. Maybe they’ll resent us for not having taught them. We understand the risks. Parenting anywhere is hard. No matter how far or how much we travel, we’ll never know if the decisions we’re making now will reap the intended consequences for our kids’ futures. We keep open lines of communication and listen actively to any signs that our adoptive home isn’t the right place for them to thrive.
A child’s cultural identity is influenced not only by the national cultures they inherit but also by the subcultures of the larger communities around them. A TCK may grow up speaking multiple languages, eating diverse foods, and participating in cultural traditions from around the world. So too might a child who identifies as an immigrant, or one who grew up in a truly integrated neighborhood. The normalcy of these cross-cultural exchanges might mask how fluid these experiences can be. And labels aren’t meant to be worn for a lifetime.
A study abroad or boarding school experience might set in motion the beginning of a family that could create a TCK. So too can a new job. A chance encounter with a stranger from a place you’ve never heard of, could spark a lifelong commitment.
As we travel more and experience a world brought closer together by globalization, it’s easy to see how people from different parts of the world could find each other, and then choose to raise their kids in a place where they think those kids will have the most opportunities and the best quality of life. Like all kids, TCKs aren’t born understanding labels and their implications. But as more Black people search for financial freedom and bias-free experiences outside of their birth countries, Black TCKs are growing in number.
For my own kids, I’ve learned that I need an international community as eclectic as our travel plans. I also needed to create the tools to facilitate the best of experiences for my kids who are always the only kids like them wherever we go. I launched the Third Culture Kiddos dual language book series with Black children in the lead, to make sure that more Black kids who are native Spanish and Portuguese speakers see themselves represented in books – no matter where we choose to live. And as my kids age and I grow wiser as a parent, I hope to continue to grow a supportive global community that isn’t bound by location, but empowered by the vision of empowering more Black children to fully enjoy every part of the globe, as if it were (or could possibly be) home.