Golliwogs: how are they still a thing?

Crystal Coelho explores the racist reality of a childhood toy

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The Golliwog doll is an infamous symbol of racism in Australia and around the world. That’s why Sydney University student, Jonathan Zaharias, was shocked to spot several proudly displayed in a toy store in the Queen Victoria Building whilst shopping with his girlfriend last week.

“We were both very surprised that they still exist!” Zaharias said.

He began an online petition asking the ironically-named “Just White Toys” store to remove the dolls, which was then shared by Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi and has ultimately been successful in getting the dolls taken down. But alongside hundreds of heartfelt messages received in support, there was the expected outrage from (mostly) white Australians defending the dolls as a nostalgic symbol of their childhoods, and claiming that the petition signalled political correctness gone mad.

Zaharias told Honi, “A lot of people didn’t really understand, saying ‘I had a golliwog when I was a kid, what’s the big deal, I’m not racist’ …but that’s very small compared to the number of people that are disgusted, outraged, and surprised that this is still happening… A lot of people thought this conversation had been had very long ago.”

“White people think racism is this thing of the past, so they have a doll like this from their childhood, or buy it nowadays, and think ‘Oh, how funny and racist things were’, but are not acknowledging the fact that it’s actually still an ongoing issue,” says Georgia Mantle, Indigenous Office Bearer at the University of Sydney.

Why is it so hard for white people to grasp that during their happy racism-free childhoods, Indigenous Australians and people of colour endured oppression every day? White Australians accept and normalise racism all the time, because they like to think that it is no longer an issue. White Australians believe that ‘nostalgic throwbacks’ to the good old racist days are acceptable because they kid themselves that we have moved beyond such racism and that we live in a post-racial society where golliwogs should be viewed as a product of their times, rather than a racist symbol that continues to enforce racial stereotypes and uphold racism.

The recurring defence of these dolls seems to be that they are simply dolls with dark skin. The problem, however, is that dolls with dark skin and golliwog dolls are not interchangeable, and it should be painfully obvious why – golliwogs are grotesque stereotypes of Black people.

“Yes, we do want black dolls, but the actual golliwog symbolises a clown,” Juanita Sherwood, the Director of the National Centre for Cultural Competence (NCCC), explains.

“They [Golliwogs] are not an innocent symbol for those who’ve been oppressed, who’ve inter-generationally had to pay the implications for this innocent little symbol,” Sherwood says.

Mantle agrees, saying “You should definitely have black dolls, you should have dolls that represent all races, but this is very in line with stereotypes of black face, of minstrel shows, of America during the slave trade times.”

The golliwog has appeared in children’s literature time and again over the last 150 years, representing people of colour in numerous, often contradictory, but always negative and distorted ways. From Florence Upton to Enid Blyton to Agatha Christie, golliwogs would steal, harm, and terrorise their white counterparts, or else act as their personal slaves. In one Enid Blyton book, The Three Golliwogs, the golliwogs sing their favourite song, ‘Ten Little Niggers’, which celebrates the deaths of ten black children. Portrayed as stupid, incompetent, physically small and thus controllable, golliwogs are a caricature of the black and white minstrel performances of the 1850s, and rose to popularity around the same time as blackface – another hideously racist pastime that Australia can’t seem to leave in the past. Minstrel performances would ridicule POC, with performers wearing blackface, painted clown-like lips, and formal wear meant to mock African Americans by portraying them as incapable of imitating the ‘civility’ of white people. White audiences wouldn’t watch black performers unless they were also in blackface makeup – that is, making fun of themselves. Minstrel performances were very popular in Australia, and blackface has historically been used to similarly humiliate Indigenous Australians. In fact, the arrival of minstrel performances in Australia is listed on the Australian government’s website as a “highlight” of Australian theatre history.

As Indigenous X founder, Luke Pearson, told the Daily Mail back in 2013, “Golliwogs have fucking paws instead of hands and feet … they come from a time when human zoos were a part of reality – people would go to a zoo to see an African person.”

Over the years golliwogs have been used as children’s story characters, as a distinctive marketing logo, and as popular children’s toys before the offensive nature of this image led to its dwindling usage after the 1960s. The name became an insult comparable with the ugliest of racial slurs and has been used to harass various peoples of colour for many years. However, since then the dolls have continually been defended and are now considered something of a collector’s item.

In this particular instance, the store owner has stopped selling the golliwogs and the petition has served its purpose. Unfortunately, it is far from a standalone incident. A quick mention of the petition to a few friends revealed that golliwogs are still very much around.

Joel Davison, an Indigenous Sydneysider, recalls seeing golliwog dolls being sold at the Easter Show just last month.

At first I was surprised, though I quickly remembered the demographic that the Easter show appeals to and understood that I shouldn’t have expected more. There was still a feeling of disbelief though, it doesn’t seem like it should have any place in today’s society… Not only are they a shallow, degrading caricature steeped in racist history, but a lot of the justifications for selling or owning golliwogs are either racist or apathetic to racial issues.”

People could easily research why Golliwog dolls are problematic. Anybody who knows of the doll’s history cannot deny that it is an enduring symbol of racial oppression. The obvious conclusion is that people just don’t care. They don’t care that a doll makes people of colour feel uncomfortable and hated, and are happy to mock years of oppression if it brings them some mild pleasure. They don’t want to take the time to understand why something is racially insensitive – they’d much rather not change their behaviour and instead complain about PC culture and how the end of the world is nigh because white people cannot say whatever comes to their minds, no matter how rude, whenever they want.

“The most important thing [in being an ally] is listening. I haven’t been personally subjected to racism, but I can definitely listen to those who have,” says Zaharias. People of colour the world over have spoken out against these dolls – it’s time white Australians listened.