Dream of Destiny sits down and talks with Tani and John Leeper. As a biracial couple, Tani and John keep it real, giving us an inside look into their upbringing, culture, blended family, and why as Life Groups leaders they believe small groups and frank conversations on race are moving the dial toward racial harmony in the Church.
1. Tell us how the two of you got together.
Tani: We met at Skybar in Hollywood. John was there for a bachelor’s party, and I was out with my girlfriend. I was a single mother raising my daughter here in L.A. while John was recently divorced living in Northern California. When I first saw John, I thought he was way out of my league. I was too intimidated to say anything to him, but I knew I did not want the night to end without saying something. So just before the night ended, I went up to him and said, “I just want to let you know you are so handsome” and I immediately walked away. I didn’t get very far. We have been connected ever since. We were just two down to earth people at this fancy place that found each other. We met in May 2002, in December he moved here to L.A., and we were married in August 2003.
John: When I first met Tani, I thought she was a beautiful woman that was probably very rich. I didn’t know if she was Asian or Latina, but I liked what I saw. We were both at this place where everybody wanted to be somebody and spent a lot of money just to say they’ve been there. I thought she was way out of my league too. We did a lot of emailing and talking on the phone because there was no FaceTime or Zoom back then. I’m not the type of person who takes big risks, but it was a significant move on my part to sell everything and move to Los Angeles. When we met, we had both gone through a divorce and were not looking to get remarried. However, the more I got to know Tani, I fell in love with her personality. She had a lot of energy, and I knew that I needed more of that in my life, but didn’t know in what capacity. I didn’t know if she would be a good friend or possibly more, but I couldn’t deny the effect she had on me. When I saw her in her role as a mother — well — that was pretty cool and it sealed the deal for me.
2. How were you both raised on the issues of race? How do you believe your opinions on race were formed?
Tani: I grew up in the Philippines, and when I was 14 years old, I moved to the United States. In the Philippines, there were mostly Filipinos and Chinese in the city where I lived. I learned most of the matters involving race from my very opinionated family member. Unfortunately, she did not have good things to say about the Chinese people in our neighborhood. For example, there was a corner store near where I lived, and the owner was a Chinese man. Based on his appearance, I formulated some of the same stereotypes ingrained in me, these same perceptions shared by my elders. Unfortunately, there was nothing to challenge those stereotypes because I didn’t have many Chinese friends at the time to know otherwise. When I came to America, this same “very opinionated” family member educated me about white, black, and Hispanic people. She felt that Filipinos were better than the other races, and not knowing any better, I came to believe that. However, as I started attending school and became friends with many diverse people, I came to realize my “very opinionated” family member’s words were simply not true. The crazy thing, majority of the guys I dated were not Filipinos, even my best friend in school was not Filipino. When my very opinionated family member met John, my husband, who is Caucasian, she fell in love with him.
John: I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, where there is a lot of culture with many different races living there. In terms of my family, my parents and I didn’t talk much about race because it wasn’t a hot topic in our house. Maybe I’m naïve because I grew up in the 80s in middle class white suburbia. I went to a small Christian private school with primarily white and Asian students. While in high school I played sports, but there weren’t enough people in the school to consider it segregated. My friends were mostly Asian and white, and I didn’t think about race.
3. As a bi-racial couple did you have any issues in the beginning of your relationship?
John: I honestly didn’t see us as a biracial couple because I never looked at her as Filipino.
Tani: And after 18 years of marriage, he’s becoming more Filipino than white. [smile]
John: One “issue” that I can think of was that my parents were not happy that I decided to move to L.A. and propose to Tani so soon after meeting her. Their reaction wasn’t because they had anything against her. Still, Tani thought their reservations had to do with the fact that she wasn’t white.
Tani: Yes, my initial thinking was that John’s parents had a problem marrying me because I was Filipino. John’s parents and I are very close, and just recently, I had the opportunity to talk to them about this. I asked them, “Did you wish that John married a white girl? His mother said, “Absolutely not. We never thought that.” John’s father said the same thing. Their only concern in the beginning was John had just gotten a divorce, and five months later, he moved to L.A. to marry me.
4. What aspect of your racial or ethnic identify makes you the proudest?
Tani: For me, as a Filipino, it is putting family first, being together, and helping each other out. I’m proud of the fact that Asians “don’t crack.” [She smiles.] We age gracefully. For me, traditions are so important. We need to pass on traditions and their meaning to our families and future generations.
John: I am proud that I was born in America, and all the freedoms and privileges that comes with that, but I’m struggling to answer this. I’m Irish and German but don’t experience much from those cultures. Everything we have here in America, land, customs, traditions, and food, we gained from others. I guess I’m proud of baseball and hotdogs. One thing I can say is that America is a melting pot; a mix of people from all different racial groups to share food and begin new customs and traditions.
5. In what ways does your race impact your personal life, if at all?
Tani: I think race has positively and negatively impacted my life. As a non-white female trying to make it happen in American society, I have to hustle. Things do not come as easy as it does for my white male counterpart. Statistics and studies show that if you are male and white, you have a higher percentage of getting jobs and a higher pay. I don’t let the fact that I am Asian, a female, and English being my second language stop me from pursuing what I need to do in both my personal and professional life. I just recently finished writing my book, Dear Baby, and started a foundation to help families impacted by pregnancy and infant loss.
6. As a biracial family, how have you dealt with the issues of race in your marriage, children, or family? Any personal victories or struggles?
Tani: I have a daughter, Samantha, from a prior relationship who is biracial — half white and half Filipino. She was raised in a Filipino household and has adapted those values and traditions. The issues John and I had revolved around preserving family traditions and not about race. I feel it was important for us to preserve aspects of our own particular upbringing and culture. So, when we decided to blend our families — that was a struggle. Earlier in our marriage there was conflict concerning how to celebrate the holidays as a new couple. John didn’t have family traditions while I grew up with them. Another thing was the constant family gatherings. In my family, the aunts, uncles, cousins, and family friends were very close and would celebrate everything and get together often. For John, this was a bit much. The first time John met my family was at a gathering. He met my aunts, uncles and cousins, about 50 people, all at the same time. He said he was ambushed. [She smiles.]
We have other differences too. He likes pork chops, and I don’t. I love white rice and noodles and he likes potatoes. He likes boating; I like shopping. We both learned how to dance with each other on these issues over the years, so we can have the victories we have now. If you ask about race in our marriage today, we can honestly say that it isn’t an issue. John has assimilated to my culture and I have done the same to his.
John: I remember when Tani and I went out to dinner and the hostess put us in a back corner of the restaurant. Tani attributed this to the fact that she was Filipino and not white. I didn't think that this was the reason. I must admit I'm not hypersensitive to these things because they don't happen to me, and I'm not treated unfairly because of my race.
7. How often do you interact with people from other races outside your inner circle? What is the nature of these relationships and interactions?
Tani: My interactions with other people are mostly with those in our Life Group and support group, then of course the people at the bank, stores, restaurants, etc. Our best friends are black and Hispanic, but we don’t see them as black and hispanic. In preparing for this interview, I had to take pause and think of people inside and outside of our inner circle and have come to realize we do not have enough white friends. [She smiles.]
John: Mostly, everyone that we interact with is from our church and our Life Group. However, we lead In Loving Arms, a six-week support group to help hurting moms and dads come together and find comfort and healing after a pregnancy or neonatal loss. In this ministry, we get to be with people from all walks of life, races, and backgrounds — some who have hit rock bottom a lot of times. Because we have poured out our hearts with each other, we become friends. We love on them no matter who they are or where they are from. I believe this is how Jesus intended for us to view different races, as humans, not colors.
8. Have you ever witnessed someone being treated unfairly because of their racial or ethnic identity? If so, how did you respond? How did it make you feel?
Tani: Yes. We were in Tennessee with my mom and went to a lounge. A very young couple was sitting there, and they said, "Oh my gosh, why is she here?" referring to my mother. I do not know why they responded that way, maybe it was because of her race or because she was older. My mother did not look Asian; she looked more Spanish. I said to them, "That's not very nice. What is your problem?" One thing about me is that I am not afraid to speak up. I believe racism can show itself in so many ways. People can show prejudice against others based on how they look physically, not just because of their skin color. In this case, maybe these young people had an issue with my mother being older with wrinkled skin and gray hair. Perhaps it was because she was sitting next to them and felt she was ruining their vibe.
John: We have some good friends in our Life Group who recently went to Napa Valley in Northern California. While eating in a restaurant, a man started yelling at them and told them to go back home to their country and that President Trump was going to get them. This man said that to them because he thought they were Chinese while in fact, they were Filipino. When our friends posted the video on Facebook, I was sick when I saw it. Seeing this made me think of the many videos I saw in the past that were similar to this one but didn't affect me the same way. I told myself that I needed to shift my perspective so that it will impact me, not just when it happens to my friends, but when I see anyone treated unfairly. Later, I felt I needed to call them and apologize for what they had to go through.
9. How did George Floyd’s death affect you personally? Are there any takeaways you can share with us?
Tani: Hearing about George Floyd's death was not as impactful, I think, as seeing the video. Sadly, as a society, I feel we have failed. We have become desynthesized when we hear about these types of incidents. We say, "oh, how sad," and it happens again. When I saw the George Floyd video, it gave me the chills because the man kneeling on him and those around him did nothing and ignored his cries for help. Could others have helped? Would I have helped if I had been there? It was sad to watch him die like he did. Could they have restrained him in such a way that was more humane? His unjustly death made a huge impact on society. It started the conversation on racial relations. My hope is that positive conversations about race continue days, months, or years after this has passed.
John: I feel George Floyd’s death definitely was the catalyst for change and started a conversation pertaining to race relations and equality. When we watched the protests and riots, I said to myself, "this is out of control. How do we stop this?" I don't know. I hate conflict. What leader or person should we talk to to help us move through this and make it better? I know I am just one person, and I wonder how I can change it. Maybe if we get enough "one persons" together, we can invoke change. The race problem is bad now, and I wonder what it will look like in the coming years.
10. Why are Life Groups so important for fostering cultural and ethnic diversity?
Tani: When John and I opened our home and started leading a Life Group, we imagined we could handpick those to be in our group. But that is not God’s plan, so we opened up our doors to everyone. We had ex-gang members and people who were previously incarcerated for theft and drugs. We had people of all races, ethnicities, and nationalities. Under regular circumstances our paths may have not crossed, and we wouldn’t have been friends. Yet, God brought us all together. We got to know each of their hearts, and we became friends and developed deep relationships. We became united because we centered around the word of God and the life of Jesus. Many people in our group have moved on and have become Life Group leaders and started their own diverse groups. Life Groups has been essential in fostering diversity in this way.
John: I believe that one way that Life Groups foster diversity is that it brings together people from different races with different perspectives. When we do life together, we have many discussions. People’s ethnicities play into who they are and what they will bring to the table on topics such as the Bible, marriage, childrearing, etc. One of my favorite things when we get together, is getting to experience different types of food like Soul, Greek, Filipino, and Mexican. I am bland and boring, but everything they bring is so good. [He smiles.]
Tani: Life Groups allow people to connect. You can have safe conversations about race and be comfortable sharing different viewpoints. Life Groups break down stigmas and stereotypes we have about different groups of people.
John: I remember we were out one night having dinner with people from our support group. Two of the guys found out that they had been incarcerated. They started having a conversation about the dos and don'ts about jail and the prison system's racial divide. I remember telling Tani later that I didn't know their back story. I could have looked at them and said, they are ex-cons, I don't need them in my life, but I didn't feel that way. Because of our new formed friendship, one of the guys helped us move. He even got two of his friends to help us. Absent our support group, we may not have been able to get to know them and be friends with them, but we were brought together for a singular purpose. You can't continue to keep your biases when you get into a Life Group or a support group. Attending church alone, you don’t get to know people intimately like a small group. Unfortunately, in the Church as a whole, prejudice still exists, and I hope and pray that it changes one day.
11. What are some of more things that Shepherd Church could do more of to foster and inclusion and with our community.
Tani and John: Other than Life Groups, I think what you are doing here, having these types of conversations on race. We had to really think about these questions you asked us so we could have a deep and honest conversation. Dialogues like this help bring awareness and eliminate ignorance so that we as believers can start seeing each other just like Christ sees us. Only then can we support the good in one another and not get so wrapped up on the issues of race.