Skin That We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom, New Edition

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Now in paperback, The Skin That We Speak takes the discussion of language in the classroom beyond the highly charged war of idioms and presents today’s teachers with a thoughtful exploration of the varieties of English that we speak, in what Black Issues Book Review calls “an essential text.”

Edited by bestselling author Lisa Delpit and education professor Joanne Kilgour Dowdy, the book includes an extended new piece by Delpit herself, as well as groundbreaking work by Herbert ...

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The Skin That We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom

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Now in paperback, The Skin That We Speak takes the discussion of language in the classroom beyond the highly charged war of idioms and presents today’s teachers with a thoughtful exploration of the varieties of English that we speak, in what Black Issues Book Review calls “an essential text.”

Edited by bestselling author Lisa Delpit and education professor Joanne Kilgour Dowdy, the book includes an extended new piece by Delpit herself, as well as groundbreaking work by Herbert Kohl, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and Victoria Purcell-Gates, as well as classic texts by Geneva Smitherman and Asa Hilliard.

At a time when children are written off in our schools because they do not speak formal English, and when the class- and race-biased language used to describe those children determines their fate, The Skin That We Speak offers a cutting-edge look at crucial educational issues.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Although these lucid, accessible pieces speak most directly to teachers and would be teachers . . . the issues are broad enough to attract more general readers, especially parents."
Publishers Weekly
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781595583505
  • Publisher: New Press, The
  • Publication date: 5/1/2008
  • Edition description: Revised
  • Pages: 229
  • Sales rank: 99,454
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Lisa Delpit, a MacArthur Fellow, received the award for Outstanding Contribution to Education in 1993 from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which hailed her as a “visionary scholar and woman of courage.” She is the author of Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom (The New Press) and is currently the executive director for the Center for Urban Education and Innovation at Florida International University. Joanne Kilgour Dowdy is Associate Professor of Adolescent/Adult Literacy at Kent State University in the Department of Teaching, Leadership, and Curriculum Studies. She is the author of GED Stories: Black Women and Their Struggle for Social Equity.
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Read an Excerpt


In a study conducted in 1974 to assess the development of attitudes
in preschool children toward “Black English” (BE)and “Standard
English” (SE), Marilyn Rosenthal, the researcher, painted two
identical cardboard boxes with similarly drawn faces. Two tapes had
previously been made by the same bi-dialectal African American
speaker, one in African American language (as distinguished by vocabulary,
syntax, and pronunciation)and one in American Standard
English. A tape player with one of the tapes was put into each box,
out of the children’s view. Each box was described as a “head” and
each relayed the same messages. The voice in each box introduced
itself to the children and indicated that it had a present for the child.
Later, each box also asked the children if they would give the
speaker their crayons. The children were then asked a number of
questions, including these: Which “head,” Steve [Standard English]
or Kenneth [Black English], would you like to get the present
from? Whom do you like better? Whom would you like to play
with? Whom would you give your crayons to?

Over 70 percent of the time, both African American and European
American three- to five-year-olds categorized the BE speaker
as African American and the SE speaker as white. Further, most
of them wanted the present from the SE speaker because he “had
nicer presents.” The majority of the children of both ethnicities
believed that the BE speaker, Kenneth, “needed” the crayons more,
with one European American boy, aged five and a half, saying that
he would give his crayons to Kenneth “cause he don’t have nothing”
and one four-year-old European American girl indicating that
she was afraid of Kenneth (Rosenthal, p.62).

The findings are fascinating. They indicate, according to the
researcher, that very young children have developed attitudes toward
African American language and assumptions about its speakers
that closely parallel adult American views:

Interestingly, the African American and white children reflected
differences in their personal preferences towards the
representative speakers of the two language forms, with the
white children preferring the SE speaker and the African
American children preferring the BE speaker. Furthermore,
there were expressions of learned stereotyped images associated
with both speakers. Many of these were pejorative toward
the BE speaker—identifying him as talking silly, being
unintelligible, being harmful, having nothing, and not having
drawing ability. . . . The SE speaker was stereotyped as being
more gentle, looking better, having better drawing ability,
and being the symbol of success (the last idea was expressed
by Population B [African American]).

It should not be surprising that these attitudes carry over into
school. In another study done in the 1970s, student teachers were
asked to assess eight hypothetical schoolchildren on the scales of
intelligence, being a good student, being privileged, enthusiastic,
self-confident, and gentle [Giles & Powesland, 1975:3, cited in R. A.
Hudson, Sociolinguistics, Cambridge University Press, 1980]. The
eight hypothetical students were each defined by three types of
information: a photograph, a tape-recorded sample of speech, and
a sample of school work (consisting of an essay and a drawing).
Each piece of information was based on a real child, but the pieces
were recombined to give equal numbers of occasions in which each
type of information would be judged positively and negatively.
Hudson (1980)describes the study results:

The question to be answered by this experiment was: what
would happen if information from one source gave a favourable
impression but that from another source gave an unfavourable
one? The very clear answer was that information
from the speech sample always [emphasis added] took priority
over that from the photograph or the school-work: a favourable
impression on the speech sample overrode unfavourable
impressions from the other sources, and conversely. (p. 208)

As Michael Stubbs contends (in chapter 5), if school considers
someone’s language inadequate, they’ll probably fail.

Our language embraces us long before we are defined by any other
medium of identity. In our mother’s womb we hear and feel the
sounds, the rhythms, the cadences of our “mother tongue.” We
learn to associate contentment with certain qualities of voice and
physical disequilibrium with others. Our home language is as viscerally
tied to our beings as existence itself—as the sweet sounds
of love accompany our first milk, as our father’s pride permeates
our bones and flesh when he shows us off to his friends, as a gentle
lullaby or soft murmurs signal release into restful sleep. It is no
wonder that our first language becomes intimately connected to
our identity.

Just as our skin provides us with a means to negotiate our interactions
with the world—both in how we perceive our surroundings
and in how those around us perceive us—our language plays
an equally pivotal role in determining who we are: it is The Skin
That We Speak.

For better or worse, in our stratified society our appearance can
serve to create an expectation of success or failure, of brilliance or
stupidity, of power or impotence. Those whose skin color or hair texture or facial features do not place them within the dominant phenotype
are often viewed as “lesser than.” But our language “skin”
provides an even more precise mechanism for determining status.
The omission of an “s,” an unusual inflection, or a nasalized word
ending can indicate to listeners exactly where in the social hierarchy
a speaker should be assigned. Victoria Purcell-Gates sums it up in
the title of her chapter, “. . . As Soon As She Opened Her Mouth!”

The purpose of this 2002 collection is to explore the links between
language and identity, between language and political hierarchy,
and between language and cultural conflict.

Most of the articles in this collection make reference to African
American language (also called Black English, Ebonics, or African
American Vernacular English), which is, without question, one of
the most vigorously debated linguistic codes in our nation’s history.
As early as 1884, J. Harrison attempted to detail in a fifty-sevenpage
treatise that the language of “Negroes” was an oddity that
only vaguely resembled language at all.

This volume also concerns itself primarily with language and
education. This issue of language use in school is particularly volatile.
The commencement of formal education is usually one of
the first settings in a person’s life when their language may be
judged as right or wrong; when assumptions may be made about
their intelligence, family life, future potential, or moral fiber every
time a sentence is uttered. African American language has had a
particularly stormy relationship with the educational power structure.
Schools often see themselves, and are seen by the larger society,
as the arbiters of what is proper, correct, and decent. African
American language forms have been considered none of the above.
Thus, there have been continual moves to eliminate its presence
in classrooms, and raging debates whenever it appears that there
might be some move to suggest otherwise.

The most recent flare-up, the so-called “Ebonics Debate,” took
the country by storm during 1996 and 1997. The Oakland School
District put forth a proposal that named the language form spoken
by many of its African American students “Ebonics.” It not only
provided a moniker, but the proposal also declared Ebonics a distinct
language, not a dialect or substandard form of English. Further,
it recommended that teachers be trained in the elements of
Ebonics and steeped in aspects of African American culture. Such
training, they argued, would enable teachers to create instruction
for African American students that would allow them not only to
excel in learning standard English, but to excel in all school subjects.
This result had already been achieved on a small scale using
the program the board advocated, the “Standard English Proficiency
Program.” Despite the school board’s good intentions, the
country went on a rampage, with reporter after reporter declaring
that Oakland was planning to teach Black slang and ghetto language
to its schoolchildren. Several of the essays in this volume
refer to the debate, and more details of the battle are described in
chapter 3, No Kinda Sense. Also included, as an appendix, is the
formal response of the Linguistic Society of America on the Oakland
Ebonics debate.

However, this was not the first time African American language
and the education establishment engaged in a very awkward, painful,
and public dance. After the riots of the 1960s the general public
became aware that African American children were failing in
schools in large numbers. African American leaders and, later, President
Johnson’s “War on Poverty” demanded solutions. Educational
scholars, casting about for blame, speculated about the cause
of the problem and hit upon the idea that the children’s inferior
language was the cause of their learning problem. With little or
no empirical research to back the claims, what amounted to rumors
were circulated through articles, essays, and speeches indicating
that African American children had a miniscule vocabulary, were
nonverbal, had no substantive communicative exchanges with their
parents, and were crushed by the noise and confusion in their
homes. The Head Start Program, in large part, was initiated to
mitigate the “culturally and linguistically deprived” homes of poor
African American children.

Linguists, mostly white, began to study the question. The language was mapped and its unique grammatical features, phonology,
and semantics were identified. In contrast to the educators,
most linguists concluded that there was nothing inherently inferior
about the language of African Americans, but that problems might
arise when the language of school and the language of home met.
Some African American scholars began to take issue with the work
of the white linguists, suggesting that, at best, they were unable
to really understand Black language because the language did not
exist apart from the culture and they had insufficient access to the
culture. It was during this period that the term “Ebonics” (black
phonics, i.e., black sounds)was coined by Professor Robert Williams
in the early 1970s, when he convened a meeting of African
American scholars to study the question from a culturally specific
perspective. He proposed that the white linguists were wrong to
consider African American language to be a dialect of English,
since the linguistic code really had its roots in West African languages.
As the controversy continued, accusations of opportunism,
self-aggrandizement, and being in league with the government’s
attempts to keep African Americans disenfranchised eventually led
many white linguists to seek other areas of study (Shuy in Farr-

The next major public explosion concerning African American
language and the schools was in 1979, when, in what came to be
known as “the King case,” parents from the Green Road Housing
Project in Detroit sued the school system for not educating their
children, specifically for failing to teach them to read. The judge
in the case, Judge Joiner, eventually dismissed all of the plaintiffs’
claims except one, forcing the lawsuit to be tried only on 1703(f),
which reads in part: “No state shall deny equal educational opportunity
to an individual on account of his or her race, color, sex,
or national origin, by . . . the failure to overcome language barriers
that impede equal participation by its students in its instructional

The judge eventually ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, and declared
that the teachers and the school system had not taken into account
the children’s language in their instruction, and thus had failed to
teach them appropriately. He ruled that the school board had not
previously, but now should (1)“help the teachers understand the
problem”; (2)“help provide them with knowledge about the children’s
use of a ‘black English’ language system”; and (3)“suggest
ways and means of using that knowledge in teaching the students
to read.” The plaintiffs’ lawyers did not think the solution, without
any accountability or classroom intervention, went far enough. The
public, however, went wild. The media once more peppered the
airways and newspapers with suggestions that the judge was equating
Black slang and improper English with a true language.

In the Ebonics debate of 1996, in the War on Poverty reports
and counter reports of the 1960s and early 1970s, and in the furor
surrounding the King case in the early 1980s, the public discussions
and publicized scholarly research ended rather suddenly, and with
no resolution. Still today African American children fail, and still
there is much smoke and little light around the linguistic issues
that might affect that failure. Two major professional organizations
of English educators have been discussing the educational costs of
language discrimination for more than twenty-five years, passing
Students’ Right to Their Own Language in 1974 and the National
Language Policy in 1988. A survey taken in 2000 by the NCTE &
CCCC, however, showed that fully one-third of the membership
had no knowledge of the positions the organizations had taken.

During each of the peaks of public interest in African American
language and education, scholars have pointed out, but with little
public attention, that it may not be the children’s language that
causes educational problems, but the educational bureaucracy’s response
to the language. These scholars looked more to attitudes
held about the language. They posited that the country’s perception
of African Americans was such that, given the history of racism in
the United States, it attached inferiority to all things black.

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Table of Contents


Preface vii

Introduction xv

Part One: Language and Identity
C H A P T E R 1 Ovuh Dyuh 3

C H A P T E R 2 Ebonics: A Case History 15

Part Two: Language in the Classroom
C H A P T E R 3 No Kinda Sense 31

C H A P T E R 4 Trilingualism 49

C H A P T E R 5 Some Basic Sociolinguistic Concepts 63

C H A P T E R 6 Language, Culture, and the Assessment
of African American Children 87

C H A P T E R 7 I ain’t writin’ nuttin’: Permissions to Fail
and Demands to Succeed in Urban Classrooms 107

C H A P T E R 8 “. . . As Soon As She Opened Her Mouth!”:
Issues of Language, Literacy, and Power 121

Part Three: Teacher Knowledge
C H A P T E R 9 Topsy-Turvies: Teacher Talk and Student Talk 145

C H A P T E R 1 0 Toward a National Public Policy on
Language 163

C H A P T E R 1 1 The Clash of “Common Senses”: Two
African American Women Become Teachers 179

C H A P T E R 1 2 “We don’t talk right. You ask him.” 203

Appendix: Linguistic Society of America Resolution on
the Oakland “Ebonics” Issue 221

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 2, 2012

    Really good

    Great read eye opener

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  • Posted April 24, 2010

    Thoughtful Viewpoint on Literacy in America

    Author give first hand accounting of literacy in the United States. It may not just be counting rows of numbers or learning the alphabet that will help our children. With the onset of the age of technology children need to separate fact from fiction and learn to analyze the truth beneath the words that bombard them daily. This book is strongly recommended especially for educators who want to expose themselves and their students to the rich diversity that the U.S. and the written word has to offer.

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  • Posted February 26, 2010

    Compelling Reading

    This book takes a different tact. Instead of merely presenting scholarly quotes, Delpit goes to the source and gets the information from the sources we need to know more from....the students. Well presented and very compelling!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 8, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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    Posted October 31, 2009

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    Posted February 9, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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