Ford School graduate students prompt discourse on race in video


“Walking the Line of Blackness,” a 20-minute video created by and featuring graduate students from the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, puts their direct, personal experiences with racism in focus.  Their intent is to contribute to the national discourse about race, here and throughout academia in the U.S.

“I’m proud of the students who created this film,” said Ford School Dean Susan M. Collins. “They bravely share deeply personal, often painful experiences. My hope is that their courage helps others understand and address issues around race in the United States.”

The video begins with Peter Haviland-Eduah, who did his undergraduate studies at Union College, a small school in upstate New York.  One of the 4 percent of those students who were African American, a member of student government, lettered athlete in three sports, and a work-study staffer with the campus police force, he was well-liked, admired, and broadly known.

In the video, Haviland-Eduah recalls an evening when he and a group of friends were stopped by a Union police officer who asked three of them for their student identification.”

“We came to realize that he had only asked the black men in the group to produce their identification.  Had he asked some of the white people who were with us, they weren’t students and they technically weren’t supposed to be on campus.  But that didn’t matter because of the color of their skin.”

“My parents warned me about things like that while I was growing up.  It hit me at that moment that I was coming into adulthood,” Peter said in a recent interview.

View the video produced by Ford School graduate students.

Fifteen more Ford graduate students contribute their experiences, including Chanera Yvonne Pierce, who recalls the summer night she was questioned and followed by a police officer less than a block from her apartment in Washington, D.C., where she held an internship with a national social justice agency.

Instead of someone walking home from work, the policeman assumed “I was actually a prostitute who frequented the area,” she continues in the video.  “No matter what I do, no matter how smart I purport myself to be, I will still always be looked at as the worst, the least of, the utter scum of society.”

“When I think of being black in America, as a black man, I walk around, whether it’s here at Michigan or professionally, you realize how many of you there aren’t,” says Matthew Alemu.

“What it does to the psyche — when you’re one of six, one of four, in the 7 percent of diversity at an institution — creates a lot of insecurity and requires you to carry a lot of baggage in every situation and classroom you enter,” said one of the video organizers Maron Alemu. “Insecurity comes with the fear of fulfilling a stereotype of being the dumb black kid, angry black woman, the unqualified affirmative action kid … and that’s why diversity is so important. “

The video initiative came about, “after our community conversation at Ford, responding/reflecting on the tragic deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown,” recalls Maron Alemu in a recent email interview.  “A group of students (many featured in the film) got together to discuss how to channel our frustration, pain, and disappointment into something productive.”

Their conversations quickened in the months following the Garner and Brown incidents in summer 2014, as additional seemingly similar incidents occurred in fall 2014 and winter 2015.

“We felt like a discussion was missing on the black lived experience,” said James Schneidewind.  As a white ally, Schneidewind — whose grandfather was active with the National Conference of Christians and Jews in the 1960s — questioned what role to play.  Feeling that, “sometimes silence can be seen as complicit,” he soon joined the collaboration to produce the video with Maron Alemu and Haviland-Eduah.

“Many components of this process taught me so much more,” said Maron Alemu.  “From drafting questions, meeting to film with individuals, get administration’s support — really taught me how hard it is to have a constructive, respectful, and safe conversation around race in this country.”

Toward the end, the video participants are asked, “What changes would give you a greater sense that black lives do, indeed, matter?”

“Conversation can’t start and stop in schools.  It has to continue in communities, in workplaces, homes and beyond.  If we want to get to a place of common human understanding, the only way to shape that is in communicating those different lived experiences in the places where we meet and interact,” said Maron Alemu.  “We have to confront our own biases, understand how status quos of practices of institutions may perpetuate some of these biases.”



  1. Kiana Shelton
    on May 21, 2015 at 10:58 pm

    You tried. And failed. Watch the video again.

  2. Jimmy Schneidewind
    on May 23, 2015 at 12:19 am


    I think you would do well to watch the video again (and again, and again, and again) while keeping in mind the thesis statement of the video, that a fully inclusive society cannot be realized without acknowledging the backgrounds and experiences of others. Your comment makes it seem as though you went through the video, pausing it to copy down quotations, with the lens of discrediting each of the participants. If an individual says that a certain incident made them scared, terrified, humiliated, angry, saddened, or otherwise, an appropriate first reaction is to ask yourself why they might feel that way, rather than dismissing their lived experience cherry-picking their words to support a conclusion that you clearly formed before watching the video.

    When you rewatch the video from the perspective of trying to understand the experiences of others, rather than a place of cynicism or anti-intellectualism, I suspect you’ll find the answers to many of the questions you pose (e.g., “Why do they seem to identify as Black?” and “Why did she feel terrified?”) and many answers to questions you did not think to ask. Further, I think you could really benefit from sharing your comment with others (particularly people of color) so you might be checked on some of your comments that are HUGELY problematic. For example, where in the world do you get the idea that “…around half of the ‘black’ people in the video are clearly of mixed race.”? And that identity is not made up of multiplicities, i.e., one can identify in many different ways? You started off your comment by listing off a multitude of ways in which you seem to identify: 1) white; 2) male; 3) from trailer park community; 4) raised by single mom; 5) mom is from Detroit. What if I asked you to choose only one of those points to describe everything about who you are and who you will be? Would that make sense? Then why would you take issue with participants in the video talking about their Blackness as one of the myriad ways in which they identify?

    I’m willing to spend more time talking to you about the aforementioned issues (as well as many others that I haven’t mentioned) but this forum really isn’t the place for white people to educate white people. Please email me ( if you would like to discuss further.

  3. Traci Finch
    on June 1, 2015 at 5:17 pm

    This is beautifully produced! I am a black social work student and have only been at U of M for less than a year and have had similar experiences. I thank the Ford School graduates and Mr. Schneidewind for your bravery and support. I want everyone I know to see this video! Can I share this to Facebook?

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