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Study prompts investigation into impact of drinking culture on students of color


Rashika Rahman, a first-year at UNC, discussed what she thinks about drinking culture on campus at UNC as a minority student. Rahman poses for a virtual portrait from her dorm room on Thursday, Apr. 1, 2021.

A study on the impacts of alcohol culture on students of color at the University of Wisconsin-Madison could help shift the conversation around alcohol and belonging on college campuses around the country, including at UNC.

Conducted in 2017 by researchers at UW-Madison, the Color of Drinking study was born out of increasing rates of racially motivated hate incidents on the Madison campus, Reonda Washington, leading study researcher, said in a video presentation.

In the presentation, titled “The Color of Drinking: Alcohol as a Social Justice Issue,” Washington said the study intended to elevate the narrative of people of color in exploring the connection between alcohol and racial harm. 

Among many findings, the study showed that alcohol use is tied to how students at UW-Madison connect and belong, and that the safety of students of color — both mental and physical — in alcohol culture is more disproportionately impacted than that of white students. 

These findings have prompted the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership's Campus and Community Coalition — a group focused on reducing alcohol-related harms — to partner with UNC in creating a similar study in Chapel Hill through a capstone course at the Gillings School of Global Public Health. 

“If we were able to do this study and if we had similar findings, that data could really be used to support the success of students of color and LGBTQ folks at UNC," Elinor Landess, the coalition's director, said.

There are a lot of similarities in the demographics of UNC-Chapel Hill and UW-Madison, Landess said. In 2019, UW’s total student population was 65.7 percent white, and UNC’s student population in the same year was 59.5 percent white, according to each school’s race and ethnicity demographic statistics. 

“Usually when we talk about college drinking, we’re centering whiteness,” Landess said. 

However, like Color of Drinking, UNC's study would oversample students of color in order to center the perspective of students from marginalized communities. According to Alicia Freeman, who is the coordinator for alcohol and drug prevention and mental health awareness at UNC and proposed the study along with Landess, this study would also go further to include gender identity and sexual identity in its assessment.

Freeman said they want to see in the data the connection with alcohol use and second-hand harms that underrepresented students may experience. Such harms include mental health issues, academic struggles, harassment and more.

“If we start to recognize how these things are connected, then we can make culture shifts on total well-being and on all of these topics at one time,” Freeman said.

UNC currently requires all incoming first-year students to complete a series of EVERFI modules on drinking culture and safety on college campuses. 

“A lot of my peers didn't take it too seriously,” Rashika Rahman, a first-year majoring in public health, said about the modules. "In terms of it having an actual effect of the student body, I wouldn't be too certain."

Rahman said she does not drink for religious reasons, and this has caused her to feel left out from certain aspects of student life at UNC. 

"It would be way more of a question as to why you don't drink or why are you here if you don't drink, like that's the only thing that you would do at those parties," Rahman said, referencing what she would expect to hear at a function held by a Greek life organization.

“I've been trying to find more Muslim friends or people of similar backgrounds or similar mindsets so I’m not always in that situation,” Rahman said.

Rahman’s experiences align with the findings of the UW-Madison Color of Drinking study — and could inform a range of concerns related to UNC's campus. 

Freeman said it is important to her to prioritize the voices of students of color and other underrepresented groups in the data and the policies created around alcohol. 

“The data can drive policy change, which can then change the culture,” she said. “That’s where we learn our expectations from, ultimately, those policies that are our standards or guidelines to abide by.”

Washington said in her presentation that the results of Color of Drinking have been used by the UW-Madison administration to structure connectedness and belonging activities and to inform communication about alcohol to students. 

Students at UW-Madison have used the study to advocate for cultural spaces and for accountability programs when someone causes harm to a community, she said.

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“In order to shift culture for alcohol and sense of belonging, you have to take a policy, system and environments approach for changes and shifts to be sustainable,” Washington said in an email to The Daily Tar Heel. “Just like addressing the issues of alcohol, sense of belonging or other campus issues it takes everyone working together on multiple levels.”

If students at Gillings decide to select the study as their capstone project, the study could start on UNC's campus as early as this fall.