Saturday, September 14, 2013

Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom

In Lisa Delpit's article, "The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children," Delpit shows how the prevailing white "culture of power" negatively influences the poorest students of color in classrooms across America. She argues that while white people tiptoe around racial injustice by calling for equality and level playing fields in classroom, the reality remains that the most typical classrooms and teaching styles are geared for middle to upper class white students.  Even the most liberal, well-meaning white teachers may inadvertently cause more damage than good by refusing to exert power as teachers for fear of seeming racist, thereby denying black students of societal "rules" for success in the real world, a world which is also governed by predominately white people. 

In a society where most textbooks and prevailing research are written by white people; where most governmental structures and work environments are run by white people, is it possible for disadvantaged students of color to receive fair and culturally relevant educations?

According to Delprit, the answer to the above question is usually no.   What tends to happen is that there is a sense of growing frustration among students of color who do not feel heard in the classroom.  Since most American teaching styles and textbooks are geared toward the white middle class American experience, students of color often and correctly feel confused, misunderstood, or frustrated by their educational experiences, and in particular, in their interactions with white teachers.  Delpit cites a well-educated black principal who found that white professors in her university "only want to go on research they've read that white people have written."   If the prevalent research IS written by white educators, how, in fact can we gain a sense of what black students feel?  Furthermore, we as white people, as the dominant race, need to acknowledge that society is geared around us; that most "school" language and vocabulary, most workplaces, most governmental structures, are unevenly skewed in our favor; we ARE privileged, but does that make us better?

How do the languages of different cultures translate into the classroom experience?

Every culture has its own language and way of communicating, through our gestures, our social norms, by what we say and we don't say.  Sometimes, our nonverbal communication plays as important a role in communicating as our spoken words do.  For this reason, Delprit states, "when implicit codes are attempted across cultures, communication frequently breaks down."  Throughout her article, Delprit cites a myriad of examples of cultural confusions, and in every single case, the loser of the power struggle is the person of color.  From the frustrated black student who feels ignored to the Native Alaskan Indian student whose grammatically incorrect paper makes her appear less smart or even less literate, people of color are often misjudged as being incapable, when in fact, they are excluded from learning and not privy to white middle and upper class ways.  That communication divide; white "proper" or "formal" English, the "Distar" model of teacher-centered teaching, the sense so many students of color have of "being cheated" by their teachers... all of the above tie into the fact that in this society, white teachers are not reaching their students of color in meaningful ways.  Are our students of color or our non-native English students less important to the society at large?

Are white people willing to relinquish their power in American society?

According to Delprit, the answer to the above question is usually no.  While many white people claim to want to level the playing field, according to Delpit, "To provide schooling for everyone's children that reflects liberal middle-class values and aspirations is to ensure the maintenance of the status quo, to ensure that power, the culture of power, remains in the hands of those who already have it."   It is scary to let go of power, but is that power really a good thing?   Could we somehow value all of the different cultures in this melting pot without, in effect, creating a cultural genocide?  Is it even possible to overcome the underlying racist tenets of this society?

What, if anything, can be done to overcome the imbalance in many American schools?

While one may argue that Lisa Delpit either exaggerates or distorts the perception that most people of color have in classrooms of white teachers, I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with every point of her article.  I felt deeply dismayed by some of her stories and simultaneously refreshed by her honesty.  I did not perceive her stance to be racist and I thoroughly agree that white people must acknowledge their power, however uncomfortable that may seem.  I would hope that Delpit would agree with me that social class plays an equally important role in schools like my own where the population is predominately white.  Perhaps her most poignant point was in describing the challenges of her own student, a Native American aspiring teacher, whose writing was immediately dismissed by her white colleagues.  The other professors' assumptions were based solely on the student's writing technique, but not on the content of her paper.   On paper, the white colleagues could not see how this woman had been cheated by the system as a whole; how she was expressing things in her own cultural idioms but had never been taught proper "Western" writing techniques, had been dismissed time after time by teachers when she had sought their extra help in learning "proper" English.   Delpit took the time to understand this woman's challenges and to teach her proper grammar and writing techniques.  More importantly, she taught her to use her own experiences and struggles when educating others.

Delpit suggests that teachers must use their power to set high expectations in the classroom, but to also understand the families, the social circumstances, in the cultures from which our kids come.  I know that I was often addressed as being both deaf and dumb when I was studying Spanish abroad, and I know that it is a frustrating, maddening, disheartening experience.  I like that I teach a second language; that all of my students begin on a level playing field.  I find it often more exciting that many of my students of color through the years have had some Spanish in their background, and often, are in positions of power in leading activities my classroom.   I try to value what each and every one of my students brings to the table, and I try also to learn as much from them than they do from me.   I acknowledge that I am white aloud to my students all the time, and I point out that I am racially different from native speakers of Spanish.  I try to encourage everybody, particularly white students, to come out of their cultural comfort zones on a daily basis, but I know that I am privileged by my whiteness.  If anything, I find myself fighting against my own privilege with myself all the time. 


  1. Amy, this is an excellent summary of the assigned article. I like that you bring up the point mentioned within the article about high standards and expectations, and how these are necessary for students to make progress. The story about the boy who was proud of his "mean" teacher was great, it's a perfect example of what can be done when the teacher is conscientiously considering the ways in which he or she needs to reel students in and establish authority (even if it's uncomfortable) in the classroom.

  2. Your summary was excellent, Amy; I enjoyed your interpretation, but also that you connected the idea of culture with your role as a language teacher and how many of your students of color, with Spanish knowledge, lead others in the class. Acknowledging and encouraging that asset is a powerful way to bridge the cultures of your classroom.

  3. Excellent summary Amy. You write from your heart. How much you care about your students is evident.I love the fact that you value what your students' ideas and that you feel that you learn from them. I think that when teachers stop doing this we are no longer effective.

  4. Really powerful, Amy. Your point about social class being equally relevant here is one Delpit speaks to in other writing and yes, she agrees wholeheartedly. The categories are really CUlture of Power and Non-Culture of Power so all the other SCWAAMP categories matter, too.