Just before my grandfather passed away last month, he told me he wanted to live 8 more years, to be 100 and see what came of the world. He said it was a dynamic and exciting time, but at the same time he expressed his fear for me and my future children. He said, “I worry you won’t have the life I had or your parents had.”
My grandfather was 92 when he died, a white, Catholic, middle-class male from Pennsylvania. Was he racist? Anytime I spoke to him, he was compassionate and loving to all people … toward the end, he even applauded Pope Francis for stopping the alienation of homosexuals from the church. Did my grandfather say plenty of off-color things? He did, but never with hate or anger in his voice. Just with the ignorance that comes from growing up in a different time.
But, I will tell you, the most racist thing he ever said was, “I worry you won’t have the life I had or your parents had.” It ignores the fact that, at the same time my grandparents and parents enjoyed some of the most profitable and easy years of American history for people like them, countless others were not given such privilege.
There are two types of racism. The first type is obvious and morally deplorable; it wears red flags with black geometric figures on them; it shaves its head and dons white capes; while it continues, I don’t believe this type of racism will ever thrive. (I hope I’m not proven wrong).
The second type of racism is far more subtle. It wears nice suits and carries diplomas from top universities. It buys houses with ease and invests wisely in the stock market. It may even be kind and considerate to many different types of people. But, at the end of the day, this type of racism is classified by one idea: that we should protect our family from losing its privileges, even when they come at the expense of someone else’s family. This type of racism is dangerous precisely because it can look like good parenting; this type of racism is dangerous because it has survived thousands of years, and there is no end in sight.
In a science class in high school, I was chosen with a small group to apply to a summer STEM camp at Stanford. As a girl from a small town in Western Pennsylvania, I thought Stanford seemed like the biggest hill I’d ever get to climb. I remember coming home and showing my parents the application. My dad read through it and said, “You can’t apply. You don’t qualify.” The camp was particularly for low income or minority students. I was neither. My father was furious. A few other students from my school were selected, none of whom had the grades I did, and my dad reminded me of that fact again, and again, and again. He reminded me how affirmative action was “reverse discrimination.”
The thing is: I understand how he felt. Here I was, qualified in every other way to attend this camp, and being denied an opportunity based on my race and my father’s income. It did seem unfair. I remember nodding my head in agreement with him, shaking my fist at a system that was so against me.
But, what I wish I’d learned then, is the fact that my disadvantage on a single day in a single process still didn’t nearly tip the scales from all the advantages I received and continue to receive because of my race and my father’s income level. I didn’t understand the way those who control access to higher education had to be forced to share because, left to their own devices, they would continue to pass the torch to their own children, or their friends’ children, or at least the people who acted most like them.
The Dalai Lama says the cure to our world’s suffering will be the time when we can all love everyone as much as we love our own children. This is why I practice Tonglen, the practice of Great Compassion. The Tonglen practice can be painful and difficult. It involves feeling the pain and suffering of so many, even the whole world, and letting that pain come and affect us on the deepest possible level. Many people have told me they feel quite upset after Tonglen. To this I usually say, “Good. You should.” Everywhere, people are willing to suffer so their children will have better lives. Can we do the same for those who don’t look like us, act like us, sound like us, or share our beliefs? On a basic level, Tonglen asks the question, “If you could take in all the pain in the world in order that no others would ever feel pain, would you?” That’s a hard task. As far as I know in human history, only Jesus claims to have completed it.
Pap-Pap, I love you. In many ways, you were ahead of the curve with your progressive politics and your compassion for the poor. And, don’t worry, though my children probably won’t have the same life you had, I’m okay with that. I don’t want them to know the same privilege I did. I want them to know safety, I want them to know health, and I want them to know love. But I don’t want them to know those things at the expense of other people knowing those things. As hard as it is to ask my family to sacrifice, I hope I’m up to the task.