Part VI of VI: What Blackness Looks Like- I WANT TO BREATHE:



by Paulette Bethel, Ph.D.

In 1985, I gave birth to our “pogi” baby boy while stationed overseas in the Philippines. Pogi means “handsome” in Filipino Tagalog (locals would see our son and say “Pogi, pogi, pogi”). I still vividly recall the moment our newest Third Culture Kid (TCK) was shown to us. A

I rejoiced in the magnificence of his birth and the hope and responsibility that comes with bringing a new life into the world. In those precious moments, the one thing that we did not give thought to was the prospect of ugliness that might await him in his future, especially while living in the protective cocoon of an overseas military community. A

As I reflect upon what it still means to be black, or a person of color in the United States of America (U.S.), I think about the sleepless nights I have experienced being concerned for my black and multiracial children (especially after we returned from living overseas). When we lived outside the U.S., our TCKs were mostly seen as being from the U.S. Even though they experienced marginalizing issues as TCKs of color, as their parents, rarely did we face the worries for their safety that often comes with black parenthood in the U.S.

Since viewing the video of George Floyd crying out for his mother, as he lay pinned beneath the weight of the cold, calculated knee being pressed into his neck and taking his last dying breath, I felt the stab of pain and grief that nearly every black mother fears in this country.

As I watched, I could hear the screams of my African ancestors holed up in the bowels of a slave ship, living through the brutality of slavery and hearing them crying out, “I can’t breathe.”

With tears in my eyes, I desperately wanted those intrusive images to stop flashing through my mind like an old-school slide projector. I immediately thought of my husband, who, far too often, had faced being stopped and humiliated by police officers in the presence of our frightened children for driving (or being) while black and him staying quiet to ensure his safety of his family.

I thought about our son (and our daughters), who knew the experience of being followed in stores for shopping while black. I thought of my coming of age grandchildren, with their varied skin tones and appearances. I thought about my deceased father who, I am sure, had a mixture of feelings about being a traveled man of color, who faced unspeakable racism during World War II, followed by decades of dealing with overt and covert racism and discrimination.

I thought of my brothers, uncles, nephews and my black, mixed-race and multiracial cousins located throughout the country. I thought of the nights I lay awake worried when our children were out with friends, despite living in a safe community.

I feared that I would receive a call telling me that one of them had been killed in heinous, cold-blooded police encounter. “I can’t breathe.”

I am, once again, reminded that no matter how worldly, accomplished, and traveled, we, our precious ATCKs or our more tanned son is on his way to becoming. However, accomplished all the Chris Coppers of the world are: they are potentially at risk of death like Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. Or of having to face self-acclaimed, liberal white women hurling threats against their personhood and their black bodies with impunity like an Amy Cooper encounter in Central Park. “I can’t breathe.”

Because of our chosen lifestyle, I naively thought that I and my family would escape the insidiousness of hard-core racism in the U.S. and the intrusions of microaggressions, even when living in other countries and cultures.

Despite yet another sad and violent murder of an unarmed black American, I continue to have hope and find ways to channel my fears and anxieties into something good. I need to believe this. I want to breathe.

I believe in our children and their potential to live a long, full, successful and culturally rich lives, especially as multicultural people being borne of a multicultural world. I need to believe this is still a truth for them. We have emphasized to them and our cross-cultural grandchildren that no matter what the world tells them — they matter.

I continually encourage them to use their lives of privilege to become catalysts for change. I want them to know the freedom of expression of being able to — simply breathe.

  • Paulette Martinez Bethel, Ph.D., C.M.C., is an Adult Cross-Cultural Kid (C.C.K.). She and her spouse served as commissioned officers in the United States Air Force and raised their four Third Culture Military B.R.A.T.s in multiple overseas and U.S. domestic locations. As a black-identified, multiracial woman raising her blended family of black and multiracial children, Bethel developed a thirst to learn more about cross-cultural and Third Culture identities, hidden diversity and thriving in a fluid, marginalized environment. Bethel also is a certified trauma recovery master coach, a Master’s level marriage and family therapist and an international speaker. She currently serves as President of Discoveries Coaching and Consulting.
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