As the oldest in her family, Clarissa is used to being the first to do things. But one “first” that’s been especially difficult to tackle is being the first interracial couple in her family. What started out as a challenge, however, has led to more meaningful conversations and a commitment to building solidarity.
I recently watched comedian Jo Koy’s new movie, Easter Sunday, and I was excited to see the movie set where I’m from, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Many shots felt like home and local references made the connection even deeper for me. Essentially, the movie is a comedy involving family drama around a holiday. Jo Koy’s character, Joe Valencia, leaves his home in the San Francisco Bay Area to chase his dreams of comedy and acting in Los Angeles. He makes his way home for the holiday with his teenage son, and the fun ensues as he gets back and sees family and old friends.
One of the familiar faces is a former girlfriend, Vanessa, who is played by Tiffany Haddish. In one scene of the movie, we see Vanessa, a police officer, pull over a car with Joe in the driver’s seat. They make polite conversation, and she goes on to play a key role later in the movie (no spoilers here!).
I found myself wondering throughout the film what it was like when Joe brought Vanessa home to meet his family — maybe at a holiday meal — and how he introduced her to his family. I wondered what their relationship was like as it developed. I wondered if her family welcomed him and vice versa.
I don’t often see many Filipino and Black relationships portrayed in Hollywood, and this pairing meant something to me as a Filipina American married to a Black man. It resonated with a time period in my life when I was bringing my now-husband and then-boyfriend around to meet my family for the first time. I think about how I knew there would be uncomfortable conversations about what it meant to bring a Black man home and eventually into our family.
My husband and I are the oldest children in our respective families, so almost everything we have done has been a first for our parents. Beyond the usual adolescent milestones, we accomplished a lot of significant firsts, too. We became the first home owners of our generation. We were the first to bring a grandchild into their worlds. We were the first to marry a person of another race and welcome them into our nuclear family.
I can recall when I phoned my brother to let him know that I thought I met the man who would be my partner for a lifetime. I told him that when I broke the news to our parents, I’d need patience for the conversation — I knew there would be many questions. There were times in my life that being the first to do something brought me joy, but this was one of those moments that I wished I hadn’t been the first.
Historically, within my family growing up, we talked in hushed tones about skin color. Whether it was within my Filipino community or even in the context of my family, there was often a fear when we talked about Black people. This harmful legacy was passed from histories of colonialism and oppression, which were parts of our Philippine history. As a community, we struggle with colorism, too, like many others.
It struck me as revelatory that in nondescript ways, there was a slight nod to Black and Filipino solidarity or even Black and Asian solidarity with Joe Valencia and Vanessa in the movie — and this was a part of their relationship that I couldn’t relate to.
Those early conversations with my family about my then-boyfriend left me tired as I worked to find and build solidarity. It went beyond the conversation about someone’s qualities, and at times, became an opportunity to delve deeper into racial injustice. Like many relationships and complicated family connections, we had to keep talking and sharing stories to become more comfortable with each other — and with what we imagined our future to be.
Hollywood movies don’t often dig into the reality of conversations that families have behind closed doors, or the microaggressions mixed couples have to face when they decide to bring their partner home. I knew that I did not want to tolerate tasteless jokes rooted in race, nor did I want to listen to stereotypes about someone’s race. Early on in our dating relationship with each other, my husband and I talked about racism and how our families perceive us. Race really became part of our dating and our relationship in ways that were uncomfortable at first. I had to unlearn many assumptions and navigate the privilege I sometimes carry as a Filipina American woman. In many ways, talking about racism and racial injustice has now become a cornerstone of our marriage. I use what I have learned to help build solidarity and bridging experiences within our communities, especially as we raise our young son.
I recognize the uniqueness my family has in being a family that marches for Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate in one fell swoop. Being in relationship with those who don’t look like us and those who do look like us is what fuels the work these days. And I consider myself lucky to be able to model a world that isn’t afraid of talking about race and racial inequality for my son.
My husband and I strive to be transparent and vulnerable around racial injustice. We strive to dismantle systems that have kept us moving forward. And above all, we strive to be authentic in our actions and through our witness of wanting to be more for each other and our family — and not being afraid of being the first in that way.