Sunday, September 15, 2013

Lost in Translation: My Reaction to "The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children"


Culture is a funny thing. Many Americans will tell you that they have "no culture." They are American for god sakes...what do you mean culture? The term itself seems to be affiliated and associated with the term "other." Other countries have culture. Ethnic people have culture. Us Americans, we aren't used to thinking about our own culture and subcultures. Lisa Delpit, the author of The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children, says that American Culture definitely exists. That there are in fact a wide variety of cultures practiced in the USA. Despite such a fantastic diversity of cultures in America, though, Delpit argues that there is a "culture of power." This culture of power comes with a set of very specific rules to be followed, and is like an exclusive country club riddled with systemic racism caused by good intentions. The culture of power is one created, practiced and easily accessed by those who are white, middle and upper class individuals. If you think you don't have a culture, you probably are part of this group. Delpit argues that those within the culture of power often don't realize they are participants and practitioners of this particular culture, insiders often don't recognize their role as insiders.

So what does this culture of power look like and why does it even matter?

This culture is not dissimilar to any other culture. It affects the way you speak and dress, the types of questions you ask and the way you see yourself and others. The use of "Formal English" is emphasized and considered more acceptable than "Black English," or "Native American English." Authority figures are seen as authority figures because they are hired for a particular role in society. A teacher, for example, has the authority in the culture of power simply because he or she is a teacher. A parent is considered a good parent if they don't yell at, or seem overly commanding of their children. Good parents in the culture of power speak softly and make suggestions for their children.

Contrastingly, those outside of this cultural sphere have a hard time looking in and acting appropriately. According to Delpit, these are often people who grew up with a lower socioeconomic status, or are part of a minority group with its own "sub" culture. Delpit uses many examples of people outside of the culture of power in her writing. She explains that each time they are forced to participate in a culture which is not their own, they feel as though they are in a foreign country and don't understand the language or the lingo. It feels unnatural and forced and leads to tremendous amounts of anger and miscommunication. Often times children don't realize that they are not part of the culture of power, and find themselves getting into trouble or being labeled by school districts as slower learners. Those who grow up outside of the culture of power have many specific disadvantages according to Delpit. Things tend to get lost in translation, and this is why it's important to be aware of the systems that are in place which support such an exclusive culture.

How should teachers react to Delpit's explanation of the culture of power?

This is the biggest part of the puzzle for Delpit. It's also the piece that people, namely teachers, so often get wrong. Recognizing differences in white and black, high and low income culture is the first step, but the following steps we take are the most critical. Delpit says that teachers need to consider who they are teaching. We should realize that some children will benefit tremendously from clear and direct instruction. For example: instead of saying "what do you think you should be doing?", teachers should say "you need to do X."  This type of advice reminds me of Lee Canter's book Assertive Discipline. In addition to rephrasing the ways in which we say things, Delpit argues that teachers should make sure to set high standards for their students. Treating those outside of the culture of power with lesser expectations has created a perfect storm scenario where teachers are unintentionally setting kids up for failure. Finally, Delpit says that we should teach children about the multiple expressions of culture in our society. Recognizing that there are certain ways to behave and speak around certain people, depending upon the circumstances, is a huge step in the right direction. Teachers shouldn't teach children that their culture is "wrong," but that it has a time and a place to be practiced.

My response

This was an interesting read for me. I think that Delpit makes some excellent points in the ways she says we should address children. I think that her ideas, however, expand beyond the classrooms of urban schools, and actually beyond classrooms altogether. I teach in a suburban school district after spending a couple of years teaching at Woonsocket Middle School. At WMS I learned to be an authoritarian, and considered my role much like acting on stage. I am a naturally easy going, non-demanding individual. I learned quickly that in order to communicate clearly with my students and run a classroom smoothly, that I couldn't be wishy washy. The skills I learned in the city have transferred over to the suburbs with me. I still run my classroom as an actress. Every day I'm on stage directing kids and coming in with a strong leadership mindset. I think even beyond the classroom that more parents need to practice assertive discipline. Many families are completely run by the children. They dictate what foods everyone will eat, the schedule of the family and the overall culture of the family. Many parents have lost control and need to find a way to gain it back.

Additionally, while reflecting upon Delpit's article, I feel that she is justified in her conclusion that we need to teach children about the culture of power and how to function within it. I think that in some ways we already do. We say things like "that's not appropriate school behavior" or "do that on your own time." There has to be some agreed upon system by which we all function through. I don't know that I'm ready to argue otherwise, and can't quite imagine what it would look like. I guess the key phrase here is "agreed upon." We need to work on defining societal norms together and recognize their existence as a collective community rather than an exclusive community. 


  1. "Lost in Translation" was an excellent way to phrase your understanding of the text. There are many mixed cues in society and in the classroom when various groups/cultures and sub-cultures within groups interact. I was somewhat confused, however, about your interpretation of how teachers should react, and more specifically, of this phrase, "Treating those outside of the culture of power with lesser expectations has created a perfect storm scenario where teachers are unintentionally setting kids up for failure." I did not feel as though Delpit was saying the culture of power teachers had lower expectations for students of a different culture, but rather that they expected all kids to have had the same foundations and learning styles. So, my understanding is that the phrasing of communications and the delivery of content must match the students of the classroom. Otherwise, I enjoy your writing style and how you interpret the readings. Thank you.

    1. Hi Polly, thanks for the thoughtful reply. I got the sense in one section of the text that Delpit was saying that sometimes teachers have lower expectations for students of color. I don't have the article with me now, but maybe we can discuss it more in class tomorrow when I've got the article in front of me. Thanks for the kind words :)

  2. We are indeed a mixing pot of people and our country is made up of diverse cultures. Delpit argued that "white people" most likely are unaware that they are part of a "culture of power" and that non white people are well aware of it. How could I argue with that considering I am part of the culture so I am must also be unaware. I do know I have good intentions and have no bad feeling toward people different from me.

    I read your response and agree with the importance of controlling behavior in your classroom. What I come to understand is no size fits all and different students respond differently. I was interested in the part where Delpit stated that "Black children expect an authority figure to act with authority". It was always instilled in me that all students learn differently and therefore a teacher must develop strategies for all types of learners. I was never taught that I need to teach a specific way for black learners. I do understand that within different cultures there are different ways things are done however, I still believe that students learn in different ways regardless of their culture.

    1. Hi Mr. Colwell, I definitely agree with you that different students need different ways of teaching, and that this may really be outside of the context of culture. This is also why we differentiate instruction, to make sure to meet the needs of all learners. I can't help but think though, that Delpit is correct in some of her reasoning. I think she would argue that socioeconomic status has more to do with the ways in which students view authority figures than just ethnicity by itself. One other thought that's come to mind for me is about whether or not boys are getting the type of instruction they need in our current system. Female teachers outweigh male teachers tremendously in my school, I often worry that the boys don't have many male role models in education. Also, the type of teaching done by women is more geared towards girls' learning styles. Do you find the same thing?

  3. A tight, nuanced summary of the complicated issues she raises, Brittany. "If you think you don't have a culture, you probably are part of this group. " I hear Johnson's "luxury of obliviousness" here, as well.

  4. I find it interesting that you quickly learned not to be "wishy washy". From my experience as a a teacher and beyond, I know that all of my friends had parents who loved them, but they were also very direct and sometimes even harsh with their words towards us (the kids). For us this is just the way it was. Later, as I began moving within others circles of more privileged kids I saw that their parents were less direct and definitely more careful with their choice of words (at least around company) and those kids were definitely more free to disregard their parents. I feel like I am writing about stereotypes, but this was my experience and I suppose that stereotypes do have root somewhere. Anyway, I have experienced the same type of thing looking backwards as an adult. In my experience too, kids do better when they are directed as to how to behave and we adults have to let them know who is in charge. This translates into classroom management which allows for learning to occur more peacefully.