Tag Archives: stereotypes

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.


Why am I this and not that?

A favourite joke of mine is Emo Phillips’ discussion of divisions. This must apply to every group that’s ever been…

I was walking across a bridge one day when I saw a man standing on the edge about to jump. So I ran over – “Stop! Don’t do it, there’s so much to live for” I pleaded.  “Like what?” he said.  “Well, are you religious or atheist?”  “Religious,” he said. “Me too! Are you Christian, Jewish, Muslim…?”  “Christian,” he said. “Me too! Protestant or Catholic?”  “Protestant,” he said. “Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”   “Baptist,” he said.  “Wow, me too! Are you Baptist church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?” “Baptist Church of God” he said. “Me too! Are you original Baptist Church of God or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?”  “Reformed Baptist Church of God!” he said. “Me too! Amazing! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?”  He said, ” Reformation of 1915.”  So I said  “Die, heretic scum!” and  pushed him off the bridge.

Whilst it is clearly the case that we define ourselves partly by what we are not (“I never read the Murdoch press”,  “I wouldn’t support Man U if you paid me” etc etc), this can appear ludicrous. I’ve often felt that our constructed tribal loyalties, now that they have little to do with survival, are expressions of an emptiness in our sense of identity.

As educators are we not sometimes culpable of reinforcing these divisions. When we thoughtlessly teach about “different cultures” and emphasise the differences before exploring what is similar, we are chipping away at our common humanity. The consequence of this is to create barriers to empathy, the impulse to understand what it means to stand in someone else’s shoes.

I appreciate Malcolm X had a different perspective – in the heat of the Civil Rights movement he sought to emphasise not the common humanity espoused by Martin Luther King, but the separateness of races. But I wonder whether he would remain of that view today… there is far greater genetic variation (about 94%)within so-called racial groups than between conventional racial groupings (about 6%).

As Gary Younge succinctly put it in his marvellous book Who are we …“In short, we are much more alike than we are unalike.” So do we really need to spend so much defining ourselves by what we are not?

Miserable but safe…We can do better by our children

The  joke, usually with Jewish mother as protagonist, goes something like this…

Mother and child on the beach. “Put on your hat…Let me put on more suncream on your arms…and legs…Watch out for the hot sand…But don’t catch a chill…Come here…Now! Look,you nearly fell in the sea…not with that boy, he’s dirty…The sun’s too hot, come under the shade…Cover yourself…not like that, like this…Now go and play”

 “Oi”, she observes to her beach neighbour as her son totters away, “such a nervous child!”

  • Elf ‘n safety

Are we not doing something similar to our children as we watch anxiously over them and determine with iron certainty what is or isn’t good for them? Two apparently unrelated articles in the Guardian caught my eye.  Both go to the question about what it is appropriate for children to contemplate in educational settings. What is it ok to teach about and what is beyond the pale?

 In Tim Gill’s article “The end of zero risk in childhood”   he cites the  head of the Health and Safety Executive, Judith Hackitt :

the creeping culture of risk aversion puts at risk children’s preparation for adult life“.

A combination of factors – including sensationalist reporting, cowering or lazy teachers, bureaucrats, short term political vision together with Americanisation of our legal practice and insurance companies in on the act – all have led to a  “health and safety culture”. But in the UK understandable concerns about children’s wellbeing have been taken up to and beyond their logical conclusion. Now we are at the point where there is zero tolerance of risk. Hence Judith Hackitt’s remarks.

As Tim Gill reports, we do children no favours by bubble wrapping them so they do not encounter risk. This does not prepare them for anything. Treating children as “irredeemably stupid, as fragile as china plates, and utterly unable to learn from their mistakes” does not protect them; it leaves them vulnerable and ill prepared for assessing risk, which is after all, a daily fact of life.

In a UNICEF 2007 comparative survey of OECD countries measuring children’s wellbeing, UK children came second to last in terms of subjective well being, but did moderately well in “health and safety”. In other words our children are miserable, but pretty safe!

  • Same sex relationships – what’s the problem?

Then there was the report of the Billy Elliot writer, Lee Hall, who has spent the last year working on a community in Bridlington involving 400 people of all ages. Sounds like a great project. One of the characters is gay. As a consequence, one of the Primary schools has withdrawn their support, notwithstanding efforts to conciliate.

What is the fear? Really, what is the problem? Same sex relationships are a part of our society. Not only are they within the law, Equalities legislation dictates that no discrimination should be suffered by anyone because of their sexuality. I have noticed, as I support schools in implementing Global Citizenship, that dealing with same sex relationships is particularly challenging for some adults, who think it is an inappropriate topic to be discussing with children, especially young ones.

But when we dig a little deeper, the primary concern is that same sex relationships are confused, in the minds of those who find this subject distateful, with sex. Why does that misconception persist? Surely teachers would no more discuss sex between same sex couples as between heterosexuals. The teaching issue is simply about the diversity of loving relationships that exist in every town and probably village in the country. Whether or not individual teachers engage in same sex relationships is not the question. Children will not become infected by discussion of relationships – they merely become more aware. It may even help them stop using “gay” as a derogatory term. It certainly will raise the esteem of those children, who through no active choice of their own, are gay. And isn’t it our duty to enable all the children in our charge to flourish? How can we achieve that if we do not allow children to feel a sense of self worth?

  • Pupils’ concerns

As I’ve said before, pupils have questions and concerns. They are by nature curious. We do them a disservice if we silence or stifle their innate curiosity or fail to answer their questions, however crass they may appear. Sweeping difficult or contested issues under the carpet does not make them disappear…they resurface as inevitably as prejudice follows ignorance.

Children are so much more than merely vulnerable dependents. So have the courage to let your pupils explore and take risks, ask difficult questions and be prepared to tackle those discussions with an openness and honesty that models acceptance of our diverse community.

Please let me know what you think.

Global Citizenship – first principles for educators

Supporting schools seeking to promote Global Citizenship, both in the curriculum and as a whole school ethos, we’ve found that the following issues are key to success.

  • Promote critical thinking

Whether through P4C (Philosophy for children) or simply asking open ended questions to penetrate superficial ideas, critical thinking is the bedrock of any profound learning. I’ve always thought it’s hard to be racist if you employ critical thinking, especially if you practice it from a very young age. So  key questions in response to any opinion might be “What is your evidence for that?”  or“Can you think of any counter example?”

  • Challenge assumed knowledge and notions of what is normal

After all, what is normal? We tend to assume that our own world view is the default option. Consider the maps of the world that you probably have on display -The Mercator projection. It may have pictures on it. It’s got Europe slap bang in the middle, much bigger in comparison to, say, Africa than in reality. But have you tried displaying a map that has the Pacific at its centre, or the Arctic circle, or the Peter’s projection with South Africa at the top? These are just as valid world views…Imagine what the implications are for your own view of the world, or any given topic.

  • Recognise and challenge stereotypes

Obviously try to avoid “all” or “always” when describing a group of people. Try invariably to show a balance of images or objects if you are exploring distant localities, for example. Yes, there is abject poverty in parts of Africa, but do you routinely show the airports, hospitals, science labs, state of the art football stadia etc etc.? When you show pictures of Islam, do you show Nicolas Anelka as well as a bearded imam?

  • Represent diversity in our society

Check out, just as an example, any advert for an HE college from your local paper. Who is missing? Try this with a brochure for the National Trust. There is always a discussion to be had about tokenism, but consider whether you would want to see yourself represented, and apply that thinking as widely as possible. Now look at your displays, school council, governors…Who is represented and who’s missing?

  • Link local and global issues

Start simply with this – Find first the connections between you and the person depicted in the picture, for example. Seeek similarities before differences. This can be with younger children the fact we have hair, or skin or that we breathe the same air. When you use objects to explore this (a mobile phone or T-shirt), it’s not long before you could be exploring questions of conditions of manufacture, water footprint, trade inequality -real, interesting for your pupils and directly relevant to their future. This leads directly to more purposeful writing too…

  • Move beyond recycling and walk to school

Schools are increasingly addressing sustainability issues, especially in this UN decade of education for sustainable development. But we really need to up our game … If climate change is the real challenge for coming generations, shouldn’t we be teaching and learning much more meaningfully about how to live in a sustainable manner? More about this for another post I think.

Thanks as ever to my brilliant colleagues, Mary Young (@maryatedji) and Dan Sanders for their ideas, which I shamelessly use. Please let me know your views, so we can debate and add them…