Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Culture of Power

                In working with teenagers I am learning about the importance of power. Teenagers often come in and discuss the difficulty with their classmates and teachers. When I ask what is going on with a teacher or in the classroom the teenager often replies that the teacher does not have control of the classroom and that the students walk all over him/her. Hearing these sentiments repeatedly from different people got me thinking about power while being a sexuality educator. In reading Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children: Cultural Competency in the Classroom (1995)  (Other People's children) and The Silenced Dialogue:  Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children (1988) I found these aspects of power from Delpit:
1. “Issues of Power are enacted in classrooms” (Silence Dialogue, 1988, p.281)
2. “There are codes or rules for participating in power; that is, there is a “culture of power” (Silence Dialogue,  1988, p.281)
3. “The rules of the culture of power are a reflection of the rules of the culture of those who have power” (Silence Dialogue, 1988, p.281)
4. “If you are not already a participant in the culture of power, being told explicitly the rules of that culture makes acquiring power easier” (Silence Dialogue,  1988, p.281)
5. “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” (Silence Dialogue, 1988, p.281)
                These are aspects of power that an educator needs to be aware of while teaching. Number one speaks to being aware that classrooms from text books to curricula contain power. The teacher holds the power to shape students, the power to decide what students learn and ultimately what skills they will have once they graduate and enter the workforce. Being sexuality educators we have to realize that the education we provide is connected to the power we imbue on our students. We teach them about autonomy, advocating, and a myriad of other subjects related to power while teaching sexuality.
                Aspect number two speaks to learning how to operate within the culture power which is not of the culture of people of color.  This means there are codes for language, communication and various ways of expression that have to be observed, learned and even adopted. Now I’m not saying learn the slang words of the students you teach in order to use them if that’s not where your strength or social acceptability lies; but, it is important to know the language, subtle gestures and behavior codes of the classroom in order to communicate effectively and understand how the power is divided in the room.
                The third aspect is about understanding that being successful is based on the rules of the culture of power. Despite the wonderful cultures which people come from, without being able to learn the rules it is impossible to be successful in a world taught and run by those in the culture of power.
                Fourthly, there has to be some sort of transparency garnered when working with various cultures and this comes from communication. As a sexuality educator this is highly important when working with anyone-in this sense, the ones without the sexual knowledge and ‘know-how’- are the people in the culture of power.
I believe the last aspect is clearly stated. In reading these aspects as a sexuality educator it became clear to me that we sexuality educators are not in the culture of power and if we are not aware of the rules of the culture of power, we will not be able to educate the masses. We have to realize the power of the classroom and content that we teach. We also have to acknowledge the rules of the culture in which we are going to teach our sexuality content. This means that if we are going to teach in a corporate office an educator must determine whether or not a fucksaw is the appropriate tool to bring for a lesson on sexual devices.
                Furthermore in teaching within the culture of power we have to be able to communicate how knowing about sexuality creates success- however success is measured. Adults are interested in knowledge that is beneficial to them (Adult Learning Theory) and as educators we have to have a grounded and supported reason about why sexuality knowledge is important for success.
                I know that this sounds like a soap box, and I don’t know that we outside of the culture of power are not aware of these things, but I do believe Delpit’s aspects of power are applicable across cultures. Even though she looked culture through a lens of ethnicity we can be apply these aspects to a lens of sexuality knowledge.  Lastly, as the final aspect states, those in the culture of power are usually least likely to recognize that they have the most power, but I don’t want us who are not in the culture of power to feel powerless because we have knowledge, skills and voice. 

Lexx Brown-James, MFT

Delpit, Lisa. (1988). The Silenced Dialogue:  Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children. The Harvard Review. 58(3).  p. 280


  1. Thank you for your reflections on power and control in the classroom. Reading your blog reminded me of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a very important work on education as a means of social/revolutionary change. According to Freire, an educational environment that encourages critical thinking and open communication is the only way to challenge an imbalance of power and control. He criticized what he called the “banking” method of teaching (imagine students as banks that teachers deposit information into), claiming that this method dehumanized both teachers and students. In contrast, he proposed a more “problem-solving” method in which students are more actively engaged with the process, and through which they become empowered and challenge imbalance of power.

    Points you make in your blog, in my opinion, resonate well with Freire’s concepts:
    • Awareness that textbooks and curricula have power
    • Communication and language are vital elements in education and social change
    • “Those with less power are often most aware of its existence” – Freire advocated that it was the oppressed peoples who, through communication and learning, must work to enact change and, thereby, free themselves as the oppressed, as well as free the oppressors from their role as oppressors.

    I agree with you that the messages Delpit offers about power are valid and useful for us as educators. I just wanted to note that there are some theories and methods of teaching that do address the culture of power and Freire is a good one to consider.

  2. I found it interesting that your post opened talking about instances where adolescents abuse their collective power by taking advantage of and stepping on their teachers, yet your points about the culture of power seemed to refer more to how teachers have power over students. I cannot remember where I heard this, but I remember someone telling me that being an adolescent is challenging because that is a point in people's lives where they lack power, e.g. they don't have their own money, don't have a car, cannot always make decisions on their own. So I wonder if the classroom is a place where adolescents can garner power collectively and act out with their teachers.

    You mention that understanding the culture of power in different environments can help to facilitate learning and create safe spaces. I think that if educators can understand the stage of adolescence as being a stage with limited power, teachers could create opportunities for youth to develop autonomy in the classroom. This might be a way to prevent situations where teachers get stepped on by groups of students who choose to disregard their educators.

  3. Power dynamics are especially important in teaching sexuality education and I'm glad that you were able to expose this topic within the blog setting.

    Primarily important is the power dynamics that we enter the educational setting with and being aware of the biases that we currently have are essential components of teaching.

    This makes values clarification important when discussing power dynamics with students or exploring our own. Thank you for bringing this to our attention!

  4. Lexx -

    Great points! This is something we've been talking a lot about in class lately. I've found through both my work as an educator and clinician that power dynamics are always at play within schools, and not just among the teacher/student relationship. But how do we navigate it, and how do we talk about subjects sometimes as sensitive as sexuality within an environment where power play is constantly a struggle? I am also just starting to read Delpit's Other People's Children, and it is definitely opening my eyes to not only my own part in the power of a classroom, but perhaps where some of this struggle is coming from.

    I like that you highlight that although Delpit is writing from an ethnicity lens in her book, that power plays through across cultures, and that includes sexuality education. With issues that are frequently tabooed we are in a unique position as educators to hold more "power" than teachers of required academic subjects. I think it is vital for us especially as sexuality educators, to learn and be trained in the power struggles that can permeate a classroom.

    Thanks Lexx!

  5. Lexx! Never apologize for talking about power! It's an important subject that needs to discussed, especially with educators because there are so many layers of power in one room! I thought the points you made were great and creates a helpful framework for educators that are trying to assess what power looks like within their own classroom.

    I also appreciated the conversation Chris started about tying Delpit's points to Friere's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I think that both of these are helpful when considering what the hidden messages are in the education that we are creating a delivering.

    I also think that when we, as educators, do this work it sends a clear message to students about the importance of understanding power and what it looks like to acknowledge it and to make a more accepting and empowering space. I think this can be incredibly important for some of the populations that we work with, as Alaina mentioned with adolescents.