Cultural Bias in Historial Resources

The Digital Library of Georgia presents online versions of original materials that reflect the cultural elements of a specific time in language and style. It is important that original language and unmanipulated images be presented, even though in an online environment these items are far removed from their original context. When using historical photographs, manuscripts and other documents one should look beyond the content presented to an understanding of the purposes of the authors or creators of these materials. When a body of such items is presented, one should also understand the purpose of the collectors and catalogrs and even the donors or publishers of these items. When using these items for research and analysis, one must recognize and evaluate the factors of cultural bias present at the level of creation, collection and publication, as well as current cultural elements that may influence its online presentation.

With permission, the following guide to evaluating and recognizing cultural bias in resources has been adapted for use with historical materials by an American audience from Evaluating Cultural Bias in Resources, a web resource of The May Gibbs Memorial Library, Neutral Bay Public School, New South Wales, Australia. The content of the May Gibbs Memorial Library web resource was adapted by Maggie Roche from a 1984 publication of the Multicultural Education Centre of the New South Wales Department of Education by J. McIntosh, Taking stock; Assessing materials for cultural bias.

Recognizing Cultural Bias

RACISM

Historical materials may contain more examples of overt racism than what is seen in modern resources, as they reflect the attitudes of the time. Racist attitudes are evident when races are said to be superior or inferior, or there is discrimination or oppression and the denial of basic human rights of a group of people. (McIntosh)

GENDER BIAS

Historical materials may contain examples of gender bias. Similar to racist attitudes, gender bias is present when one gender is described as superior or inferior, or there is discrimination or oppression and the denial of basic human rights on the basis of gender.

OMISSION

Are all significant aspects of history and culture included? Is there enough detail for understanding?

Do all sides express their point of view? Or is only one viewpoint given?
Are people shown in traditional and contemporary settings? Rural & urban? Or are cultural groups shown only in one setting, or only in the past?
Is the complexity of the lives of women, African-Americans and other ethnic and racial minorities shown? Or are their lives portrayed as one-dimensional, or as centered around stereotypical activities?
Are photographs accompanied by captions that name the person or group, indicating where they are from? Or does the photograph not name certain persons or groups and give locations?
TOKENISM

As a response to criticisms of cultural bias, groups may be included only as a gesture, or an attempt to give authenticity.

Do all persons portrayed contribute equally to the historic perspective given by the collective text or photographs? Or do some appear to be scattered through the material for no apparent reason?
Are all the persons depicted, as in a photo, interacting with each other? Or are some people passive? Do they appear, as in a photo, segregated from the intended subject of the photo, or only at the periphery of the frame?
Are all persons described?
Is information about them given?
Or are some described only briefly or not at all?
Is the coverage comprehensive? Or is some information very brief?
e.g. a short statement at the beginning.
ETHNOCENTRISM

Something is ethnocentric when one culture is considered as the ideal, or the 'norm', and others are judged in relation to it.

NEGATIVE STRESS

This is an example of ethnocentrism where things like lifestyles and technology are described using the negative.

e.g. no shoes, no tradition of reading and writing, makeshift houses, did not grow crops, under-developed, non-white, economically disadvantaged

PATERNALISM

When a group had a 'problem', there used to be a tendency to blame them for the situation. To resolve the 'problem', the dominating group often saw it as its right and duty to 'help' the group, intervening and making decisions for them.

Are people portrayed as being in control of their own lives and able to resolve any challenges? Or are problems resolved through the intervention of someone else 'assisting'?
OVER-GENERALIZATION

Consider words such as typical of and an example of with care.

Is the diversity of cultures referred to? Or are sweeping generalizations used, that don't apply to all groups?
e.g. 'They played banjos.
Are actual countries and languages referred to? e.g. Creek, Cherokee, Hindi, Tamil, Punjabi Or are terms such as Indian / Asian / South East Asian / Oriental / Indo Chinese used?
STEREOTYPING

When over-simplified generalizations occur frequently, a group begins to be characterized in a certain way. e.g. physical characteristics, personality, social or cultural behavior, or lifestyles.

Are all members of a cultural group portrayed as individuals with distinct features? Or are they all portrayed as similar, in uniform styles of dress or costume?
Do members of a cultural group display a range of emotions and behavior? Or are their actions all portrayed as being similar?
Are people shown contributing to and participating in society at various levels? Or are they shown in fixed or limited roles; representing only one socio-economic level?
Are people displayed with the whole range of talents, and skills? Or are there restrictions? e.g. African-Americans as nursemaids, as entertainers.

Are visual images overused, chosen for their impact or familiarity? e.g. African-Americans doing fieldwork?

EXOTICA

Stereotyping often focuses on exotic, unusual or extreme aspects of culture, sensationalizing rather than accepting people and portraying them as having everyday lives and a variety of concerns.

Are there examples of everyday activities? everyday life? Are peoples' real concerns expressed?

Or is the interpretation romanticized?
Are group members always shown engaged in the same activity?
e.g. Greek men dancing, African-Americans eating watermelon.
Are cultural props used to define a person as a member of a cultural group?
e.g. banjos, watermelon, feathers and tomahawks
Is the focus on events or concerns perceived to be important by people outside a culture, neglecting the totality of the culture? e.g. festivals, centers where certain activities are performed for tourists
TRIVIALIZATION

In the past, some people thought there was a scale of development from 'primitive' to civilized'. This is one form of racism that is often found in historical materials. The culture of indigenous or enslaved peoples was compared inappropriately to other cultures.

Are all cultures represented as valid and worthwhile? Or is one group represented as superior, more 'civilized' and more worthy?
Is the complexity and uniqueness of societies acknowledged? Or do phrases trivialize or misinterpret?
e.g. 'simple'
PORTRAYAL OF PROBLEMS

Is a diversity of attitudes, roles and achievements reflected? Or is the theme an overused one, emphasizing 'problems'? e.g. victims of prejudice, 'outsiders'.

INACCURACY

Are genuine insights given? Or are there inaccuracies and inappropriate information?

Does the material acknowledge that people have lived on the American Continent for thousands of years? Or does the material perpetuate the concept of 'terra nullis', ignoring prior occupancy? e.g. 'a vast and empty land', 'Christopher Columbus discovered America', 'explorers 'discovering' unused land'
Is the material accurate? Or are there inaccuracies?
Are terms used by the group? e.g. Inuit Or are incorrect terms used? e.g. Eskimo
EXCLUSION

Some materials about a group are often merely histories of the country of origin.

Are groups within a country depicted as people with a unique culture? e.g. Chinese-American

Or are people presented as representatives of their country of origin? e.g. Chinese
Or are terms used such as migrant / ethnic?
Does the term American refer only to people of Anglo descent, excluding others?
e.g. Indians and Americans were present.
Does the resource imply the desirability of assimilating people?
DEROGATORY LANGUAGE

Labels were historically applied to groups, that are now universally inappropriate.

'Comical' names have been given to certain (not the dominating) groups. e.g. Oompah Loompahs

Adjectives have been used that are inaccurate and inappropriate.
e.g. treacherous savages and brave settlers, hostile, primitive, superstitious, strange, quaint

Value laden, misleading or emotionally charged terms have been used.
e.g. tribe for people, nation or group, peasants for farmers or villagers

ATTITUDES TO LANGUAGES

Are dialects and other forms of English accepted as valid, living variants?

Written correctly; authentic; appropriate?

Or are they viewed as negative or inferior? poorly written or imitated?

DATE OF PUBLICATION

It is very important to note the date of publication, the period of collection and cataloging, and to consider the knowledge, attitudes and values that were held at the time of writing or production.


Originally adapted by Maggie Roche from J. McIntosh Taking stock; Assessing materials for cultural bias. Multicultural education Centre. NSW Department of Education, 1984. Readapted by Jeanette Morgan for use with the Digital Library of Georgia's collections with permission from the Neutral Bay Public School May Gibbs' Memorial Library.

Original document created February 27th, 2001 for The May Gibbs Memorial Library, Neutral Bay Public School, New South Wales, Australia.
Updated with permission for The Digital Library of Georgia, University of Georgia, June 30th, 2003.