Amid national outrage over the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, graduate students in the Ford School of Public Policy watched their graduate school peers in the Ross School of Business hold a vigil and in the Law School convene for a die-in protest, and were inspired to do something as well.
Pete Haviland-Eduah, Maron Alemu and James Schneidewind were all all graduate students in the Public Policy School in May, when they created a 20-minute video titled “Walking the Line of Blackness,” which features accounts from 16 Public Policy graduate students, including Haviland-Eduah, about their experiences with racism.
“We sat down and said, ‘OK, we know the policy school is relatively small and we want to make sure that we have an impactful response as well,’” Haviland-Eduah said. “And we thought about it and we came to the conclusion that we wanted something that would be more long-lasting, that was created to facilitate conversations and to give people spaces to talk about race, to talk about things that might be seen as taboo subjects. We brainstormed and came up with the idea that a video would be a really great way to do that.”
Although spearheaded by Haviland-Eduah, Schneidewind and Alemu, the effort was collaborative. What began with only a handful individual students soon became a team of 33 students. The group hoped to finish their video before Spring Break, but technical errors caused them to have to refilm — delaying the release until recently.
Susan Collins, dean of the Public Policy School, told The University Record she was pleased with the film and its creators.
“I’m proud of the students who created this film,” Collins said. “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.”
In the video, many of the students describe situations in which the police confronted them seemingly without cause other than their race.
Haviland-Eduah says in the video that while an he was undergraduate at Union College, he was stopped by a policeman while walking around with a group of friends. The officer asked for only the student identification cards of the three Black men in the group. Ironically, if the officer had asked his white friends, a few would have been in trouble, as they were not Union students.
Later that night, Haviland-Eduah says, he again saw the officer who had stopped him and confronted him as to why he had been stopped. The officer told him he fit the description of being an African American male wearing red. Haviland-Eduah was wearing black that night.
Another story comes from Chanera Yvonne Pierce, a Public Policy graduate student, who says while she was walking home one night when interning in Washington D.C., she was stopped by a police officer who mistook her for being a prostitute.
“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 under scum of society,” Pierce says in the video.
After the personal stories, the students are shown responding to the questions: “Why is it important to say #BlackLivesMatter instead of #AllLivesMatter?” and “What changes would give you a better sense that black lives do, indeed, matter?”
Graduate students featured in the video emphasize the reasoning behind #BlackLivesMatter instead of #AllLivesMatter is to highlight the tribulations of African Americans in the United States.
Kiana Shelton, Public Policy graduate student, affirms this point in the video.
“No one’s arguing that every person on the planet doesn’t have a right to life,” Shelton says. “But what we’re saying is that, in this moment, it’s so very important to recognize these narratives and not have them brushed aside.”
Admittance and recognition of prejudices, listening to people’s experiences with racism and trying to understand, increasing collaboration and awareness, as well as setting policies created to reflect those things, were some ways the students say would help reaffirm the importance of Black lives.
Schneidewind is white, but said he was compelled to join the cause because of the social injustices he sees, as well as the accounts of his peers. He specified the disproportionate rate of police killing Blacks compared to whites and police officers typically being tried in front of primarily white juries as areas of social injustice by which people, regardless of race, should be outraged and take action to rectify.
“I have listened to many Black and brown people talk about how their lives are adversely affected by the broken link between the police and community,” Schneidewind said. “Their testimonies often paint a picture of police that is troubling. I do not know exactly how to fix the relationship between the police and communities of color. What I do know is that any actions that are taken with taking into account voices of color will ultimately prove inadequate. That is what ‘Walking the Line of Blackness’ is about, for me. Ensuring that some of those voices are heard in a way that is compelling and true to their experiences.”
Haviland-Eduah said the students in the video hoped that other students on campus would be able to get a greater understanding of the issue at hand, just as Schneidewind was influenced by the experiences of his peers. The video format allows for individuals to watch on their own time because of the potential discomfort related to the issue of discussion.
“We wanted to be able to facilitate discussion, and a lot of times, people are not necessarily comfortable talking about race in public,” Haviland-Eduah said. “The video format allows people to say, ‘Hey, these are our classmates, these are our colleagues. These are people that we know and like and respect, and they still go through this stuff every day.’ This isn’t something that happens to a community that’s an other; this happens to people that we know, that we care about.”
He said Black students can often feel alone on campus when they are one of two or three others in their class and are often cajoled into speaking on behalf of their race, which is not a feasible task. Haviland-Eduah said he hopes Black students can use the video to spark discussion or as a reassurance that they are not alone.
“It’s difficult to act as an ambassador of race when you’re just one person, because you don’t speak on behalf of an entire race or demographic of people,” Haviland-Eduah said. “This video can be a conversation starter, or they can watch it and know they’re not alone out there. There are other people going through the same struggle.”
The best thing white students can do, Haviland-Eduah said, is listen and try to understand.
“Support is a big thing here, and support can come in a lot of different ways. I think we are at really a unique time and place in American history and American culture, and I think it’s important for whites to just have these types of conversations with other white students,” Haviland-Eduah said. “Being willing to listen and being able to listen without being personally offended I think is something that is important, but also being able to have conversations with other white people about what’s happening to communities that they may not necessarily identify with.”
Schneidewind said in addition to understanding, white students can work to help amplify Black voices.
“For me, the best thing white people can become allies on issues of social and racial injustice is to uplift the voices of the disenfranchised,” Schneidewind said. “It is their voices that are underrepresented or misrepresented. They are the ones who have the biggest reservoir of firsthand accounts regarding negative interactions with police. It is their voices who should inform the policy reforms. I think white people can uplift voices of color in many different ways: collaborating on a video project that highlights experiences and thoughts of people of color, demanding that your professors feature more scholars of color in their curriculum, boosting posts on Facebook and Twitter that are written by people of color, attending panels that feature the experiences of people of color.”