I am half-Irish and half-Filipino. But if you asked anyone else, you might hear I am Spanish, Italian, Mexican, white, or a vague, “exotic” mix of all four. Some may count me as a woman of color, while others may believe I am appropriating the term.
I have lived my whole life in between labels; however, I have only recently learned what it truly means to have ownership over my identity and to freely take pride in it. For me, this freedom has come largely through rejecting rigid ideas of race and belonging and refusing to justify the way I identify to others.
Growing up, I have always been aware of my multicultural background. I was raised almost exclusively on chicken adobo, a traditional Filipino dish, prepared by my white mother, and often saw my father as the only dark-skinned person at Christmas parties, surrounded by a crowd of fair-skinned Irish relatives.
Though I always knew that my father was Filipino, I grew up largely unaware of my own Asian identity — mostly because I didn’t look the part. Of my siblings, my skin is the lightest, my eyes are the roundest, and my hair is the most like my mother’s. My parents never taught me to see myself as anything more than “American,” which for them was often synonymous with “white.”
I accepted this watered-down identity throughout my childhood, both because it allowed me to fit in better with my predominantly white classmates, and because I never knew any other way of being. In high school, however, I faced more direct challenges to my identity. The other white girls made jokes about me being smart because I was Asian, while other Asian girls reminded me that I didn’t “really count” when I began to own the punchlines.
Coming to Georgetown University has pushed me to reconcile my identity with the ways others see and categorize me. Most people I encountered assumed that I was white and laughed if I suggested anything else. Many people, both white and Asian, thought it was strange that I joined Club Filipino my freshman year, and even stranger when the club became the biggest part of my social life on campus. I was still occasionally the butt of Asian jokes and still silenced when I had anything to say in response.
Only a few people recognized me as mixed, and I accepted their validation gratefully. I joined a multiracial affinity space my freshman spring, and the multiracial club, Mosaic, my sophomore fall. Hearing people echo my experiences and affirm me when I shared my own stories was one of the biggest contributors to my growing confidence in my identity. With time, my place in Club Filipino also became more accepted, and the close friends I made there became a much-needed support system and appreciated source of validation.
Even now, however, I hear the odd joke or uninformed comment. I am still designated as the “obligatory white member” by students who come up to Club Filipino’s table at club fairs. In the wider Georgetown community, my identity is still up for debate, as is my right to even talk about my experiences as a woman of color. But while the world has stayed largely the same, the biggest change for me has come in my mindset. I am now slowly learning that people are entitled to their opinions about my identity, but I am not required to change myself to match them.
I have spent my past two years at Georgetown desperately seeking acceptance from a system that was not built for multiracial people and from people who, through little fault of their own, cannot always give it to me. The process has tired me but has also taught me to stop trying to be something that I am not. I am not completely Filipino or completely Irish. I do not know what it’s like to live as an obviously Asian woman or as a fully white one. And I cannot expect other people to make room for my mixed, messy and complicated identity if I do not make room for myself first.
The process has been challenging, but it has ultimately led me to a new kind of freedom, a freedom that allows me to accept the way the world receives me and to form my own identity anyway.
Caroline Sarda is a junior in the College. WOC Wisdom appears online every other Thursday.