Emory Report
December 7, 2009
Volume 62, Number 13



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December 7, 2009
Changing the conversation on race, violence

Christine Ristaino is a lecturer in the Department of French and Italian.

On Sept. 15, 2007, just as the sun was about to set, my children and I were attacked as we entered a Target store. I ended up on the ground, bleeding, in front of my crying children. What followed was something I could never have predicted.

In the aftermath, I was pounded with questions about the man’s race. He happened to be black, but why did they want to know? To complicate things further, my son began hiding behind my legs every time he saw a black man.

At the time I had just completed a Transforming Community Project session here at Emory. I met with my group to discuss the topic of race and violence. We read articles and spoke honestly about my attack.
I confessed to the group that my children were having a hard time absorbing what had happened to us and so I told them the man stole my wallet because he was poor. A black woman said she did not feel comfortable with my answer because my children could extend this experience to all black people. “I have a job,” she said. “I don’t steal.” We all agreed — my children needed to know that this was just one man.

The weeks that followed were painful but life-changing, as I attempted to put the attack and its aftermath into perspective. I began to ask people questions: how they came to see the world the way they did; what they meant by particular things they said; how they experienced race, including their own, in this country. I brought up topics that in the past had felt too explosive. I realized that in order to really understand others — in order for them to understand me — I needed to open up and have difficult exchanges.

Opportunities came into my life that allowed me to further explore these questions. Students in my freshmen seminar and I became part of a group called the Waller Scholar Organization at an East Atlanta elementary school. There, inner city children talked about their experiences under the guidance of their teacher, Robert Waller. Conversations with the Waller Scholars were not easy. We met with fourth graders who heard gunshots every night and never felt safe. Some of the discussions with these children forever changed us.

My students were so encouraged by the scholars that they have organized a student chapter at Emory to foster a relationship with them outside the classroom. During our exchanges, the strong voices of the Waller Scholars inspired me to listen for the power of my own.

I’m not sure when it happened, but I started to write down these conversations. By nature of the process I was going through, and my close ties to Emory, this community has become a vital part of the book I was inspired to write.

In one chapter, I show up two days after the attack — complete with black eye and broken nose — to an academic meeting with Provost Lewis and Vice Provost Sterk. When they learn that I am having trouble securing a follow-up appointment for my injuries with Emory’s health care system, they immediately pick up the phone and secure one for me. Faculty, students and staff all participate in discussions in my book, and these conversations have given me strength and insight.

My book was at first titled “Targeted,” calling attention to where our attack took place as well as the nature of prejudice, which targets a particular group. It is a collection of conversations about elements that seemed related to the event at Target—race and ethnicity were two of the subjects that kept coming up. Where in the past I would have stopped asking questions when topics moved beyond my comfort zone, my conversations in this book push past this threshold with results that keep me asking.

It was only recently that I took a new step, one that surprised even me. By exploring race and identity in a raw, unedited manner, I was also exploring my own voice, identity and past.

I gained the courage to confront painful chapters in my own childhood that lay just beneath the surface of the discussions I was having, connecting the dots with previous experiences as a target of the violence that is all too common against women. I realized how much power my own experiences with violence had taken from me. With a new honesty and freedom I began to tackle the topics in my life that had formerly silenced me.
I could never have imagined that through my quest to understand the voices of others I would find my own there, too.

The book is now titled “The Little Girl Is Me,” and the topic has shifted from race and ethnicity to overall healing. The thread that holds the conversations together is an account of the incidents in my life where I lost the most power, from the Target attack moving back in time.

Seeing my children’s teary, frightened faces in the Target parking lot made me want something different for them. Writing and talking about this book has been the way I have communicated to them that their experience should be talked about, not hidden away or ignored, and that through talking we all would heal.

I am forever changed by the conversations with my children and community over the past few years. I’m ultimately more myself than I’ve ever been, more vital and alive, more honest, finally complete in a way I never thought possible.

I’m still in the final stages of writing, but already my work is having an impact. Ten schools in Saint Croix in the Virgin Islands have received a grant to create ancillary materials for a project using film, music, art and their own conversations to create reaction pieces to my book. They are flying me there to participate, and I am certain that we will have more conversations.

The process continues.