Growing up in the suburbs of Cincinnati, it was extremely uncommon to see people of color in my neighborhood. Sure, my junior high graduation photo is dotted with a couple of black and brown boys and girls and I graduated high school with a handful of women of color, but the vast majority of people around me were white.
As a woman of Filipino descent, I’ve always felt conflicted about identifying myself as anything other than white. My grandparents immigrated here from the Philippines and we’d have weekly dinners featuring traditional Filipino dishes, but I never felt like it was “okay” for me to identify with the Filipino culture. I didn’t speak the language, I’ve never been to the country and I’m only half Filipina. On top of that, I grew up with a lot of privileges that many people of color do not have the chance to access. Growing up, I would jokingly refer to myself as a “whitewashed Asian” because I felt like I hadn’t been immersed enough in the culture to fully claim it as my own.
It wasn’t until I got to college that I started to become comfortable with identifying as biracial: half caucasian and half Filipina. Now, I’ve started to make more of an effort to learn about my culture by asking my grandparents questions and educating myself on the culture on my own whenever given the chance.
Being a biracial woman herself, Sara Ruberg, one of my good friends from high school, has often shared similar thoughts and feelings. Since we both went off to college, I’ve watched Sara flourish and grow in many aspects of her life, including her identity. I’ve personally been inspired by Sara’s story and feel honored that she has chosen to share it on my blog today:
I was in an identity crisis before college. I grew up going to Catholic schools my whole life in southern Ohio, and a lot of the kids around me were white, descended from German and Irish ancestry. As for me, I am biracial, half white and half Indian. I am the daughter of an immigrant, which not a lot of people around me could say growing up. Not that it mattered. To everyone else, I blended in as just another white girl. I still do today, which I recognize as part of my privilege in this world, but as a kid it was confusing.
I would often tout my heritage in classrooms and friend groups. I was proud of my family, their journey to America and the traditions we kept. But I was often dismissed. Nobody knew or cared about my culture and I wasn’t exactly seen as an ambassador for Indian culture. When I was really little, all I wanted to do was prove to my family and friends that I was Indian. I did my best to learn about the culture. I would listen to Bollywood music and try on the saris hanging in my closet. I’d admire the pretty attire in the mirror, but I was always too embarrassed to show anyone. I felt like an imposter, just a white girl draped in colorful clothing, begging to be connected to a side of myself that barely existed. Family gatherings with my Indian family felt awkward because I wanted to be like my cousins. I wanted to grow up in a household and a community where I knew my history and heritage, but I didn’t.
Eventually, I got too old to play dress up, and I stopped telling people I was Indian, unless asked. I started putting “caucasian” down on my standardized tests, and I no longer listened to Bollywood music.
Junior year of high school, I met one of my best friends who is also an Asian woman. She was one of the first people I felt open to talking [mostly joking] about being non-white in a very white-washed world. We both grew up in German Catholic communities in Cincinnati. We’ve gone to more Oktoberfests than Holi, Diwali or Chinese New Year celebrations combined, but we were connected in the fact that we were different from our classmates, teachers and friends. Senior year, because of how comfortable she made me feel, I started putting down Asian and caucasian on my college applications. Not that I ever asked, but when I started talking about my brown side again, a lot of people tried to tell me I was just white. People loved to tell me how white I looked, how I “acted white” and how I grew up around white people to argue all the reasons I wasn’t South Asian. It was infuriating to be constantly denied a part of myself and my family.
It wasn’t until I left Cincinnati and went to college at Stony Brook University in New York that my identity crisis ended. There was one specific moment that the anxiety of never being sure of myself came to an end. One night during my freshman year, I was hanging out in a dorm with some new friends. Three of the four others in the dorm were Asian and one girl was biracial like me. They were talking about chai, and I chimed in quietly mentioning that my nani makes amazing chai. Immediately, they were ecstatic. “You’re brown!?” one of them said. We talked for a very long time about our crazy, but loving, brown families, our traditions and food. Those people are still my close friends to this day. They were the first people to embrace me fully as South Asian—my designated brown family on campus.
It doesn’t make me nervous to tell people about my race. I feel whole here, on a campus where there’s a huge population of Asian people. Everyone has accepted me as one of their own. I couldn’t feel more proud to be a biracial woman, half South Asian, half white, a daughter of an immigrant, just like everyone else.