Why I Don’t Do Wine and Cheese: The Price of Admission for the Bi-Racial Subject in the Academy
Heather Tirado Gilligan

Am I really a minority? This question, in one form or another, has plagued my academic career. While I know of no graduate student who finds the transition from talented undergraduate to full-fledged academic easy, since my admission to a Graduate English program at a prestigious American state university, the legitimacy of my presence has been consistently interrogated, often in contradictory ways, by faculty, by administration, and by my fellow graduate students. Half Puerto Rican, half Irish, daughter of the working poor and native of the Bronx, and in my late 20s, I can now pass for a somewhat polished professional woman. I speak, and have spoken since the last time I left the New York at the age of fifteen, a clear and standard English, no accent, no quaint anomalies of dialect. I have always been fair-skinned. As a fair-skinned woman who can pass for white, am I ethnic enough to earn my minority funding from the academy? This question, posed to me both silently and loudly over the years of my graduate education, speaks to the relationship between ethnicity and class, a relationship that frequently remains unarticulated because it defies the simplistic formulations of race that dominate both commonplace and academic knowledge. To address the oftentimes deterministic relationship between ethnicity and class, to complicate the boundaries of “race,” as I will do here, usually makes people angry; and this anger, too has plagued and pained me as I progress through the academy.

It only seems appropriate to address the question of my ethnic legitimacy biographically, so I will begin by saying that I do not know my paternal grandparents at all, even by sight. They died, in their fifties, before I was born. I do not know what they did but I know that, like my father, they were blue-collar workers, one generation removed from Ireland. If ethnicity is determined by familial ties, then the question of my ethnic identity is somewhat simplified; my connection to the Irish side of my family is tenuous.

My maternal grandfather did not die until I was sixteen. My mother, sister, and I lived five minutes from these grandparents until I was nine, my sister ten. We lived in government funded housing projects - not the high-rise kind with the stairways and elevators that stank of urine, but the four-story brick building kind with a waiting list for new residents - and often did not have enough money for food. My grandfather brought bags of groceries with regularity; calling out his weekly arrivals from the sidewalk beneath our second floor kitchen window, gleefully throwing sweets up for my sister and I to catch as we leaned out to wave. Meanwhile, my mother headed down the steps for the bags of real food: milk, eggs, and bread. We needed welfare only rarely because of these deliveries.

My father was poor because his parents were poor but my mother was poor because my grandfather was mentally ill. If forced to pinpoint one root of the confusion that I evoke in people, I would gesture towards this condition. It is the complications resulting from this confusing madness that cause me to be mistaken for a privileged white woman who happens to have a Puerto Rican mother. One son of the large family of a wealthy landowner in Puerto Rico, my maternal grandfather was of the upper-middle class. Because of his illness, however, he was often unable or unwilling to work and lost whatever jobs he held. As one family story has it, for example, he ended his brief tenure as a mailman when he began to collect the mail and deliver it to his garage rather than the addressees so that he would have more time to watch television. To add to the confusion, my grandmother, a daughter of a family of teachers, holds a degree in agricultural engineering from the University of Puerto Rico. She graduated in the 1940s, and for many years taught high school science in Puerto Rico. When my grandfather, seized by a fit of impulse, moved to New York, my grandmother followed, eventually transplanting all of the children as well. Thus my grandparents arrived in New York, both possessing markers of middle class privilege in a Puerto Rican context; but they came poor, with seven children, their money gone to my grandfather’s gambling habit. They assumed a life not atypical for Puerto Rican immigrants to the Bronx in the late 1960s: my grandmother held a low-paying clerical job at the welfare bureau; my grandfather was employed sporadically at various low-paying jobs.

My mother left Puerto Rico shortly after my grandparents, at the age of seventeen. She was painfully shy, and did not adjust well to the shift from a small suburb of San Juan to life in the economically underprivileged Bronx. She was lonely, I suspect, like many young women in her position, an immigrant with little familiar to support her as she navigated the complexities of late adolescence. By eighteen, she had married my father and became a teenage mother and wife; by twenty-five, when my father left our house for good, she was a single mother of two children aged five and six, with no job training and no college degree.

My sister and I were born into poverty, but we were not without privilege. Our mother is dark skinned but we look white. Because of our mother, we had something of the middle class in our background. Class status is tenuous, but it can trace through generations. My mother was indistinguishable in terms of capital from the other poor and single mothers who lived around us; she too had no money; she too lacked the trappings of the middle class: she spoke with an accent and dressed like a disco queen. But with a college-educated mother, with an extended family of educated men and women, she had an element of cultural capital the other mothers perhaps did not. She had some expectation that she should go to college, and that her children should be educated. She acted on this expectation quickly, before the toll of poverty and ghetto life could quell it, attending the Lehman branch of the City University of New York at night and paying our tuition at private school in New Rochelle with her student loan money, sparing us the overcrowded and under funded public schools of our neighbourhood.

So this is a salient manifestation of our privilege: we attended the New Rochelle Academy from kindergarten until we left the Bronx at ages eight and nine because my mother could no longer send us to private school. We arrived there every day in my mother’s battered powder blue Dodge Arrow and left every day on a small bus with the handful of other residents of the Bronx that attended school with us. New Rochelle was then a middle class suburb of New York City; the Academy was on a small stretch of the most affluent section. Every morning we left the Bronx via a particularly hideous stretch of I-95 and arrived to a manicured campus dappled with long-limbed gnarled trees, and spent the day in classrooms filled with child-sized furniture and specially trained teachers. In addition to the basics, we learned playful drills and songs in French, German, and Spanish, learned to read music by playing the recorder, even learned to knit and crochet in special weekly sewing classes. Every afternoon we were returned to our babysitter, watched with five other children until the post-work hours as part of a government-subsidised child care program.

I did not excel in the environs of the New Rochelle Academy. My last year there, the third grade, I dry heaved regularly before my mother took us to school. At times I begged, doubled over with nausea, for my mother not to take me there, knowing that if she was to ever comply my other option was to sit all day in the waiting room of the welfare office where she worked distributing benefits. The privilege of attending the Academy did not erase my difference from the other students; it did not erase either my ethnicity or my class status. Quite the opposite: in a school that ranged from kindergarteners to high school seniors, I was one of ten bussed in from the Bronx. Unless we were extraordinary - unless we manifested our extraordinariness in a way visible to the teachers that evaluated us - we were largely written off.

My sister, a year older than me, was extraordinary. She was often singled out in class, chosen to star in music performances and plays. I was a painfully shy child and did not begin to discover the retreat of books until I was eight, did not develop reading comprehension scores that soared off test scales until age eleven or twelve. Thus my sister narrated a dramatised version of Gulliver’s Travels for the first grade the year I appeared in the kindergarten production of the Wizard of Oz as a munchkin. Everyone had to participate in these productions, everyone was assigned a place. I was consistently placed in the ensemble (I took turns also as a pilgrim, an urchin) and where others spoke I forced smiles and danced awkwardly, excruciatingly undignified activities for a soon to be bookish child. Some children actually liked the ensemble- that I was mistaken for one of them speaks to the misreading, or lack of reading, that went into my teacher’s evaluations of me. My sister’s success did not stand in for mine individually; she stood in for the whole of those bussed in from the Bronx. One success in ten was adequate.

Re-experiencing the feeling of my status at the New Rochelle Academy, with all its attendant dread and nausea, took me by surprise when I entered academia as an English graduate student at the age of twenty-three. My experience at a state college convinced me that I could not leave. I romantically anticipated graduate school as a life of books and lectures, augmented by radical peers but freed by funding of the pressures of the many and invariably awful jobs that I held while I pursued my undergraduate degree. But I discovered (slowly, I was slow in this way) that I had not gained entry into the scene of the intellectually sublime, but rather into something that more closely resembled a Jane Austen novel, where I was the lout who could never attain the subtlety needed to properly negotiate the cultural milieu that I had thrust myself into. While I had imagined my progress as a student as linear, with entry into graduate school as the ultimate achievement, I instead suddenly found myself somewhere below ground zero. A lout in the Jane Austin-esque, I found out, is far worse than a munchkin in Oz.

I entered the academy on a minority fellowship, and nothing that I did after this inauspicious entrance could ever be right; socially, politically, I was a disaster. Socially, regardless of the terms of my admission, I made my initial appearance ill-equipped for success. My grandparents’ class status might have steered me towards the road to higher education, but it did not magically reappear and teach me how to act once I reached its outer limits. The seminar discussions and faux social scenes where graduate students were to perform their intellectualness highlighted my inadequacies. I did not understand the clamour to fetch the tea of a particularly influential professor on our class break. I had never seen a wine and cheese before I went to graduate school; after attending three in two years I vowed never to go back to another. The conversation was stilted and the wine was headache inducing. I had heard the term “networking” but would have never associated it with the goings-on of the wine and cheese, so I took my vow without compunction or sense of trade-off.

Politically (and are the political and the social ever separate in the academy?), the graduate community is a small place, and I never attempted to make the terms of my admission and funding secret. The lack of secrecy was largely because my funding was radically different from that of my white counterparts. I was angered by this, and further angered to discover the inequity only upon my arrival. I protested vociferously until my funding package was changed, and my protest soon became public knowledge. No one was amused by my vociferousness, particularly not the Graduate English Administration. Didn’t I know that I was not supposed to be noisy, but submissively polite like the other graduate students? This seemed to apply particularly to me, the walking gaffe: pale, accentless, not even studying contemporary ethnic literatures, it must have seemed like the last straw that I also had a bad attitude, since I wasn’t giving them a bit of bang for the small sum of money that they had shelled out. Maybe they would have been comforted by the myriad ways I performed my identity difference if they hadn’t been so blinded by this thought: how dare I look like my white peers but not act like them?

In addition to my boycotting of the wine and cheese, for example, I rather quaintly had yet to learn that “money” was not a word that one used in polite conversation. Nor had I learned, more practically, that to talk to the privileged about money was near pointless, even if they were Marxists. In my first meeting with the Graduate Director, shortly after my arrival in the program, I stunned her by pointing out that the combination of a $5,000 grant combined with $6,000 in student loans that was called a minority fellowship precluded the possibility of adding additional student loans - the standard graduate student method for approximating a liveable wage. The Director regarded my request for a revision of my funding with suspicion and responded with some hostility, wondering aloud why I should need so much money (I requested that my grant come closer to the $10,000 offered to non-minority students). I watched the Graduate Director fight for restraint in the face of my request for additional money and lose the battle: “Is your rent very high?” she finally burst forth, incredulously. I wondered then, and still wonder now, if she really thought that I was in her office asking for a change in my funding package because I was frivolously spending the money that the department had meted out to me. In her eyes, I seemed to be the academy’s equivalent to popular culture’s mythical welfare recipient who fritters away what should be an adequate - if undeserved - income on luxuries like Cadillacs and steak. Her un-restrainable anger demonstrated the freedom with which she worked out her unexplored feelings about minorities and money on my white skin. She treated me, with little hesitation, like an undeserving interloper asking for handouts, because I both am and am not white.

I fared no better in popularity among my peers. I discerned, slowly, as was my fashion, that I was the subject of several running conversations. Once, one of my peers enjoined me to say something in Spanish. Thinking that maybe I wasn’t the only one who needed to practice for the language exam, I complied and asked if she wanted to go the library with me: “Hmm.” She replied. “At least you can talk like one.” Once, I laughingly explained apropos of something how my early education taught me to crochet, left the room briefly and returned to the tail end of a contemptuous conversation about a young man who claimed, “belatedly,” his Native American heritage to benefit from affirmative action. I could relate several similar stories. This “belated” incident, however, I eventually came to find particularly amusing. Suddenly, it seemed that the bourgeois wanted to claim me as one of their own, if only I would cease unfairly trading on my “difference” to get ahead! Five years of graduate study later, I still feel ill equipped to unpack the irony of this implied offer of acceptance, of the belatedness that is perceived as mine. When my difference finally opens a fraction of opportunity, the only proper thing to do, it seems, is to disclaim my ethnicity, to erase my life for the moment of acceptance. But even if I wanted to co-exist in indistinguish-ability from my white middle class counterparts, it would not be as easy as some would like to think, because what they are asking me to do is to “pass,” to be silent about who I am and where I am from so as to fit in with them unnoticed. But I am not in a familiar social scene; I don’t fit in and never will. People may think that they would like me more if I ceased to point this out, but it’s been my experience thus far that no pointing is in fact needed, that it’s not my difference but only the reason for it that can be hidden.

The fact of my pale skin is a cutting, double-edged kind of privilege. I am not white and I am not a person of colour; I exist in an epistemology that is, to borrow an appropriate cliché from the academy, always already different. In the academy, where students are mentored or left to flounder on the basis of how closely their thinking is aligned with those in the Department who work in their field, I am not coddled. I am not sheltered by the privileges of my bourgeois peers, and the students and faculty of colour I interact with view me dubiously. I have seen others like me, whose entry into the Academy is facilitated both by the privilege of their fair skin and by the sudden value of the diversity that has rendered them outcasts for most of their lives. These white and simultaneously not-white students come and go quickly in our Department, often leaving imploded by the contradictory expectations of these “privileges.”

I have lasted perhaps because I decided to make a career out of my ambiguous racial status, which seems to me the only appropriately paradoxical response to six years in the academy. My dissertation resurrects a history of challenges to the racial status quo; I write about bi-racial authors of the latter half of the nineteenth century, that time in the movement of American culture where laws and attitudes might have moved towards justice but instead changed for the worse. I feel particularly for Charles Chesnutt, the late nineteenth century writer best known for his short stories and claimed as the first “literary” writer in the African-American tradition, a mixed man who looked white but refused to pass, and eventually became something of a spokesman for civil rights; a writer who, it always seemed to me, tried to use his own social standing to mark the logical absurdity of absolutist racial categories that equate race with ethnicity and ignore class. I argue in the introduction to the chapter of my dissertation I devote to his “Uncle Julius” stories that Chesnutt is:

a figure that confuses precisely because his life is an enactment of a profound contradiction, an acknowledgement of both the artifice and the actuality of racial boundaries. Chesnutt casts his lot and that of his family fully with that of the African-American “race” while refusing the idea that there is a valid racial category.

I empathise with the burden of Chesnutt’s predicament and feel an urgency to press his point. He tried, like other authors of similarly confused backgrounds, to articulate the ways that race is and is not real, a position of racial ambiguity that the politics of racists and anti-racists have avoided. Literary history, and American literary history in particular, so invested in the racial binary, continues to silence voices like Chesnutt’s, continues to quash movement forward in conceptions of race, preferring to keep our level of thought on “blackness” and “whiteness” on a near even keel with the late nineteenth century. So this is what keeps me in the Academy; I stay and I write; by next year, I will have completed my dissertation.

It seems to me that to push on the binary logic of racial identity is something not only that I inevitably do but something that needs to be done. So, to return to my opening question, I feel I have earned my keep, even though I present something of a challenge to what a minority student earning their keep in the academy looks like. Minority students are here, I assert, not as physical representations of a commitment to diversity, but to diversify the insular and therefore often stultified realm of the intellectual. We are here, in other words, not for our skins but for our minds. Perhaps minority funding should be conceived of more as hazard pay and less as affirmative action. I don’t do what the white students do; I do more and I operate under far more personal duress. And, I feel that I, and all other minority students, should be compensated accordingly.