Whether talking about students of color, sexual minorities, or other under-represented populations, every year on every campus and at every student affairs conference, there is an increasing emphasis on issues of diversity and ensuring an inclusive environment. Aside from enhancing social development, self-awareness, and a general appreciation of difference, diversity is a necessary part of preparation for an increasingly global society. America’s current workforce is one of the most diverse in its history, and according to the US News and World Report the percentage of the country’s “working-age population comprised of members of minority groups is expected to increase from 34 percent to 55 percent by 2050.”
For all of these reasons and more, the drive to create more diverse campuses is an important endeavor and deserves the thoughtful attention and planning that is being devoted to the issue at schools across the country. However, few, if any, of these conversations include the role that alcohol can play in undermining both the ability to attract a diverse population and to establish a supportive and academically enriching experience for these students once they arrive on campus. Strategic plans and mission statements include proclamations of the institution’s dedication to creating an inclusive environment that values diversity, but such statements can be in direct conflict with what many consider to be the white male paradigm of drinking that is perpetuated on far too many American campuses. Such a paradigm does little to create inclusiveness.
Focusing for a moment on students of color, particularly African American students, a school’s alcohol culture can have a greater impact on these students’ sense of belonging than most realize. This was highlighted in The Color of Drinking: An Exploratory Study of the Impact of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Alcohol Culture on Students of Color. In this study, 65 percent of students of color said their campus experience was affected by the alcohol culture, including their academics, social groups and socialization, self-esteem, safety, and overall perception of the institution. Specifically, these students identified that academic settings felt uncomfortable due to their professors or teaching assistants discussing drinking and, as a result, classes felt less competitive. They reported being called derogatory names and racial slurs and having their race and ethnicity questioned – including assumptions made about their language, culture, and race based on physical appearance. Experiencing microaggressions from intoxicated students, and circumventing specific areas of campus in order to avoid harassment by drunk people is clearly not the experience that institutions want their students to have.
Students of color are not alone in these experiences. Administrators on campuses across the country don’t need to consult the research literature to understand that excessive alcohol use increases physically aggressive behavior, particularly among males. But more and more, high-risk drinking has been found to not only result in general hostile behavior but to facilitate bias-motivated aggression toward sexual minorities. This presents an even greater challenge for students in our community who are already likely to experience acts of incivility on a regular basis that are not motivated by alcohol, but by a lack of respect and intolerance of difference. No member of a university community should have to navigate alcohol-fueled acts of aggression, but for students who already feel marginalized and are at greater risk for developing alcohol-related problems as a result of experiencing such aggressions; an environment that is characterized by high-risk alcohol use can feel anything but inclusive.
Images and carefully worded messages in admissions materials, special campus visitation programs, and other directed outreach recruiting strategies have been effective at drawing a more diverse applicant pool. But attracting a diverse group of students is only one piece of the puzzle. As diversity and inclusion consultant Verna Myers says, “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” Helping those students who we have “invited” to our community to feel a part of it, both socially and academically, can sometimes be more of a challenge. Painstaking efforts to increase enrollment of racially and ethnically diverse students and other under-represented populations can fall flat if the environment they are recruited into does little to make them feel that they are valued beyond the number they represent on a diversity report. An honest assessment of how a campus’ drinking culture impacts these critical issues is needed if schools want to truly embrace both diversity and inclusion in order to ensure that all of our students are happy, healthy, and productive.