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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

‘If you don’t drink, you don’t belong’: A deep dive into UW’s Color of Drinking survey

As the Color of Drinking gets ready for its third installment of the survey next semester, a closer examination of the initiative provides a startling look into the campus climate for those who do not participate in UW-Madison’s drinking culture.

With a thriving bar scene and party scene and relaxed state-wide drinking laws, the University of Wisconsin-Madison consistently makes the cut as being a top party school. Despite this drinking scene being heavily connoted with attending the university, a sizable portion of the student body does not drink. 

Aside from the health harm of binge drinking, there is a secondary harm the drinker can inflict on those around them. Under the influence of alcohol, a drinker could inflict secondary harm with actions such as verbal or physical attacks on others. The Color of Drinking looks at the harm predominantly white binge drinkers impose on their peers at UW-Madison. 

“We had students tie alcohol to [a sense of] belonging,” Health Equity Analyst and study conductor Reonda Washington said. “We had a hunch and we've had more data that now shows that the students are saying like alcohol, it's how the UW-Madison students socialize and that's how we belong. That's how we make friends. If you don't drink, you don't belong, is some of what students said.”

Research into the effects of drinking typically focuses on the harmful health effects on the drinker, not the secondary harm the drinker could impose on others. The Color of Drinking survey looks to amplify the voices of students of color on campus and their relationship to peers’ drinking habits. 

Looking at the survey

In the fall of 2017, the second Color of Drinking survey was conducted on campus. The research concluded that students of color do abstain from drinking and binge-drinking at a higher rate than their white peers.

“So I think drinking or just ‘going out’ in general has been a positive thing because I have gotten to know more people that I don’t typically chat with during the week,” One white respondent said in the survey. 

“The privileged culture around drinking and the idea that it is the normal thing to do and how people have fun in college makes me feel like I am not experiencing college the way I am supposed to and that I don’t relate to my peers?” A respondent of color added in the survey.

Both students of color and white students reported that they avoided certain places due to concerns about alcohol consumption. Of the places on and off-campus that students avoid due to drinking, Langdon Street as well as fraternity and sorority housing were the top places for both white students and students of color.

“Langdon and State Street do not start at Lake [Street],” Washington said. “State Street connects us to the capitol, and Langdon Street is where the Red Gym is and also where Memorial Union is and there's also a library in the middle. [...] It could be connected to belonging.”

“When I walk around State St. or anywhere near the bars/Langdon, I am always aware of who is around me and if I am alone,” one survey respondent said. “I tend to feel isolated if I have a backpack on and am going to study while dr[u]nk people are hooting and hollering as I walk by.”

African American/Black students considered leaving the university at a rate three times higher than their white counterparts according to the survey. Fifty-four percent of people of color enrolled at UW-Madison considered leaving the university because of the “racial climate” while 39.7% of white students considered leaving the university due to academic reasons.

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“A lot of people associate drinking culture with being a UW-Madison student, and since I do not drink on campus, I really doubted if I really belonged here during my first year,” a respondent of color said in the survey.

Both groups additionally reported having to find other study spaces due to the alcohol culture (46%), and an average of 40% of both groups reported scheduling group meetings around alcohol culture. Forty-seven percent of white students reported choosing to drink over studying. Twenty-nine percent of white students also reported an instance where they were too hungover to attend class.

Looking to the future

In October 2022, the Associated Students of Madison created the Color of Drinking task force with hopes to find tangible solutions to the issues found in the 2017 study. According to Washington, a third study, with hopes to be implemented in the spring of 2023, is also being conducted on behalf of the Color of Drinking. 

The task force is still young, but members are starting to brainstorm goals for how campus can be a more inclusive environment for non-drinkers. 

“I know another discussion was figuring out more sober spaces in Unions for game days, Badger Bash [and] during the summer when they’re selling alcohol out on the Terrace,” Amaya Boman, the anti-violence coordinator at ASM, said. “Just so that there’s other options for those who don’t want to be around it [alcohol]. Those are just kind of things that were brainstormed.” 

Another suggested idea was to no longer sell “Drink Wisconsinbly” and Wando's merchandise at the University Bookstore. Boman notes that those items can be purchased elsewhere on State Street and don’t necessarily have to come from the university.

The task force is pulling together a committee from different organizations at UW-Madison that potentially contribute to alcohol being ingrained in the school’s culture. Applications to sit in on the committee for this task force are currently available to all interested students. 

“Overall making it so that drinking culture can still exist, but that it's not harmful to certain community members,” Boman said. 

Wisconsin itself is a heavy drinking state. In 2021, the top 11 “drunkest counties” in the United States were all in Wisconsin. 

“There are laws and policies that are not as strong as they could be and they might be stronger in other states,” Assistant Director for High-Risk Drinking Prevention at University Health Services (UHS) Jenny Damask said, noting there are various traditions and attitudes surrounding drinking in Wisconsin. “You want to feel like you connect, but everyone feels like they’re connected over this alcohol-fueled environment, so it is a perpetual cycle.”

According to Washington, however, this isn’t an issue on UW-Madison’s campus solely because of its geographic location; this is likely a similar trend at other universities. The issue is, researchers just didn’t know what to look for. 

“No one knew to look for this issue and the research didn’t talk about it,” Washington said. “So sort of we, here [at UW-Madison], cultivated that so other schools want to do it.”

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Annabella Rosciglione

Features editor



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