I was recently confronted by a collection of Golliwog dolls during a trip to my local pharmacy. After taking liberties with the cosmetics testers, I paid for my discount nail varnish, cough drops and added a packet of paracetamol to the order to calm the headache I had just experienced.
Writer James Colley had a similar experience at Sydney Airport in the Australia Post Office.
Colley's tweet read, “just popping down to australia post for some envelopes, those cool new bird stamps – oh, and I neeeed a racist doll” above the image of large white-rimmed eyes with red clown lips upon a jet black face, on display.
While Golliwogs are generally seen collecting dust in antique stores, Australia has a large number on sale in modern retailers, causing many shoppers to gasp at ‘blackface’ hanging next to the chewing gum and Lindt Balls.
A Canadian backpacker blogged about her experiences as a person of colour stumbling on some Golliwogs for sale at a wildlife park gift shop in Sydney:
"While violence and verbal abuse are always shocking, after 17 years of living in Canada, somehow it was even more shocking to see those dolls lined up for sale in a souvenir shop. So casual. So oblivious. So unrelated to Australian wildlife. I’m still not sure what to make of it."
As the public turns to Twitter, petitions and general disgust at a figure reflecting 19th Century African-American minstrels, is the marginal profit that these shops make off Golliwog dolls really worth the backlash?
A spokesperson from Australia Post told SBS that since being made aware of the doll, they have contacted the outlet licensee who has agreed to promptly remove the toy from their store.
“We are committed to providing a culture that fosters and encourages diversity and inclusion across our business and we do not condone any form of discrimination,” the Australia Post spokesperson said.
Australian toy manufacturers, Elka are responsible for the ‘Golly Dolls’ that were recently confiscated and are also behind the toys in my local chemist, in the Canberra Hospital gift shop and other stores across the country. The company recognise that some people find the toys controversial but encourages those offended to look into true history of Golliwogs.
“A lot of people get misinformation, as the first thing that they do is look at the top article of Google, without doing any real research,” said the Elka spokesperson. “This is a doll that has a beautiful long history, and a very proud history.”
The history of the Golliwog is provided to retailers who sell Elka's product, acting as a kind of damage control, but so people can understand the historical roots of the blackface toy.
"We suggest that they put up the history in their stores so that people can enjoy the history," they said. "Certainly, there will be maybe one or two voices who still reject that these dolls are not beautiful, colourful and very loved toys, but we believe in and enjoy the history of our dollies."
It's hard to see how a history of colonisation and exploitation in Egypt is any less politically incorrect than the more commonly known linage of Florence K. Upton’s The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a “Golliwogg” published in 1895. For a doll that represents colonial Egypt, it's strange how little Golliwog manufacturers use Egyptian cloth.
As much as we’d like to think of these smiling faces as innocent as our childhood was while playing with them, since Upton's story and Enid Blighton's Noddy character depicted toys of colour as whacky clowns, Golliwogs are a product of the racist values of the 19th Century. So much so, their name soon became a racial slur. Their domestic servant attire and exaggerated African faces makes these dolls an uncanny piece of racist and oppressive history.
“We sell these dollies in Indigenous communities, in New Guinnea, in New Caledonia and in Fiji and we get so many lovely comments from these places where normally they can only buy a white-faced dolly saying ‘thank you’, as their dark skin dolls actually reflects them,” says Elka's spokesperson.
“We believe our dolls are beautiful and there is nothing prejudice about them. What we’re doing is taking a dolly that has a black face and giving it to a child and saying that it’s beautiful – that’s the most non-racist statement on the planet.”
While our toy industry desperately needs to better reflect a real world demographic, normalising was what once racial propaganda isn't the way forward. Just because not all dolls should be white, doesn’t then mean that all dolls representing people of colour have to look like a Golliwog. Although Australia's toy manufacturers have good intentions and want to see a new generation of children happy and unaware that their bright, colourful Golliwog is central to blackface iconography, unfortunately, we lost our privilege to play with black rag dolls when people started using them to claim white superiority.
Until people of colour have equal social and political power and aren't still suffering the effects of historical oppression, Golliwogs should probably stay out of shopfront windows.