Culture of Power

I read a very powerful article yesterday that I wanted to reflect upon. The basis of the article is the claim that there is a “culture of power.” This culture of power refers to the dominant culture and codes of conduct in the US in particular. Some interesting features of this culture of power is that members of this culture are seldom aware of it, and that those not in the culture of power can gain power if they are explicitly told of its code of conduct.

I’ll give an example. It is typical in a black household for the mother to tell the child something like, “get your rusty behind in the bathtub!” This is actually a quote from the article written by Lisa Delpit, a teacher educator. A middle class white mother, on the other hand, is more prone to say something like, “isn’t it time for your bath?” Now, imagine the child from the black household going to school with a middle class white teacher. The teacher seems to the black child to have no authority, no sense of control. The teacher asks, “where do the scissors go?” when he or she means, “put the scissors back.” This example is only a microcosm of the sort of miscommunication that can happen as a result of those not in the dominant culture being unfamiliar with the codes of that culture.

The author advocates that students be told explicitly what the codes of the culture of power are so that they can be successful. She and I agree that it sucks that the culture of power gets to decide what’s appropriate for success and what isn’t. However, she argues, it would be a disservice to those students not to teach them how to be successful in the culture of power. She advocates that people in her position should petition the so-called “gatekeepers” in society to be more open and accepting of diverse cultures while at the same time preparing students for interactions in the culture of power. I am inspired by this call for honesty in a classroom of marginalized students.

I’ve been going over in my head how I would want to tell my students that I think it sucks that their beautiful and unique channels of expression and cultural diversity aren’t valued in the dominant culture. I’ve been thinking about how I would tell them, while I wish it weren’t true, that the fact is that in order for them to be taken seriously, they have to learn to speak, write, dress, and otherwise act in a manner consonant with the culture of power. They have to play a game with complicated politics that are stacked against them in order to get respect.

I wonder how my students might take this conversation coming from someone like me–a member of the dominant culture who speaks standard English well and is white. I hope that they would recognize that I’m trying to be honest with them and help them, while at the same time acknowledging and validating their respective cultures.

Going further, I have the distinct advantage of offering my students Mathematics. I believe that mathematical skill can go a long way towards overcoming some of the imbalances due to the culture of power. If my students can hone their mathematical and scientific skills and knowledge, they will go a long way in garnering respect of people inside and out of the culture of power.

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