In Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom
, Lisa Delpit, a MacArthur fellow and Benjamin E. Mays Chair of Urban Educational Leadership at Georgia State University, provides an important yet typically avoided discussion of how power imbalances in the larger U.S. society reverberate in classrooms. Through telling excerpts of conversations with teachers, students, and parents from varied cultural backgrounds, Delpit shows how everyday interactions are loaded with assumptions made by educators and mainstream society about the capabilities, motivations, and integrity of low-income children and children of color.
Other People's Children
is divided into three parts. The first, "Controversies Revisited," includes Delpit's two Harvard Educational Review
articles — "Skills and Other Dilemmas of a Progressive Black Educator" and "The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children." In these two essays, along with a third, Delpit explores how teachers, especially those with "progressive" teaching methods, need to examine how they are helping or impeding minority and low-income students' access to the power that mainstream society and institutions have invested in "Standard" English. In Part Two, "Lessons from Home and Abroad: Other Cultures and Communities," Delpit illustrates how her teaching, research, and living experiences in Papua New Guinea and Alaska provided her with the opportunity to "make explicit to myself aspects of my home culture, which previously had been an unexamined backdrop for everyday living" (p. 92) and informed her commitment to working toward an education that promoted liberation for oppressed groups. The last section, "Looking to the Future: Accommodating Diversity," includes essays in which Delpit investigates how classroom practice and teacher assessment and education must accept "that alternative worldviews exist — that there are valid alternative means to any end, as well as valid alternative ends in themselves" (p. 151).
A connecting theme throughout the book is how power imbalances and cultural conflicts within classrooms occur within a larger society that
nurtures and maintains stereotypes. . . . [For example], we are constantly told of the one out of four black men who is involved with the prison system — but what about the three out of four who are not? . . . When do we see their lives portrayed on the six o'clock news? (p. xii). . . .
Indeed, in the educational institutions of this country, the possibilities for poor people and for people of color to define themselves, to determine the self each should be, involve a power that lies outside of the self. It is others who determine how they should act, how they are to be judged. When one "we" gets to determine standards for all "wes," then some "wes" are in trouble! (p. xv)
The culprit in these situations is not simply racism, though it certainly plays a part. It is the reluctance of people, especially those with power and privilege, "to perceive those different from themselves except through their own culturally clouded vision" (p. xiv). This inability is particularly destructive in classrooms where teachers view low-income and minority children as "other" and "see damaged and dangerous caricatures of the vulnerable and impressionable beings before them" (p. xiii).
Perhaps most poignant about the essays, and about Delpit's writing of the book in general, is her openness in demonstrating how it is she has come to hold certain ideas about education:
When I consider the origins of my views, I realize that my personal history, by necessity, contributes considerably to my current belief systems. I write from a life lived in many margins, usually while struggling to approach the center of whichever page of my life is unfolding at the moment. It has been that struggle to understand and adapt to various contexts that has led me on the personal journey of discovering other realities. (p. 73)
This personal, reflective tone exemplifies how closely her teaching is tied to her identity as an African American, as a member of a vibrant yet subjugated group. For example, her thoughts about the failure of process writing approaches to provide minority and low-income students with access to the "codes of power" of "Standard" English emerged from her own experiences as a classroom teacher committed to ensuring the success of African American children. She recalls her realization that the progressive teaching methods of her teacher education were not working with her African American students:
It hurt that I was moving away from what I had learned [process approaches]. It hurt even more that I had failed in the task that was most important to me — teaching black children and teaching them well. I could not talk about my failure then. It is difficult even now. At least I did not fall into the trap of talking about the parents' failures. (p. 14)
Her empathy with marginalized populations, such as African Americans, Native Alaskans, and the people of Papua New Guinea, comes from her knowledge that these cultural groups are unfairly oppressed by the ends and views of White, middle-class-controlled institutions. In particular, Delpit expresses concern about schools that place curricula and texts before students and relationships with those students; tolerate rather than embrace the reality of diversity; refuse to acknowledge the politics of education; and consider some children as "our children" and the great majority as "other people's children."
Through her discussions with minority students and teachers, Delpit has identified a "culture of power" that operates in schools and supports dominant U.S. society. In classrooms where White and middle-class teachers regard minority and low-income students as "other people's children," Delpit argues that these teachers repeatedly fail to reveal the rules of the culture of power to students since they are "frequently least aware of — or least willing to acknowledge" (p. 24) the cultural power they hold. As a result, these teachers often impede the academic and social success of "other people's children" who need to survive in a society that demands fluency in "Standard" English for economic and political success. Delpit explains:
Pretending that gatekeeping points don't exist is to ensure that many students will not pass through them. . . . I further believe that to act as if power does not exist is to ensure that the power status remains the same. To imply to children or adults . . . that it doesn't matter how you talk or how you write is to ensure their ultimate failure. I prefer to be honest with my students. I tell them that their language and cultural style is unique and wonderful but that there is a political power game that is also being played, and if they want to be in on that game there are certain games that they too must play. . . . When I speak, therefore, of the culture of power, I don't speak of how I wish things to be but of how they are. (pp. 39–40)
Delpit takes seriously the skepticism of many people of color who have experienced such intense racism in schools and other U.S. institutions that they realize that an educational process created outside of their context "may be designed to destroy the heritage, the essence of who and what we are, to destroy their knowledge of themselves" (p. 78). As a result, she poses the question that these marginalized groups often ask, and that all educators should pose to themselves and their institutions: "Education, literacy — for whom, for what purpose, toward what end?" (p. 78). As one proud parent in Papua New Guinea described her child's success in a preschool that conducted literacy and numeracy instruction in their local language: "When he is big, he will not reject us. It is important to teach our children to read and write, but it is more important to teach them to be proud of themselves, and of us" (p. 89). In other words, education need not come at the expense of one's connection to one's cultural roots and identity. Because this local school "affirms rather than negates a people's knowledge of its culture and heritage" (p. 90), Delpit maintains that it is well-poised to be a success for the people most affected by it — parents and their children.
Yet, even when classes are not formally conducted in students' first languages, teachers can make a practice of understanding the cultures of their students. Given the increasing percentage of students from minority backgrounds in U.S. classrooms — 40 percent by the turn of the century — and the reality of a predominantly White female teaching force, it is essential that in-service and pre-service teacher education prepare these educators to hear and respect the voices of people of color and actively work against oppressive educational practices and ideologies. As Delpit explains,
teachers can . . . acknowledge the unfair "discourse-stacking" that our society engages in. They can discuss openly the injustices of allowing certain people to succeed, based not upon merit but upon which family they were born into, upon which discourse they had access to as children. . . . Only after acknowledging the inequity of the system can the teacher's stance then be "Let me show you how to cheat!" And of course, to cheat is to learn the discourse which would otherwise be used to exclude them from participating in and transforming the mainstream. (p. 165)
When Delpit talks about "transforming the mainstream," she is not condemning White middle-class culture, but the parts of its institutionalized form that sanction the oppression of non-Whites. In her eyes, what is European American is not disconnected, for example, from what is African American or Native American or Asian American: the histories of domination and oppression have placed these cultures in intimate relationship, usually in that of oppressor-oppressed. Therefore, pretending that these histories do not exist does nothing to enable these groups to interact on non-hierarchical terms; rather, it simply ensures that racial prejudice and discrimination will remain "that persistent scourge of American society" (p. 127). As an optimistic educator and U.S. citizen, Delpit proposes that we conceptualize teaching as a profession that actively labors to "recognize and overcome the power differential, the stereotypes, and the other barriers which prevent us from seeing each other. Those efforts must drive our teacher education, our curriculum development, our instructional strategies, and every aspect of the educational enterprise" (p. 134).
Reading Other People's Children
makes it impossible for one — as a teacher, administrator, or parent — to see teaching as an apolitical endeavor that has little relationship to issues of liberation and injustice. Implied in Delpit's work is the vision that when U.S. citizens become committed to removing oppression from our daily interactions, we will not let cultural boundaries impede our desire to see all children as "our children," and the future of different groups as part and parcel of the democratic potential of this country. Therefore, what Delpit proposes is that classroom teachers lead the way to offering diverse groups the opportunity to learn about each other without the presumption of privilege or domination by any. She explains,
We do not really see through our eyes or hear through our ears, but through our beliefs. To put our beliefs on hold is to cease to exist as ourselves for a moment — and that is not easy. It is painful as well, because it means turning yourself inside out, giving up your own sense of who you are, and being willing to see yourself in the unflattering light of another's angry gaze. It is not easy, but it is the only way to learn what it might feel like to be someone else and the only way to start the dialogue. (pp. 46–47)