“The day of the pageant, I just wasn’t even nervous,” laughs Alexandria Mason, a freshman, hopeful journalist, dancer, published writer and the 2014 winner of the “Miss Black and Gold: Diversity of a Woman” scholarship pageant.
Five months of preparation for Mason and six other women culminated the night of Feb. 3, before a crowd of cheering friends and family. The pageant is an extension of the historic mission of sponsor Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.
In the words of Gamma Epsilon Chapter President Jamal Matthews, the pageant serves as a platform to celebrate leadership by women of the University of Wisconsin-Madison while fostering community, not competition.
These opportunities have not always existed.
To T.J. Sargent, Greek life coordinator for the UW Interfraternity Council, the present situation is best understood in its historical context.
The first Greek associations at UW-Madison were established as social clubs born of literary associations soon after the university’s founding in 1848.
A university policy that prohibited student affiliation with these organizations resulted in the formation of early fraternities and required they function as exclusive, secret societies.
“In the creation of these organizations, you see groups of individuals getting together around a common ideal,” Sargent said.
These groups were composed of predominantly upper-class, white male students, who comprised the majority of university students at the time.
The late 1800s saw the first acceptances of female and nonwhite students into universities. However, those populations were systematically denied entrance to such student associations.
In 1906, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity was founded at Cornell University as a community for black men who were prohibited from joining fraternities. The narrative had changed for good, as identity became integral to the existence of these new associations.
“Now that we’ve created our own group we have certain identities and values and characteristics, and we have to build our own history from that point,” Sargent explained.
According to Sargent, Greek organizations began to set precedents that became fundamental in the promotion and retention of diversity on college campuses.
Matthews said the mission and programming of Alpha Phi Alpha promotes voices from all walks of life. This function has been especially important in light of the darker history of UW-Madison Greek life.
In 1988, the local chapter of Zeta Beta Tau fraternity hosted a slave auction party involving members wearing blackface and Afro wigs, sparking protests on their property ending in eight arrests.
March 16, 2012, members of Delta Upsilon fraternity hurled a glass bottle at two black women walking across the chapter’s property, while yelling several racist and classist slurs.
Sargent said these incidents prompted a reassessment of responsibility and accountability by campus Greek organizations.
An immediate two-year suspension of the Delta Upsilon chapter took effect, followed by periodic membership reviews to identify members incompatible with the organization’s values.
“I think it’s a wonderful example of a group who said, ‘Something went wrong, how do we fix this, and what do we do internally first?’” Sargent said. “It definitely brought about a discussion within the community.”
To Sargent, it is important for leadership within campus Greek life to respond to these incidents because “We don’t exist just to process people. We are here to be a home…an inclusive community.”
The collaboration among the four governing councils for Greek organizations to produce a written statement concerning the 2012 incident is one example of the new narrative of cooperation before competition, according to Sargent.
Matthews commends this change and cites several university officials, including Dean of Students Lori Berquam, who have helped create a more responsible plan to integrate all types of diversity within campus life but said “We’re not where we need to be.”
Alicia Montague-Keels, the host of this year’s pageant and the 2011 pageant winner, says “diversity is integrated in every aspect” of her campus experience but that she has witnessed the need for improvement.
“It’s hard for faculty to know how to address the issue when they’re not in class with students, not living on the same floor as students, not hearing their experiences,” she said.
“An institution can only do so much to bring minorities in,” Mason agreed. “They can’t make you feel comfortable.”
Mason believes the difference begins with open-mindedness.
“I’ve been prepared to deal with a predominantly white academic setting from high school. You get used to it, you open your mind, you learn that a person’s race has nothing to do with them,” she said.
Learning about the experiences of her fellow pageant contestants proved to her that appearances are irrelevant to genuine connections.
“It’s about what we’ve been around...and how we all see things differently,” Mason said.
Montague-Keels understands from her experience as a house fellow in Lakeshore housing that, for this reason, students alone can determine if their needs are being met.
“The most meaningful conversations I’ve had about diversity have been in small groups or one-on-one with students,” Montague-Keels said. “And the most effective events I’ve gone to have been those run by student organizations.”
Matthews said he believes real change begins with these discussions about diversity.
He said the dialogue, especially in academic settings, tends to remain superficial from a fear of being wrong.
“Professors could delve deeper…but sometimes it takes someone needing to be uncomfortable, to not be afraid to open those conversations,” Matthews said.
One way to overcome this tendency that Matthews said “goes for both sides” is to be aware of the problem, of privilege and the history of race relations for UW-Madison and the country as a whole.
“Too often we are caught up in the me, the individual, and if we apply these issues as a collective, we understand that there’s always something to learn from somebody,” Matthews explained.
Montague-Keels emphasized the importance of student organizations, especially Greek associations, in facilitating these conversations.
She believes it is important “not to stop doing the work you’re doing, but to also evaluate the work you’re doing…and to integrate that into the UW experience.”
For Montague-Keels, who at first was hesitant about participating, the pageant became a life-changing experience and an example of work she continues to admire.
“There aren’t too many places on campus and in general where women are truly celebrated...especially for communities of color...it says a lot to celebrate these women; to bring us out of the shadows on campus; to bring us into the light, put us on pedestals and say, ‘We appreciate you and we acknowledge you,’” she said.
Beyond recognizing beauty in diversity, the pageant provided a space for her and her fellow contestants where “We got to learn a lot about ourselves and about uplifting each other.”
Mason enjoyed this aspect, and said “If [people] don’t like you, you can’t change it...but I like to try and change it,” she said.
To students unsure about how to begin change on the small scale, Mason speaks from personal experience.
“Just give things a chance [and] keep an open mind. Because,” she admits, “I’d never done a pageant before.”