The University of Michigan Dearborn campus is being criticized for two controversial virtual “cafe” events.Photo//CNN

On September 8, the Center for Social Justice and  Inclusion at UM-Dearborn notified the community via Instagram of two simultaneously scheduled virtual events for that day: “BIPOC Cafe,” meant for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color and a “Non-POC Cafe,” meant for White students to “gather and discuss their experience as students on campus and as non-POC in the world.”

Outrage quickly ensued in several social media platforms concerning the university’s decision to hold these seemingly segregated cafes, with students pointing out their resemblance to Jim Crow era of “whites only” and “colored only” spaces. 

The two announcements were quickly deleted by the university. Photo//UM-Dearborn

The events were scheduled to be bi-monthly and were on the university’s website for a few hours before it was taken down, where it encouraged non-POC students to attend the non-POC cafe and “discuss your experiences as non-persons of color and hopefully brainstorm solutions to common issues within the non-POC community.”

A now-deleted document pertaining to the event shows some questions that had been planned to be discussed. It also lists “norms” that were going to be established to ensure the White participants have a safe space to “embrace discomfort.”

The document then goes to state a few discussion questions for them to answer, such as, “Do I feel welcome on campus?” and “How do I welcome people who are different from me into new spaces or social circles?”

A portion of the document that was used for the non-POC cafe. Photo//UM-Dearborn website

The university received heavy criticism and many questions from its community and beyond concerning why it ever approved and endorsed these events. The next day, the administration published an apology statement on the school website, addressing its term usage in their announcements first: “UM-Dearborn sincerely regrets the terms used to describe the ‘cafe’ events held on September 8. The terms used to describe these virtual events and the descriptions themselves were not clear and not reflective of the university’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.” 

Despite the poorly named events, It then went on to ensure they “were never intended to be exclusive or exclusionary for individuals of a certain race. Both events were open to all members of the UM-Dearborn campus community.”

On September 10, Chancellor Domenico Grasso emailed the students and faculty, writing, “The framing and presentation of the purpose and intended outcomes of these events were poorly conceived and executed… To be sure, this is a painful and upsetting episode, and one that does not reflect the University of Michigan-Dearborn as we know it.”

The impact of these events was certainly far-reaching. It did not only cause outrage but more blatant racism to appear. Shortly after taking down the post, two fake accounts were made on Instagram of the two cafes, pretending to be associated with the university and posting racist and degrading pictures, specifically targeting Black people. 

Amy Finley, the Dean of Students, emailed the university on September 13, acknowledging the existence of these accounts, “There have also been many hurtful, and simply put, disgusting, social media posts on Instagram. The university is aware of these posts and has repeatedly contacted Instagram to remove them. We do not have the ability to remove third-party posts.”

The university’s Student Government also released a statement writing, “We as Student Government do not support or endorse the messaging that was released for these events, and we must hold the University accountable.”

They also added, “While we understand that the administration does not endorse segregation or racism and that these meetings were inspired by a concept known as ‘race-based affinity groups/caucusing,’ the event was not promoted as such.”

According to the website Racial Equity Tools,  “For white people, a caucus provides time and space to work explicitly and intentionally on understanding white culture and white privilege and to increase one’s critical analysis around these concepts. A white caucus also puts the onus on white people to teach each other about these ideas, rather than constantly relying on people of color to teach them. For people of color, a caucus is a place to work with their peers on their experiences of internalized racism, for healing and to work on liberation.” This was apparently the intent behind the two cafes. However, from the reaction of the community and the public, the Center for Social Justice and Inclusion failed at relaying this mission clearly.

Both Grasso and Finley reaffirmed the university’s inclusive values in their emails and promised to take active steps to ensure any event contradicting these values will not occur in the future.