Very recently, I had a disturbing, unwelcomed debate with a colleague about my experiences as a TCK. As I tried to discuss why TCK’s need support systems and services delivered by TCK’s with common backgrounds rather than people who cannot relate, he challenged every point I raised. He questioned the credibility of books that have been published about the TCK experience. He doubted the validity of how professional PTSD counselors diagnose TCK children who experienced multiple losses but not physical war or violence as showing PTSD symptoms. He even questioned the appropriateness of term “TCK tribe,” even as I explained to him that the larger TCK community have come to commonly use this term with a sense of empowerment.
He just could not accept that “people who have gone through certain experiences should be the experts of their own experiences.” When I no longer allowed him to continue debating me about what I repetitively described as “close to my heart” (from the first several minutes of to my last sentences in the conversation), and therefore “not up for debate” he then resorted to insulting me as a person and human being. Attempts to deflect tension were only met with further insult.
This may be an extreme reaction, but based on other TCK’s stories, these types of conversations still happen. It was probably the first time this colleague heard these concepts, but no one benefited from his belligerent rejection of what I had to share. Perhaps he believed that I was alone in my perspective because I did not have a battalion in the corner of the room sharing my sentiments.
Just to give some perspective about how widely accepted the TCK identity is among people who identify with the term, TCKid, an organization which started helping TCK’s connect in 2008 through its private forum accessible through TCKid.com, connects with over 30,000 Facebook fan page members, on TCKid: A Home for Third Culture Kids and Cross Cultural Kids Everywhere. These members came together years ago to discuss their TCK experiences and this number does not include members lost due to adjustments made by Facebook over the years. There are about 4000 and growing members who still remain on TCKid’s private forum, despite the various trends of social media in recent years. Now, Buzzfeed itself publishes TCK articles, such as “31 Signs You’re a Third Culture Kid” and “26 Decisions That Are Incredibly Difficult for TCK’s.”
There was one small area of debate my colleague ceded: He suggested that I can be the expert of my own personal experiences, but not for the shared experiences I have in common with others.
Let me be clear on this: The concept that people can only be the experts of their own personal lives, but not the validated experiences they share with others, would disrespectfully dismiss all the personal sacrifices and work that has been accomplished to push the experiences of globally mobile families out of marginalized darkness.
If TCK’s, as a tribe, do not protect ownership of our collective identity or the language we use to narrate our experiences, we as a tribe, get erased. The moment we passively let someone who does not genuinely support the tribe claim authority over our experiences or the language we use as a tribe is the moment we discard our growth and progress out of a place of invisibility. It would erase a self-less collective reverence for all who have come before us and the earned wisdom established that can pave the path for the younger generations in our tribe. We would go back to being invisible.
Relinquishing our claim to the commonality of certain shared experiences as a TCK tribe would dismiss the pioneering work of Dr. Ruth Hill Useem, the sociologist and researcher who coined the term “Third Culture Kid” in the 1950’s based on her observations about shared experiences and field research she conducted on TCK populations in 76 countries, as well as of Dr. John Useem, Dr. Ann Baker Cottrell and Dr. Kathleen A. Finn Jordan who later joined her in research (. If using information form these cached sites, please give due credit to his Samuel L. Britten. TCKid has no affiliation with the current working site.) It would dismiss all the work and research that has been conducted since then, such as the recent research of Dr. Danau Tanu on Asian TCK’s. We are also talking here about the work of people who brought the term beyond residing mostly in academia and into our homes and personal conversations. David Pollock, co-author with Ruth Van Reken of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, went “around the world, school to school” and despite encountering people who “didn’t believe in it“(Van Reken, Ruth. “TCKid Talks: Ruth Van Reken and Michael Pollock.” 5:30-5:50 Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 26 Oct. 2013), pushed all the way through until a book was written, which was finally published in 1999.
An Example to Learn From:
Sometimes, well meaning individuals feel moved enough to help people they do not necessarily relate to. Altruism can be a powerful thing. I am not discouraging helping people one does not necessarily relate to or discouraging people who did not grow up as a TCK from helping TCK’s. However, it is important to assess the approach used in helping others. Social work practice standards, for example, follow a client-centered approach that allows the client to be the expert of their own “personal situation and social reality” (please see page 2, in this example from a service organization’s description of “Client-Staff Relationship”). Note the role of the community in a client-centered approach, which also follows what is called the “strengths-based perspective”: there is a recognition of the “importance of drawing from the strengths of an individual’s family and community when developing a plan” (please see page 1, paragraph 2).
Let’s examine a case affecting U.S. military brats today. Members from the U.S. military brat community launched a social media protest, which became increasingly evident in early November of 2014, against the renaming of what they perceive more as an earned title than a word, “BRATS” (standing for Boldness, Responsibility, Adaptability, and Tolerance) to “CHAMPS,” in the book written by civilian mother and daughter team Debbie and Jennifer Fink, The Little C.H.A.M.P.S – Child Heroes Attached to Military Personnel (CHAMPS).
The early documented stages of the united effort to protest the use of the term “CHAMPS” may be found in 350 negative reviews of the book on Amazon. Since then, the movement, affecting an estimated 15,000 military brats according to Marc Curtis of MilitaryBrats.com, has grown into an increasingly united front involving a petition to President Obama (currently with more than 4000 signatures), a petition to First Lady Michelle Obama, a letter writing campaign, phone calls and statements on numerous social media venues to communicate the growing sense of intense offense taken by military brats. A December 3, 2014 Fayetteville Observer article by Susan Reynolds spells out one of the common reactions, “It upsets me that civilians like the Finks felt that a name change was necessary. Brats are fiercely protective of their heritage; I am fiercely protective of my Brat Tribe. To come into our community and change a part of our heritage without our consent is wrong.” Another common sentiment is about the dishonoring of the word “hero,” which should only be reserved for actual service men and women, according to multiple social media comments by military brats, as captured by December 1, 2014 Stripes: Japan article.
If one follows the progress and updates as events unfold on Facebook, one cannot deny the momentum this has gained, especially as one of the then CHAMPS supporters, the Military Child and Education Coalition, withdrew their endorsement of the book as of November 25, 2014. Steps are also underway that involves another endorser of CHAMPS reviewing the statements made by the military brat community, to reconsider their endorsement.
In response, Jennifer Fink, CEO of Operation CHAMPS, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to engage “civilian communities in giving back to military and veteran families” and is “devoted to supporting families at the local military installations and from the surrounding military communities through volunteerism; providing social services; and developing awareness and cultural understanding in order to bridge the gap between the military and civilian worlds” published this official statement:
In recent weeks, Operation CHAMPS’ Facebook pages, Twitter and email accounts have been barraged by accusations that Operation CHAMPS was trying to substitute “CHAMPS” for the widely used term “BRATS” in public discourse as a way to describe the children of those who serve in the United States military. Jennifer Fink, CEO of Operation CHAMPS, called those assertions “unfounded, uninformed and untrue. The members of Operation CHAMPS understand that many children of military and veteran families proudly call themselves BRATS. We also understand that many people in the civilian and military-connected communities see the term brat in a less favorable light,” Fink added. “Neither the book, The Little CHAMPS, nor the organization it supports, Operation CHAMPS, intend in any way to replace BRATS as a term in wide usage or to demean the term in the minds of the public or the people who proudly call themselves military BRATS. The acronym CHAMPS in no way rejects or denigrates the term BRATS. Operation CHAMPS exists to provide necessary support and gratitude for military-connected children and their families.
From the above official statement, it may very well be that perhaps the Finks only meant good intentions. Sociologist, speaker, author and military “BRAT” BJ Gallagher addresses good intentions in her Dec 1, 2014 Huffington Post article: “Still, good intentions do not give you the right to change a child’s name without her consent — nor do good intentions give you the right to change the name of an entire group of millions of children (and adult children) without their consent.”
From a social work practice standpoint, the official statement does not seem to regard the military community as a strength to draw from nor does it seem to consider the military brats and families to be the experts of their own personal situations and social realities. Rather, the feedback of adult military brats, who are in more of a position to speak up for themselves than their school-aged counterparts, are dismissed. When the goals of an organization are: (1) “Tend to all 700,000+ elementary school-aged Champs, educating their classmates and teachers.” (2) “Cultivate a sensitive school culture where all Champs feel understood and valued in every school setting.” (3) “Raise cultural competence among civilians in these 4,000 communities, and engage them to give back.” and (4) “Ease the transitions from school to school, build resiliency, reduce risk, and create understanding communities.”, one would have to wonder how the organization will show “support and gratitude” to the military brats and families.
To all the TCK’s who have experienced heated conversations like the one described above, if persons like my colleague were to manage and implement these four goals, what do you think the services would be like? This is not just hypothetical, but also a real situation that involves an extremely offended segment of our TCK tribe – roughly 15 million of them, according to a press release distributed on November 13, 2014.
The Significance of Words
After some reflection of this CHAMPS incident and finding parallels with my own experiences as a TCK, this is the deeper reason I came up that explains why switching “BRATS” to “CHAMPS” has such a tremendous impact:
Language that evolves out of a collective and personal acknowledgement of unique and significant experiences serves to validate these experiences. Integral in this process are specific vocabulary words accepted by the people involved in these experiences and an overarching identity that names the experiences. To whimsically play around with the terms that refer to an identity is to play around with the process that validated unique and significant experiences.
Change the words used to name an identity and you disregard the sacred process of how a people came to acknowledge and validate their very personal and one another’s unique and significant experiences.
This incident is not just about a name, but an identity that involves victories over difficult journeys, such as having special memories for schools that no longer exist. Most civilians would not understand things like this. People need to be the recognized experts of their own individual and shared experiences.
Check back next week for the third and final installment in this series…