Monthly Archives: March 2014

Return of the golliwog?

When I see a golliwog in a toy shop I feel distress. Even when I calm myself, the feelings of hurt remain. Over recent years I’ve watched golliwogs make a comeback, as if their old fashioned charm rendered them inoffensive. I’ve been shocked by the presence of golliwogs not only in old-style dolly shops but also in contemporary boutiques.

As a child in Australia in the 1970s, I was ignorant of the history behind the Black characters I encountered: golliwogs, Black Sambo, the Black and White Minstrels, watermelon babies. Nevertheless, I experienced a profound emotional response to what I recognised as pejorative representations of people who looked like me.

As an adult I’ve learned that these caricatures were born of, and promoted, attitudes which furthered the subordination of Black people. The racial segregation and discriminatory laws which followed US emancipation were known as ‘Jim Crow’, named after the minstrel character that had become popular during the years of slavery. In 1895, a year in which there were 113 recorded lynchings of Black people in the United States, Florence Upton created a literary character based on her American minstrel doll. She called it the ‘golliwogg’.

Upton’s golliwog, although less well known in America, was a huge success in Britain and Australia. Other authors, most notably the prolific Enid Blyton, added to the numerous children’s stories featuring golliwogs during the first half of the twentieth century. The golliwogs that appeared in these children’s books were a product of an era in which even reputable publications such as Encyclopaedia Britannica surmised that Black people were infantile and of inferior intellect, being more closely related to apes than white people.

It wasn’t until the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1950s that the stereotyping of Black people began to be publicly questioned. During this period, golliwogs and other derogatory characters were removed from toy shops and gradually phased out of children’s literature. In the mid-1990s the Australian company, Arnott’s, changed the name of its golliwog biscuit to ‘scallywag’ and in 2002 Robertson’s jam finally retired its golliwog mascot.

Could we put aside what we know about the golliwog and pretend that it is only a toy; that it doesn’t represent anything? After all, there is nothing inherently offensive in its appearance. My children could miss those cues in the look of a golliwog’s face, hair and clothes that convey its derogatory meaning. They could see it as a jolly, slightly surprised, clown.

But the fact is that circumstance has given the golliwog meaning, just as real as the meanings of the words we use. Ignorance of meaning, or refusal to acknowledge it, doesn’t make it any less meaningful. We can’t claim that ‘nigger’ is simply a neutral term meaning ‘black person’, although it may once have been. Those who like golliwogs can’t make them inoffensive by wishing, or even believing, them not to offend.

My mother used to buy my children golliwogs. Then she discovered rag dolls which have been designed and made in Zimbabwe. Some of the Zimbabwean dolls have stripy pants and shocked hair, but they lack the distinctive googly eyes and red clown lips. They are black rag dolls, but they are not golliwogs. The difference, for me, is that my children are not going to wake up one morning and wonder why I’ve let them love a doll which is a racial slur. They won’t be torn between the doll they love and its hateful connotations. They won’t love something that causes pain to people who recognise the doll’s meaning and who have experienced being treated as inferior on the basis of the colour of their skin.

There is no need to continue the golliwog legacy when there are so many other toys to delight in: monkeys and teddy bears for those who want a sub-human; clowns for those looking for a character or buffoon. There are even dolls for people, like my mother, who want a doll whose features reflect those of their own child. And for people who want to see golliwogs, there is the museum. Just as other racist artefacts should be handled with discretion, golliwogs should be understood in context and not mistaken for meaningless playthings.

‘Multiculturalism: What are we afraid of?’

This week, the State Library of New South Wales held the forum ‘Multiculturalism: What are we afraid of?’ For those unfamiliar with what happened, Ruby Hamad gives a great account here, so I won’t repeat the details. I will add though, that I got the impression that it was Samira Haraf who initiated the discussion on Twitter. If this is the case, then I think it’s important to give her credit. (Ruby discusses comedian Aamer Rahman’s comments on Twitter before mentioning that there was ‘a deluge of complaints’, with no mention of Samira.)

When I saw Samira’s comment on Twitter the day before the SLNSW event, I actually didn’t expect SLNSW to respond to her concerns.  Although it would have been nice to include all Australians in a discussion on multiculturalism, it actually seemed pretty clear to me that (despite the word ‘multiculturalism’ fronting the title) this forum was not about multiculturalism; it was about white English-heritage Australians’ anxieties concerning multiculturalism.

According to a tweet from the SLNSW, the event arose as a promotion of Louise Whelan’s project ‘Home: photographs of ethnic communities’. The event, therefore, was about CALD people not as people in and of themselves, but as the subject of Louise’s project.

From what I’ve seen of Louise’s work online, it involves making beautiful pictures. Her portfolio includes a collection of stylised retro and ‘pin-up’ pictures of white people. But the advantage of photographing CALD people is that you don’t have to dress them up to make them eye catching, all that exoticness does the work for you.

Ruby Hamad discusses Louise’s ‘David Attenborough’ approach to hunting down and recording migrants in their natural habitat. She uses the example of the caption accompanying a photo of children at a wedding:

‘This great image of Congolese children at wedding (Dapto, 2010) is just one of the many fantastic photographs that will take you into homes and urban environments of both refugees and migrants now calling Australia home.’

Why are these Australian children called ‘Congolese’? Do they just ‘call’ Australia home? Because they’re ‘ethnic’? Because white people don’t have an ethnicity?

Louise also has a publication featuring these ‘ethnic communities’ called ‘The New Settlers’. According to the National Library of Australia Archives:

‘The photographs in this book are drawn from a number of ambitious projects to document all of the migrant communities that currently exist around Australia.’

In the forward to ‘The New Settlers’, Michael Kirby writes:

‘From these images future historians, researchers and citizens will be able to see us as we see ourselves at this moment in our development.’

Ironically, this book will be an historical document, just not in the way intended; not as a thoroughgoing and transparent record of migrant Australians, but as an instance of whitewashing and positioning CALD people as ‘other’.

Referring to this work as comprehensive of ‘new settlers’ whitewashes history in two ways:  1) it implies that CALD people have only recently arrived (so they have less of a claim on Australia) and 2) it implies (by omission) that all white English-heritage people have been here since the beginning of settlement.

In fact non-indigenous CALD people have been on this continent since the beginning of English settlement. Great efforts have been made to erase them from Australia’s history and culture, but evidence of their existence persists.

It is also a fact that people from the UK constitute the largest migrant group to settle in Australia over the last 40 years (the time frame for migrant arrivals in Louise’s work). (Thanks to the lack of ABS data on race, we don’t know how many of those UK migrants are white, but I’m guessing quite a few.) So an historical documentation of ‘new settlers’ should have these UK migrants as the majority. In Australia, even the majority of migrants from Africa are of European descent. These people should also be included in the documentation of recent migrants.

This documentation is particularly important because of the significance of recent migration; Australia’s population has doubled in the last 40 years, with migration contributing to a substantial, and increasing, proportion of that growth.

We could argue, in Louise’s defence, that white English-heritage Australians are over represented in popular culture and so they needn’t be included. Nevertheless, if the work is going to be restricted to CALD then it must be titled to reflect what it actually is: CALD people. Not ‘new settlers’.