Friday, 5 January 2018

A Doll By Any Other Name

A 'story' on Stuff about the Escapade gift shop on Waiheke Island which sells Golliwog toys caught my eye today. 

The owner of the shop declined to give her full name so we only know her as Kat. 

Kat defended her decision to sell the $46 collectable toys firstly, on the grounds that society has become 'too PC', and secondly, that there is no reason for people to be offended given the toys are an "English talisman" and derive from "English chimney sweeps who were white people".

Now, we know that 'too PC' is rightwing code for ''I don't care if I offend people by what I say or do and my right to say and do it takes precedence over their feelings....'  so by using the phrase, Kat has located herself politically.

The second explanation / excuse would be funny if it didn’t have such an ugly history looming behind it. 

As anyone with the capability and time to engage in some basic research will discover, the original Golliwogg character was based on a doll that was based on a blackface minstrelsy character.  It, and the other blackface characters, were stereotypes of African Americans.

This is a fact. 

It is also a fact that for almost a century afterthe formal abolition of slavery in the USA, a brutal form of apartheid in some US states perpetuated the exploitation and oppression of back people. Similar situations existed domestically and in the colonies of European slave owning nations.

The role of negative racial stereotypes in this process cannot be ignored or sidelined. Attempts to sever negative racial stereotypes from their historical origins always serve a malign ideological agenda even if the person repeating the claims does not intend to do so. 

And then there’s logic.

Why would a doll that was based on an English chimney sweep or his sad little apprentices have tight curly black hair and be wearing the brightly coloured clothing of a mid 19th century 'dandy' as in Frances Upton’s original version of the Golliwogg? 

Why would other Golliwog dolls be dressed as blackface minstrelsy characters such as a field hand, a ‘black mammy', or a 'piccaninny’?

It's interesting that the defenders of the 'Black Peter' tradition in Holland also claim the reason the character has a black face and hands is because of the soot from the chimneys he goes down. 

If you are happy to ignore history and logic that might be a satisfactory explanation for the black face and hands but does not explain the Afro style wigs, the bright red lips or the pristine white and vivid colours of the costumes.

If people want to own or sell these toys they are free to do so but they should be honest and admit they just don't care that for some people the things are a direct link to, and symbol of a brutal racism that still impacts on the lives of people of colour today.

And they should not embarrass themselves - or their country - by repeating ludicrous stories about the genesis of the dolls in white English chimney sweeps, or in 'gûl' dolls owned by the children of people employed on the Suez Canal who wore uniforms stamped with the letters WOGS which stood for 'workers on government service'- or any other ideologically motivated, ahistorical claptrap.

Edit: My other comments on this issue can be found here, here and here.

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