Despite improvements to their content over time, secondary school history textbooks still imply that Australians are white.

Textbook depictions of Australianness are not only relevant to experiences of national belonging or exclusion. Research has shown that students who aren’t represented in textbooks perform worse academically.

My PhD research analysed portrayals of Australianness in secondary school history textbooks from 1950 to 2010.

This time frame covers a period of significant social change in Australia, symbolised by the transition from the White Australia era of the 1950s and 1960s, to multiculturalism, which has existed since. Textbooks reflect these broad social changes.

1950s and 1960s – a celebratory narrative

Textbooks published in the White Australia era openly taught a celebratory version of history in which Aborigines were either absent or derided.

White people were portrayed as the developers of the nation. This can be seen in the following extract from the preface of A Junior History of Australia by A. L. Meston, published in 1950:

The object of this little book is to tell the wonderful story of our own country. Fewer than one hundred and fifty years ago no white man lived in our land. In so short a space of time by the pluck, hard work, and energy of our grandmothers and grandfathers, and of our mothers and fathers, a splendid heritage has been handed down to us.

This extract assumes the reader is white. Aboriginal students are overlooked. Similarly, Aboriginal contributions to each and every stage of national development are ignored.

Aborigines are only mentioned occasionally in textbooks from this era. When Aborigines are included, the portrayals are usually negative, as shown in the drawing below.

The caption from this image endorses the derisive perception of Aborigines reported by English explorer William Dampier, who first visited north-western Australia in the late 17th century.

This image from a textbook published in 1950 was titled ‘One of Dampier’s miserablest people’. A Junior History by A L Meston

Has anything changed since the 1960s?

The White Australia Policy was replaced by multiculturalism in the 1970s.

Subsequent changes to textbooks reflected this broader social change: Aborigines and non-white immigrants featured more prominently and were portrayed more respectfully.

For example, most history textbooks published from the 1970s onwards have an initial chapter on pre- and/or post-colonial Aboriginal life and a later chapter on post-war immigrants.

Despite improvements such as these, history textbooks still imply that Australians are white. This occurs due to inconsistencies between what is written (the explicit content) and the underlying messages or meanings (the implicit content).

For example, initial chapters that discuss Aboriginal life prior to colonisation are followed by others on European “discovery” and “exploration”, which imply that the continent was vacant and unknown prior to the arrival of Europeans.

There are also inconsistencies in who is considered Australian. Aborigines are named as Australian in initial chapters on Aboriginal life. However, this description of Aborigines as Australian is contradicted by the exclusion of Aborigines from notions of Australianness in the remainder of the text.

The main narrative describes the experiences of white Australians in various eras such as the gold rushes, Federation, the Depression and the world wars. This implies that Australian history is white history and that Australians are white. By excluding Aborigines from these sections, whites are framed as normative or “real” Australians.

21st-century textbooks

Current textbooks show further, albeit, minor improvements compared to those published in the latter decades of the 20th century. For example, Europeans are portrayed as arriving in Australia, rather than “discovering” it.

Another improvement is that references to Aboriginality are no longer restricted to the initial “Aboriginal” chapter. However, Aborigines appear only momentarily in the main narrative. When contrasted with the detailed coverage of white experiences, the cursory treatment of Aborigines implies that Australian history is the story of white Australians.

This pattern is evident in chapters on the gold rushes. The painting below frequently appears in these chapters in textbooks published in the 2000s. This painting, which depicts white people searching for gold, represents the overall focus of these chapters on white people. Aborigines are absent.

‘An Australian gold diggings’ Edwin Stocqueler c.1855. Wikipedia

Representations of Aboriginality in these chapters are limited to a throwaway line on the impact of the gold rushes on Aborigines, with no mention of Aboriginal responses.

Some 21st-century textbooks also include fleeting references to Aboriginality in chapters on national identity.

Descriptions of nationalism in these texts often include a section on late 19th-century Australian art. This section typically cover iconic artists such as Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin.

However, some textbooks published this century also include an example of Aboriginal art in this section, typically William Barak’s painting “Figures in possum skin cloaks”.

Figures in possum skin cloaks’ William Barak c.1898. National Gallery of Victoria

Who’s responsible for textbook content?

According to the Australian Constitution, responsibility for school education resides with the states rather than the federal government.

The first steps in the development of a national curriculum were taken in the 1980s. However, it wasn’t until the development of a national curriculum in 2013 that textbooks began to be marketed on the basis of meeting curriculum guidelines.

The cross-curricular priorities in the current version of the Australian curriculum state that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students should be able to see themselves, their identities and their cultures reflected in the curriculum. This is supported by research which shows that embedding Aboriginal perspectives within the curriculum improves educational outcomes.

Australian history textbooks have made considerable progress towards presenting more inclusive and balanced narratives. However, this progress has stalled. My research shows that Australian history textbooks continue to portray Australians as white. Further work is needed to ensure textbooks adequately represent all Australians.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.