Transcending Ethnicity
Coconut Girl

Santos Headshot_sketchWhen I think of who I am, my first instinct is to define myself using personality traits rather than by ethnicity. I often wonder why many multicultural people intuitively do the opposite. Have I dishonored my heritage by not prioritizing Filipino-American as my core identity? My personal reflections on race have been admittedly stifled. I probably don’t give enough praise to Filipino culture as I should. I’m not sure if I’m to blame for this or if my parents are, with their progressive break from conventional Filipino customs when they came to America. Then again, exactly how much attention does my cultural identity merit, when in reality, the things I believe distinguish me (indecisiveness, corny humor, chocolate habit, introversion, soccer) don’t involve it? In such a global and diverse community as Georgetown, just how important is one’s ethnicity when it comes to identity?


My heritage in the Philippines undoubtedly makes up a fundamental piece of my sense of self, yet arguably, not the most definitive one. I grew up on the East Coast, in a predominantly white neighborhood and without a strong Filipino community to come home to. As a result, I tend to define myself in the American fashion, namely as an individual rather than a rooted member of a larger community, which veers more towards the Filipino way. Whether this is a bad or a good thing, I can’t say.

Is it better to be different or similar, inside a culture or outside another? I’ve stopped searching for the answer and instead defaulted to creating a cultural belonging that only works for me. I’ve adopted and adapted, finding freedom in the undefined hyphen in “Filipino-American.” It’s my indecision at its finest. I take what elements work for me from both America and the Philippines. The idea isn’t about picking and analyzing which side I belong to more, or what the general Filipino-American identity looks like, but to identify the parts of both places that define me.

I didn’t want to define myself by cultural groups alone, but by how these cultures inform my own individual actions. As a result, I haven’t devoted as much thought to untangling those multicultural complexities as I have to figuring out how these tensions fit into my broader identity as a whole. I want to avoid what novelist Chimamanda Adichie, author of Americanah, calls “the danger of the single story.” In my case: the single story of being Filipino-American. In a TED podcast titled, “Identities,” TED speakers offer their answers to the age-old question: who am I? Writer Elif Shafak, Turkey’s widest-read female author, describes her journey, noting how critics expect her to write one story with one voice: her identity as a modern Turkish woman. Like her, I don’t want to end up trapped inside any single identity, but instead find freedom in multiple belongings.

For me, a multifaceted ethnicity plays only one part in the grander scheme of things. I’ve come to terms with duality, and with the fact that several of these cultural questions were never questions in the first place, but rather concrete facts of hybridity. I think it’s unnecessary to dwell too long on it, because there’s so much more to a person than just his or her place of origin. In the same TED podcast I mentioned before, featured guest Pico Iyer sums it up: where you come from and who you are involves both soul and soil. Similarly, I’ve taken the nurture over nature stance on the subject.

That’s not to discredit the importance of heritage, but to value it as a means to an end rather than the end itself. Once we acknowledge a person’s ethnicity as only one piece of a much bigger puzzle, the stereotypes and expectations, albeit inevitable, will break down faster, giving room to more authentic definitions of identity.



Sarah Santos is a freshman in the McDonough School of Business. Coconut Girl appears every other Friday.


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