Why are some Australians still fighting for the right to produce, sell, or own the Golliwog doll if it has become such a controversial symbol?
“These dolls have got a very honourable past and I don’t think it’s fair to inflict any sick connotations of racism onto something that’s got nothing to do with racism… People need to get a grip, it’s a doll.”
– Jan Johnco, National Sales Manager at Elka, the Australian soft toy manufacturer
Although the doll has been gradually removed from shops in the U.S., Europe, and the U.K., it is still being sold in many shops all across Australia, mostly to older, nostalgic baby-boomers who are missing the toys that they grew up loving. It’s even showing up in hot air balloon form, and criticised for being banned from the Canberra festival last month.
For a large community around the world, however, the Golliwog is more than just a doll. So, what exactly is a Golliwog, later Golliwog (without last “g”), where does the word come from, and why is this cuddly toy so divisive?
The creator of the Golliwog doll, Florence Kate Upton, was born in 1873 in New York to British parents during a time in U.S. history when minstrel shows were still rising in popularity. Early minstrel shows in New York allowed white performers to paint themselves black and don primitive, exaggerated African American features, now known as Black Face. With augmented noses, lips painted red and other features protruding, dressing up as poor and representing a caricature of an African American, these shows dehumanized and have perpetuated a negative, racial stereotype of Black Americans.
In 1887, Upton moved back to England where she illustrated a children’s book, “The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg.” The Golliwogg in her story was depicted with the same exaggerated features that were popular in the minstrel shows back in New York, and was described as “a horrid sight, the blackest gnome,” that made the other dolls “scatter in fright.”
A similar racist, fictional character and childhood tradition was also created for children’s books in The Netherlands. Zwarte Pete, or “Black Pete,” and was said to have been inspired by a slave from Egypt who was brought to the Netherlands during the slave trade. This character was also designed with an exaggerated and insulting appearance said to have been influenced by the “Blackface” minstrel shows in the U.S.
While Black Pete remained mostly a Dutch tradition, interest in the Golliwog doll began to grow outside of the U.K. The image soon made its way around the world in various forms of childrens toys, advertisements, perfumes, and even mascots. During the civil rights movement in the U.S., the backlash and criticism of the Golliwog spilled over back to the U.K., as the blackface doll symbolised racial insensitivity toward people of African descent and a mockery of Black people during and after slavery.
If all of that isn’t reason enough to justify removing the doll from shops to avoid passing along this overt form of racial parody and disregard to younger generations, the word itself should at least spark some discussion in the diverse community that makes up Australia today.
In the early 1900s when the Golliwogg doll became popular in Britain, so did the shortened version of the word, “wog,” an offensive racial slur that referred to people who were dark-skinned. Years later the term was carried over to Australia during the nation’s White Australia Policy and was also used as a racial slur. In Australia however, the word “wog” referred to those who immigrated from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean, especially large groups from Greece and Italy, and in some cases, anyone darker than the average White Australian. While some present day Mediterranean communities in Australia now wear this title almost with a sense of pride, the term in Britain still remains undeniably offensive and is considered on-par with the n-word in the U.S.
Some people also theorise that the term “golliwog” actually originated from the Working On Government Service (WOGS) laborers in 19th century Egypt who were supposedly referred to as “ghouls” by the British soldiers. The Egyptian laborers’ children played with black cloth dolls that they often gave to the soldiers who called them “ghuliwogs.” This theory, however widely believed and circulated, is still unproven.
The term “wog” may be thrown around playfully in some circles, and some may not be completely aware of its origin, but others continue to feel attacked by its use and consider it casual racism, and it is evident the term still carries a negative connotation. With the large number of Australians who have Mediterranean, Eastern European or Middle Eastern backgrounds, continuous support of Golliwogs by the White community adds fuel to the racial flame and only creates further division.
The First Nations People of Australia also find offence to the black doll with exaggerated features that mock a historically disadvantaged population. It is a reminder that years ago while White Australians, Americans, or Brits enjoyed and normalised their racist dolls, the affected minority populations such as Black or Indigenous were systematically oppressed, and in many cases still are.
Whether the racism is intentional or not, by keeping the dolls or other Golliwog images publicly visible in a shop or gallery, it is still offensive. What matters here is not the intent, but the effect it has on Black and Indigenous People of Colour. By collecting them or making them available simply because it’s a fond memory of the past does not make the racial offensiveness of them disappear. People are voicing their concern and disappointment, yet the dolls are still there.
As a Black and Indigenous Person of Colour, do you find offence in seeing the Golliwog in shop windows, at festivals, or in art events? Why or why not?
Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Facebook page.
Coming from our blog last year about “10 signs you might be a casual racist” we have designed some easy to use step-by-step infographics you can use and share around. Here is part 1 of the new visual series:
Episode #1: “I’m not racist, but…”