Golliwog – If you don’t know, you don’t know

posted by Dan Sanders, co-Director of Edjitraining

I wonder how long it will be before I can say how offended I am by golliwogs and not feel that I have to half apologise and put it down to ‘If you don’t know, you don’t know’. Of course sometimes it’s hard to see what is wrong with something until someone makes it obvious for us. So this is my attempt to make it obvious so people do know and don’t feel such a compulsion to defend the golliwog as if defending a human right.

I know that many see it as just a toy that nostalgically takes them back to their childhood but for some of us those childhood memories it stirs up aren’t all that pleasant. People often tell me that they did not make the link between golliwogs and Black people when they were younger, I knew a lot who did. The kids who said the golly must be my brother or those who stuck golliwog stickers on my lunchbox, and that’s before getting to the nicknames. I have to add that dropping the wog from its name does nothing to reduce how it made/makes me feel. Call it Jim and that would be the word that evokes an ugliness linked to my skin colour.

So is it just about me and my personal baggage, experiences that have blighted my view of a perfectly innocent toy enjoyed by so many? Well there are the experiences of tons of other Black people, who like me see the golliwog as a symbol of how Black people have and are at times seen by society.

It’s not just about perceptions though, it’s about its origins, the reason it is in our lives. Most sources place Florence Upton as the creator of the golliwog which she based on Black minstrels or Black slaves who performed for their masters. This was later transformed into an ironic performance by Black acts that mocked popular stereotypes of the happy, dancing, unintelligent slave. Further ironically this was later adopted by blacked up white performers in the black and white minstrels show. So, the idea that anything that reminds people of slavery and racist stereotypes can be ‘just a toy’ is maybe as ridiculous as the idea that I should apologise for being offended by it.

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