Sadomasicism isn’t really my thing. My love boat doesn’t float better on a mixed tide of pleasure and pain. That said, I’ve recently found myself doing some social media S&M; or to put it another way, reading the comments under race-related Facebook posts. Ever tried? It’s curious how ignorant, vile and downright racist people can be from behind an amiable profile image.
Recently Huffington Post UK posted a series of images, curated to produce a reaction – and a reaction they got. Some intern had been told to search the internet for politically incorrect Halloween costumes, a few of which they posted every day in the run up to the holiday. One of these costumes was a golliwog.
I clicked on the picture’s comments button expecting to read mass-objection. Instead I found myself wondering whether I’d gone back thirty years. There were a few exceptions, but the strongest reoccurring theme could be paraphrased:
“Why is this offensive? It’s a doll of a black person. If I saw a Barbie costume I wouldn’t be offended. [black] People need to get a sense of humour.”
I thought about posting a knee-jerk reaction on the trail, but then, remembering I have a blog, decided to write a post instead. So it is to these ‘special’ people that I address this post:
By your apparent inability to understand my negativity towards the costume and doll, I’m guessing you probably don’t do too well on hypothetical instance and empathy. So to make this easier for you, I’m going to present hypothetical imagery that involves people of your skin colour, perhaps reducing the strain on your empathy gland and hopefully allowing you a small insight into my sentiments. (No, there’s no need to google it. I made up the empathy gland thing.)
So firstly, let me make one thing clear: A golliwog is nothing like a Barbie doll. Although Barbie has picked up a few negative connotations in recent decades, I don’t think I’ve ever heard her name widely used as a racist slur. And even now, with her negative press, a proportion (albeit an ever decreasing proportion) of the world’s population still aspire to look a little like Barbie. I haven’t come across any black men who hope one day to look like a golliwog.
So with that in mind, I think instead of Barbie, a more helpful comparison would be to imagine Robert Mugabe creating a doll of a white farmer clutching a suitcase and passport. Strong, but no, this doesn’t cut it, because although we have a doll that echoes back to a time of racist discrimination, we still don’t have the discriminator’s negative, stereotype-based aesthetic. So let’s say Mugabe’s white farmer doll has the suitcase, passport and, in protest, is exposing his very small penis. Getting closer to why I hate the ‘wog’. We have the stereotypical body image, the racist discrimination, but we’re still not quite there.
You see some would say the original golliwog wasn’t designed to offend, but was merely a fictional character created for 19th century children’s literature. The same people would say it was appropriated by racists, who used its look and name as a slur against black people. So for the sake of argument, let’s say they’re right – although I’m not entirely sure it’s that simplistic.
Okay, so let’s then assume our suitcase and passport clutching doll was created to commemorate the Poms’ mass emigration to Australia in the middle of the last century. Let’s also get rid of the small penis and exchange it for a snow white skin colour and blue lips to denote the contrast between the Aussie and British climates. And let’s say that in circa 2001 one of Mugabe’s trusted PAs happens upon the doll whilst searching online for halloween costumes. And said PA then brings the doll to the attention of Mr M, who orders a ship load and gives them out to his people.
So imagining you’re a white Zimbabwean farmer and someone brings out one of these dolls in front of you or dresses up as one, would you think they’re insensitive, offensive or upsetting? To someone who easily forgets historical context and is a little two-dimensional in their thinking, it would appear to be just a doll of a very pale white skinned person clutching cases. ‘Get a sense of humour!’ they’d say.
Let’s now imagine that the lovely people in branding at the Sydney Harbour Doll Company decided to call our doll Giles. And you, the white ex-landowner, decades later were going about your business, and black people started referring to you as Giles or Gil. ‘Oi Gil!’ They’d shout as you walked across the road. Although I doubt the word ‘oi’ features heavily in Zimbabwean parlance. Would the name upset you?
This get’s close to how I feel about that jet black, wide eyed and thick lipped doll, you feel is somehow misunderstood. My Aussie doll is fantasy. The memory of being called a wog, however is very real to very many black people. A huge swathe of the golliwog’s popularity, converges a time in British history, when it wasn’t uncommon to see landlord signs that read, ‘No Irish, no dogs, no blacks’. This was when the doll was being used to market jam and sweets – when its ugliness pervaded black and white television screens in the guise of its not so distant cousin, the Minstrels. Back then racists had already made the connection and were already spreading their insidious joke.
As a child in eighties’ London, I could still see the little black doll on jam jars in supermarkets (Not my home. My mother didn’t buy them). And wog was still one of the top racist slurs of choice. Even now in 2013, some three decades later, footballers in far flung parts of civilised Europe still hear the name spat at them from the terraces, but you can’t get why it might be offensive? Really?
Personally speaking (and that’s all I can do – is speak for me) it isn’t so much its look, after all I don’t look in the mirror and see anything remotely resembling it. It isn’t even what the doll was used to achieve. I don’t get upset by monkeys or bananas or any other imagery that was appropriated to put us down. What troubles me is what it represents – not a time of name calling, but a time when the opinion of a black person had no currency. A time when no one bothered to check how we felt. A time when a white man could ‘black-up’, paint on thick lips, sing on stage mimicking a black singer and no one batted an eyelid. It was completely acceptable. That’s why I loathe the golliwog, wog, golly or whatever else you affectionately wish to call it.
If you wrote the kind of comments that this post is a reaction to, you will have probably stopped reading ages ago, writing me off as another black guy without a sense of humour. But maybe, just maybe one of you might have kept reading and perhaps might now get it. And if you’ve read all the way to this line and still feel there’s nothing wrong with the doll or a full size halloween costume for sale in 2013 on Amazon, then there isn’t much more I can do.