The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children
Language is an essential building block of society that enables people to express their needs. Language is more nuanced than pronunciation and grammar; it is embedded in meaning that is derived through socio-cultural coding and norms. More often than not the dominance of a particular language is dictated by power structures. In The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children, author and educator Lisa Delpit explains that Power structures insist on a dominant language that tends to disenfranchise many due to arbitrary guidelines, thus creating a “culture of power” with special coding and rules only a few can access. Those within the “culture of power” dictate how the rest of society is educated, irrespective that the language barrier is created by privilege and access. The culture of power presented by Delpit contains its own rules, customs and norms; therefore the rules of this culture need to explicitly explained so people outside of this culture understand the rules of engagement
In defining the “culture of power” Delpit identifies the five aspects of power as follows
- Issues of power enacted in the classroom : This defines the power of the teacher over the students; the power of the publishers of textbooks and of the developers of the curriculum to determine the view of the world presented;
- There are codes or rules for participating in power: linguistic forms, communicative strategies, and presentation of self; that is, ways of talking, ways of writing, ways of dressing, and ways of interacting.
- The rules of the culture of power are a reflection of the rules of the culture of those who have power. This means that success in-institutions—schools, work places, and so on—is predicated upon acquisition of the culture of those who are in power
- If you are not already a participant in the culture of power, being told explicitly the rules of that culture makes acquiring power easier.
- Those with power are frequently least aware of—or least willing to acknowledge—its existence. Those with less power are often most aware of its existence
Delpits writing sheds light on a misconception of uninvolved parents in urban areas. She addresses the notion that the parents are not uninvolved but rather excluded through dismissive behaviors of the educators and the educational system. Delpit is not arguing best methodical or pedagogical approaches but rather the power dynamic that excludes the crucial and vital input of the parents and community members of children of color. The silenced dialogue is the result of white middle class educators making decisions for demographics they are neither a part of nor fully engrossed in. The silenced dialogue stems from a privileged pedestal wherein white liberal middle class educators engaged in soliloquies rather than productive dialogue. The silenced dialogue is a result of repeatedly not being heard. The concerns and suggestions of black educators and parents fell on deaf ears. Those in the “culture of power” translated the exasperation and frustration that led up to silence as agreeance rather than a breakdown in communication. White middle class liberal educators have taken silence from the most impactful members of this demographic as a vote of confidence in their abilities to unanimously make decisions regarding the education of black and minority children. To hold power over vital decisions an entire group of people without considering their input as necessary is in fact an assertion of the very power they deny and complicity in their silencing .
A Black female principal interviewed by Delpit stated “ it becomes futile because they think they know everything about everyone.what you have to say about your life, your children doesn’t mean anything.they don’t really want to hear what you have to say. They wear blinder and earplugs” (Delpit 281) This testimony speaks volumes about a system of education that denies agency to Black people at every level, no matter how well they may be. The culture of privilege endowed upon white middle class liberal educators by society has tainted their ability to reach true understanding of others. They continue to silence the very people they claim to be trying to help. This concept brought to mind Spivak’s article “ Can the Subaltern speak” in which she describes people from a superior or dominant group attempting to help subordinate or subaltern communities by speaking on their behalf. Although these individuals are well intentioned there will always be something lost in translation if we don’t allow people to communicate their own wants and needs.
When black educators suggest instructional methods and approaches to research they are shut down . The white educator cites research as a means of proof that their instructional methods are “truth”, ignorant to the fact that citing research done by those in the culture of power further highlights the repeated scenario of being left out of a conversation that directly affects them. Delpit states “people of color in general are skeptical of research as a determiner of our fates. Academic research has, after all, found us genetically inferior, culturally deprived and verbally deficient” ( Delpit 286) Rather than stepping outside themselves ( which may lead to much needed cultural dissonance) in order to truly hear the concerns, they mindlessly nod. This act of mindless nodding in and of itself is dismissive body language that sends the message that the Black educators viewpoints are being tolerated rather than take into serious consideration.
Perhaps this closed off nature stems from white educators never having their approaches questioned. Nay, a discomfort from yielding power to individuals that have never been regarded by society as equals. While the white educator may not be doing this deliberately, their minds and attitudes have been shaped by a society that has ingrained those ideas into their psyche. Delpit stated “ Good liberal intentions are not enough.” Unless the issue of power is addressed progress can not be achieved. The attempt to ignore the culture of power only makes successful communication difficult; whereas specifying the code in which others should operate helps to bridge the gap. Suppressing or denying the power dynamic that exist serves only the comfort of those in the privilege positions- this does more harm than good.
Delpit suggests that denying the existence of power hierarchy hinders the overall quality of education of black children outside “ the culture of power”, further perpetuating the statu quo. To deny the existence of power is to deny the implications of that power on another’s reality. Delpit suggests that those in the culture of power should utilize their expertise, and knowledge of the codes and rules of their culture to equip black children the tools and skills they need to succeed within mainstream society. “If such explicitness is not provided to students, what it feels like to people who are old enough to judge is that there are secrets being kept, that time is being wasted, that the teacher is abdicating his or her duty to teach. ”The teacher is not doing those students any favors by denying or attempting to conceal his/her privilege. In fact, it sets the students up for failure as they enter a society dedicated to upholding those power structures.
When teachers attempt to conceal their privilege through creating an atmosphere of accentence in their classroom they are neglected to address very real life barriers those children will face. Also, many times those overly nice tactics are interpreted by black children as a lack of authority, and results in the teacher not having control over the classroom. This leads to a spiral of miscommunication and misunderstanding. The students interpret the lack of authoritative commands as suggestions and compliance optional; but nobody ever decoded that language for them. The language used to transmit to the student was not clearly defined or agreed upon; yet the punishment remained the same. Rather than creating a false sense of acceptance, the teacher should attempt to decentralize his/her power by incorporating learning strategies that appeal to all the children in the classroom. Delpit also discusses educators shifting the assumption that the role of the expert is only the teacher and rather acknowledges incorporating the creativity in the Verbal fluency and creativity associated with black students language. This asserts that the student’s voice is a key element in their learning process. Incorporating the creativity in the Verbal fluency and creativity associated with black students language. How black and minority children transmit and comprehend language needs to be learned from that culture, not spoken on behalf of. She asserts that students must learn to harness their own language codes while also being taught to understand the “power realites in this country”. It is a balancing act that requires realist strategies that ensures students are aware of these power codes but also how arbitrary they are, so that they can contribute to real change. Reaching this balance requires consultation with adults who share the students’ culture. The voices, suggestions and approaches of black educators, parents and members of poor communities must be intricately woven into the decisions made about the educational approaches that best black and minority children.
In american society we avoid uncomfortable conversations rather than address them. We must be able to have an honest discourse that forces us to question what we know to be normal and acceptable. We shroud our avoidance in a cloak of acceptance, when in fact they are two very different things. Shedding a culture of discrimation requires acknowledging its existence and the disatorius impact on communities.. While laws and education initiatives are a step in the right direction they don’t magically erase the damage that has been done. We passed laws and forgot to heal the wound. As Malcolm X so accurately stated “ Progress is healing the wound that blow made. And they haven’t pulled the knife out, much less healed the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there’. The knife in this case is the culture of power. Delpit urges that the only way to heal the wound is through honest and vulnerable discourse. Where white middle class educators must not only bring Black parents, educators and community members to the table; but also ensure the conversation does not evolve without them. Healing the wound requires questioning our consciousness and the realities created for others by the culture of power. It is a conscious decision to acknowledge and rectify the disparity.
Questions to Consider
- How can we address any problem or conflict if we don’t recognize its existence; the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one.
- How can educators address a problem they can’t “see”?
- How can teachers place value and make use of language and culture that each child brings from home?
Works Cited :
Delpit, Lisa D. 1988. The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children. Harvard Educational Review 58:280–298. pp. 286, 296