Dec 5, 2013

The Golliwog is back (and still racist)

The Golliwog in a minstrel show

It's back. Scandal stalks the Golliwog. Its perpetual return is always greeted with a customary defence and the pattern repeats itself every few years. Today it was Sean Plunket's turn on the stump:

If you can't stomach it, the short version is this: a series of justifications are offered including "it is a doll", where’s the "injustice" in a doll and "we" live in a "massively" tolerant and colourblind society.

He might be right on the last point, though. But only if "we" means people of the same race and gender as Plunket. It's not right if "we" means people like Plunket and people on the margins too, the same people that the Golliwog is a caricature of.

The Golliwog’s return isn't about people of colour reappropriating a caricature. It's about white adults reclaiming the racism of their childhood. Yet the primary problem isn’t that some New Zealanders are nostalgic for the racism of yonder, but that a new generation will be brought up on the myth that the Golliwog is a cultural artifact and a childhood tradition. Generations of children have been socialised into race-relations off of the back of the Golliwog. But the reality is that the Golliwog is a form of historical and contemporary trauma.

People who want to revive the Golliwog probably don’t want to perpetuate racism. But the two can’t be divorced. The Golliwog is to playtime what blackface is to performance. They’re caricatures that are interwoven with the violent oppression of people of colour. The Golliwog was used to reinforce stereotypes about black appearance and character. The wild eyes and hair spoke to black appearance, but the real message was that blacks were wanton. The big lips represented black appearance too, but the outlandish redness reinforced the stereotype that blacks were hyper-sexualised.

The Golliwog is the politics of oppression manifest. Indoctrinating young people with caricatures of people of colour made justifications for and acts of oppression easier. That's partly why it's a false comparison to compare the Golliwog against GI Joe or caricatures of white peoples (like Plunket did). The context above puts a lie to that comparison. But the fact that some people don't get that means the Golliwog isn’t dead and buried yet.

Post script: for context, there's been comment recently on the prominence of Golliwogs in Canterbury. But what sparked the Plunket interview was the sale of Golliwogs in an Invercargill shop. Golliwogs are still sold in other parts of New Zealand too. I know of a children's store in Hamilton that was selling Golliwogs this year (and probably still does). 


  1. Love your stuff Morgan. This is great. Once I was in Kirks when it sold golliwogs and that Nina Simone song came on, 'to be young, gifted and black'. SOB/LOL

    1. Hi! And thanks! That would've been a moment. (ps please come back to Twitter soon. We miss you).

    2. Thank you :) First comment on here from a long time lurker lol.

  2. In a word Morgan - upsetting.

  3. The only part I disagree with is: "People who want to revive the Golliwog probably don’t want to perpetuate racism". In this day and age when so many other, less problematic toys & dolls are available, I'm cynical enough to think that anyone buying their child one of these dolls is deliberately being reactionary & provocative. Their kid wants Elmo, not some 80 yr olds' childhood. Anyone buying it is doing it to make a statement, IMO.
    Great article, Morgan.

  4. Lord Francis SausageDecember 5, 2013 at 9:03 PM

    I haven't listened to Sean Plunkett since he left Radio NZ. It's very strange to hear Plunkett, after aggressively badgering politicians etc, to be aggressively playing devil's advocate for the promotion of the golliwog. It was also disappointing to hear him being very rude at times to Camille Nakhid. If this is typical of Plunkett's talk back schtick, then I really do wonder how the guy can go home each day and feel good about himself. Is getting a bit of a sleep in really worth this Sean?

    The arguments Plunkett put up were generally horrid. However Plunkett does have a point (a rather obtuse one) that some people love the golliwog dolls and don't (and of course some won't) see the context and history of the doll. I do know of a Maori/Pacific Island parent who likes the golliwog doll and gave one to their child. In an instance like this, does this transcend the origin of the golliwog and give it a new context? I don't know and it would inappropriate for me to say either way, but situations like this makes the issue a little bit more complicated.

  5. @LFSausage. The fact that some people use these dolls unaware of the racist symbolism doesn't mean they don't carry any racist symbolism. I would take a more patient approach with such people than with individuals like Sean Plunkett who defend them while being fully aware of the racist charge they carry (e.g. his argument that anti-Irish jokes are not offensive to him, therefore you shouldn't take offence at racist caricatures). So you make them aware of the racist symbolism they contain, and then ask them, Do you still want to train your child in these racist stereotypes? Would you be happy if they started calling people 'wogs'?

    This Youtube of blackface 'humour' (especially video #2, the Stump Speech) would have been aired at the very time when Blacks in the US were engaged in a real fight to overcome racist impediments to their right to vote and stand for public office, including impediments such as lynchings and bombings.

    Watch this and ask Sean Plunkett: Just a bit of harmless fun?

  6. I'm a European who grew up in a house that had a golliwog lying around. When I was a child I thought of it as a toy. When I reached my teens I saw it for what it was, and is, the product of the worst kind of racism. It's revival is, by definition, a perpetuation and casualization of that racism.

    The current debate seems to be beset by a couple of massive logical errors.

    1. The first is the way the media keep pitching it e.g. "to some people it's a childhood toy; to others it's a symbol of racism." This is a glaring false dichotomy. It is not one or the other of these things. It is both. It is a racist childhood toy. Now rightly ejected by anti-racists, and sadly still embraced by unreconstructed racists.

    2. The debate about golliwogs is not a question of "Free Speech vs Political Correctness." Another false dichotomy, and a total misdirection. There is no 'matter of opinion' over whether the golliwog is offensive or not. It is an incontestable fact that it's hugely offensive to a massive proportion of world society, especially those of African decent. And also offensive to anyone of any colour who has an ounce of empathy in their veins. This is not about Free Speech at all. Nor Political Correctness. It's about white racists believing their right to offend black people ranks higher than the right of black people to feel offended by racism.

    3. There is no white equivalent anywhere in the world that can be held up as a balancing white equivalent of the golliwog. But I can think of a hypothetical one. I call it "Gassyjew Doll". Gassyjew is an ugly parody of a jewish concentration camp victim on his or her way to the gas chamber. An emaciated doll in concentration camp rags, with no hair covered in cuts and bruises. If such a disgusting, depraved and offensive doll existed, it could be held up as a white counterpart to the golliwog. But it doesn't exist. Because no one in their right mind would ever think such a thing acceptable.

    For some reason however, people who claim to be in their right minds seem to think it's acceptable to own and/or sell dolls that celebrate and normalise the holocaust and oppression that led to the emergence of the golliwog. Those people are, quite simply, and unequivocally, racist.

    Full stop.

    Jules Brown



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