Department of Education

Aboriginal Education

Aboriginal Education

Aboriginal EducationGeneral resourcesGeneral ‹ Eight ways in which bias shows up in teaching resources

Eight ways in which bias shows up in teaching resources

1. Choosing negatively charged words will do it

At a meeting of experts on educational methods designed to combat racial prejudice convened by UNESCO in 1968, it was shown that particular words generally provoked an adverse reaction to any groups about whom they were used, particularly formerly colonised peoples. The following terms were identified as particularly effective in carrying out a negative connotation of a deficit view:

tribe uncivilized primitive coloured kaffir
jungle underdeveloped vernacular race bushman
savage pagan nomadic native  


The use of these words in the text can act as a warning to you that the attitudes being expressed are likely to be problematic, or that your students may take a negative meaning from the material, regardless of what the author and you intended.

Back to top

2. Inadequate treatment

This is the failure to take serious account of any Aboriginal dimension inherent in the questions under consideration, particularly in history. The text often omits all reference to Aboriginal people and, unless you are alert, you might not even notice, particularly if you are not Aboriginal.

Back to top

3. Social Darwinism

This appears variously as the:

  • Failure to make a distinction between modern people (Homo sapiens) on the one hand, and earlier people on the other, through the use, commonly, of imprecise terms, eg caveman or cave person and Stone Age man;
  • representing human cultural development as an upward climb from backwardness to western materialism and industrialisation; an approach often represented by the terms: progress, naked, civilization, primitive people, hunters, Stone Age man;
  • employing negative stresses in describing other cultures: no houses, no agriculture, drank only water, never previously seen a white man, never seen the sea;
  • the concept that the unfit fail to survive signified by the use of terms such as dying out.
Back to top

4. Colonial presumption

This shows up in language such as:

  • The natives (meaning people who quite appropriately are subjects for colonisation and civilising);
  • our Aborigines and the Australian Aborigines (the local variety of the white man's burden);
  • cannibalism (time-honoured equivalent to savage;
  • tribal fighting (Note the proneness to fighting amongst warriors and braves as opposed to civilised fighting between armies — again equivalent to savage or uncivilised);
  • jungle (the place inhabited by natives. Palm trees are possibly equivalent symbols in Pacific Island contexts);
  • nomads, hunters, naked (the identification of supposedly earlier therefore lower forms of cultural development). Similarly tribe and tribal.
Back to top

5. Stereotypes and derogatory concepts

These are expressions, widely used, bearing notions of superiority. Some may even have a factual basis but will be employed frequently in the absence of adequate detailed information. Others are sentimental or defamatory.

  • Walkabout — forever on the move, moving from place to place randomly and without skill or purpose
  • savage, primitive, the black (nineteenth century usage)
  • aborigines and natives (twentieth century equivalents)
  • smiling, childlike, flashing white teeth
  • simple, less intelligent, excitable, witchetty grubs, lizards and snakes, dirty (also black and dark), ugly
  • good horsemen, tracking ability, boomerangs, bone-pointing, fire-making, gin, lubra
Back to top

6. The exotic stress

Drawing attention to and revelling in the more trivial forms of difference which open the way for inferences of groups' inferiority.

strange, funny, cannibal, head-hunters, corroboree, bone-pointing, warriors, tribesmen, witch doctors, infanticide, child betrothal, polygamy, black magic

Back to top

7. Objects for study and discussion

Frequent employment of impersonal usages such as they, them and these people.

The attempt to give a physical description, usually in a stereotyped form — medium stature, wavy hair, thick lips, prominent upper jaw, broad nose, chocolate brown skin, etc.

Back to top

8. Distortion and euphemism

Presenting Australian history as from 1788 eg Australia was discovered and first settled as if the continent was uninhabited.

  • the pioneers
  • they were driven back into the interior — a majority group myth
  • the Aboriginal problem


Adapted from ‘Textbooks and the American Indian’, reproduced in an article by R Coleman in the Australian Library journal, vol 22, no 10 Nov 1973

Aboriginal Perspectives Across the Curriculum, South Australian Department for Education ©apacsa

Eight ways in which bias shows up in teaching resources

All contents copyright Government of Western Australia, unless otherwise stated.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that this site may contain images of people who are deceased.

Copyright material available on this website is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) licence
Exclusions may apply: