Golliwogs - They're OK, Apparently

Note: Whilst this post was drafted well before the Golliwog-laden BBC/Carol Thatcher scandal I am, of course, very happy about the timing :-)

Over the past week* I've asked the question, "Gollywogs (stuffed toy), OK or not OK?" (my bad spelling was kindly overlooked by all, thank you). I asked using txt, on Facebook**, via Twitter and a few face-to-faces. The overall response was saddening to me.

But first, a little context as to why I asked the question ...

I was in a Smallfry, a Wellington kiddie toy shop (Upper Level, Capital Gateway, Thorndon Key) hoping to kill some time with the kids as we mooched around on a Sunday afternoon when I noticed a Golliwog or two for sale. "Christ, another one" I thought to myself thinking it was only the "venerated" Kirks (Kirkaldie & Stains, the Wellington version of Harrods but a little less grand in scale) that happily pushed this relic from a distant past. Somehow it's understandable (not acceptable) that Kirks has Golliwogs for sale as it panders to the pearl & twin-set affiliated members of the Khandallah gangs ;-)

But there it was again, in another kids shop, a Golliwog.

Having, some years before, stumbled across "The Golliwog Caricature," Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia by David Pilgrim, Ferris State University, Michigan and felt that I had had moved well passed the "it's just a cartoon character" and/or "there's nothing racist about a Golliwog" attitude that I think I never had. And me, in my typical, "Well I've read it, surely everyone else has" attitude to life assumed that we all knew that golliwogs were god awful and that no-one wanted them. I was wrong!

But first a little history - where did this character come from:
The "Golliwogg" (later "Golliwog") is a character of children's literature created by Florence Kate Upton in the late 19th century, inspired by a blackface minstrel doll which Upton found as a child in her aunt's attic in Hampstead, north London. The character, depicted in the books as a type of rag doll, was reproduced, both by commercial and hobby toy-makers as a children's toy. The toy was known as a "golliwog", and had great popularity in North America, Britain, Europe and Australasia, into the 1960s. While home-made golliwogs were sometimes female, the golliwog was generally male. For this reason, in the period following World War II, the golliwog was seen, along with the teddy bear, as a suitable soft toy for a young boy.

That's probably the first "shock" - the golliwog was invented in 1895 by an author for a book*** and was not some major handed-down, racist-inspired remnant from a dim and distant past.

Oh, and the term "wog" as used by those of a skinned head and swastika adorned personage is not related to golliwog:
It certainly does not. Wog is a word first recorded much later than golliwog, and its primary reference was to Arabs, not to black Americans or black Africans.

It was first spotted by a lexicographer, F.C. Bowen, who recorded it in 1929 in his Sea slang: a dictionary of the old-timers' expressions and epithets, where he defines wogs as "lower class Babu shipping clerks on the Indian coast".
(source: Telegraph.co.uk: 'Golliwog' is not connected with 'wog')

Enid Blyton came into play with some dodgy views/uses of the Golliwog character in the Noddy books but generally the character seemed "benign". I certainly don't believe any implication that jam can be racist! All done in "innocent times", all done in the "spirit of the time", all done "without intent" ... ok, I will accept that.

But there I was in a shop in 2008, in a modern city, in a middle class shop selling "high class" toys. Do we not think that this is inappropriate NOW?

I actually don't care that, "It didn't used to mean THAT Mike!" It does now!
I'm uninterested that, "The word has been changed from it's original meaning Mike!". Yes, it HAS changed!
I am concerned that thoughtful, caring and generally up with the times people around me have not noticed that it's not 1895! The response (representative of many) of, "Yes, Ok celebrates cultural diversity and serves as a historical artefact similar to rhino tusks, Symbol of another time." just doesn't seem to cut the mustard.

I know, change sucks and we'd all like it to be exactly how it was in our favourite time of our own childhood. Hell, I had my 40th birthday party themed to celebrate 1977 because, in my mind, it was exactly that, a time of no cares, long summers, best friends and the world of wonder at our fingertips. But 1977 I now know (looking back with wiser eyes) also had some shite going on ... I know this now but you couldn't have told me then.

Golliwog ... I'm sorry to tell you the word does not merely reflect a toy. The word has changed, the image it portrays is not (if it ever was) an innocent rendering of a make believe character. It is now a racist image of black men. Not good. Not innocent. Not positive and NOT USEFUL! Stop defending it!

You can argue against me (please do in the comments) and I relish the challenge.

In the meantime check out the final paragraph from The Golliwog Caricature," Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia (my own emphasis):
The Golliwog was created during a racist era. He was drawn as a caricature of a minstrel -- which itself represented a demeaning image of Blacks. There is racial stereotyping of Black people in Florence Upton's books, including The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls -- such as the Black minstrel playing a banjo on page 45. It appears that the Golliwog was another expression of Upton's racial insensitivity. Certainly later Golliwogs often reflected negative beliefs about Blacks -- thieves, miscreants, incompetents. There is little doubt that the words associated with Golliwog -- Golly, Golli, Wog, and Golliwog, itself -- are often used as racial slurs. Finally, the resurgence of interest in the Golliwog is not found primarily among children, but instead is found among adults, some nostalgic, others with financial interests.
And a reflection of the white/middle-class environment that I live in means that most (not all, but most) of the responses were from people that look and sound a lot like me. That means I'm stuck for genuine responses from black people that hear the word, what do they think? Maybe they've moved on and can't be arsed arguing the point with dickhead whitey's that insist it's just a phrase and that they shouldn't get offended ... maybe, I just don't know, do you?

And so, I leave you with my the argument left on Facebook by a Jewish person that best sums up my position on this:
No, not ok. I'd be upset if you got your kid a big-nosed Yid doll, and I don't see why golliwogs get a pass just for nostalgia.

Right, have your turn by answering one simple question:

Golliwogs (stuffed toy), OK or not OK?

Vote in the poll (those using RSS readers will need to come to the site) and I'd love you to leave your thoughts/reasoning/arguments in the comment box (anonymous is fine) ...

* My original asking of the question was late 2008 so probably more than a "few weeks ago" when I finally get to publish this
** Facebook link may not take you to the discussion itself, can't work out how to do that - and I claim to be a Web expert, *sheesh*
*** "The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg" by Bertha Upton 1895 at Project Gutenberg


  1. Hi Mike as of this morning (Friday 28th Jan 2011) I have made a formal complaint to the Human Rights Commission about the sale of Golliwogs in NZ. I am of Jamaican extraction and moved to Chirstchurch in 2006 where my husband (a white new zealander from christchurch) and I were married and live. Until christmas I was not aware that Golliwogs were for sale here in NZ and was horrified when I was bombarded with them.
    With the growing black population here in NZ it is not only unnacceptable but entirely offensive that these things are for sale here. With recent events in Australia (Dec 2010 - Melbourne, Oprah Winfreys people requested that golliwogs be removed from a store display where she was due to visit) it is imperative that NZ understand that these toys and images are no longer acceptable anywhere in today's society. I thank you for raising this issue


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