Experience

Transforming Division Into Empathy

Clara Kitongo
Pittsburgh, Penn.
Practicing since 2016

Following the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests that took place, I felt tremendous fear, anger, guilt and frustration in my heart. Like much of the world, I was deeply affected by his murder. As I used my voice through social media to sign petitions and share about the injustice of it all, I realized that I was developing coldness in my own heart toward my friends who were not of my skin color. This was especially evident at my place of work.

While I had always gotten along with my co-workers, I realized that I had put up a wall between me and my co-workers who were not Black. I judged that they would never understand what I was feeling. It was not until I realized that one co-worker was suffering that I decided to challenge the judgement in my heart and call her. As a friend, I realized I didn’t know what she was going through because I had created distance between us. Through our conversation, we connected heart to heart, and I was able to sincerely encourage her and even shared about our Buddhist practice.

In another one of my conversations, a co-worker confessed that she had a racist relative. Instead of getting upset, I asked her questions. For example, “Why do you think this person is racist?” She then opened up about her own biases. I shared my own perspective, and we both agreed that unless we have dialogue with those who are different from us, we will never be able to understand each other. She ended up attending a Buddhist meeting and has since started chanting.

I realized how subtly division can creep up inside my heart. I decided to “home visit” my co-workers by calling them one by one, and I am determined to develop trust and understanding with each of them.

I’m so grateful that through my Buddhist practice I’m able to address those aspects of my life that function to try to separate me from others. Through reflecting on what is in my own heart and changing it, I can transform the environment around me.

In Uganda where I am from, while we don’t have the same kind of racism, we have something called tribalism where we discriminate against others based on which tribe we are from. This function in the human heart, to discriminate against and build hierarchy between people, manifests in different ways.

Practicing Buddhism has allowed me to first identify those feelings of mistrust and division in my own life and understand that I have the power to transform them. I am determined to create a world where we can all have more courageous dialogue to build bridges and create a more equitable society for all.