Blackface: A Colonial Hangover
Growing up in the 1980s, I was fascinated with the idea of free gifts. My older brother and I would fight over the plastic figures that could be found in cereal packets and we would incessantly pester our parents to take us to McDonald’s in order to get Happy Meals containing “free toys” that would become entirely uninteresting once we crossed the threshold of home. Although I could rely on finding toys in cereal packets for free, the real test was those give-a-ways that required children to collect numerous coupons that could be redeemed via post. Collect 20 coupons and get a keyring or a poster or a badge. Not really understanding the commercialism of the idea, I marvelled at the prospect of only having to collect a small amount of coupons to get something that, at least to my eyes, was priceless. Among the most prized give-a-ways was the Robertson’s Jam Golliwog pin badge. The reason for the appeal of the badges were manifold: the character of the Golliwog appeared in the Noddy series of books that I read repeatedly, the Golliwog came in a variety of different outfits that sparked a completionist obsession that I still carry today and finally they were easy to obtain since my grandparents were more than willing to save their coupons for me. Once we had enough coupons, we sent them off and 4-5 weeks later we had the badge. It was practically a family hobby and we were not alone. According to Robertson’s, over 20 million “Gollys” had been sent out since the 1920s when the give-a-way first began, until 2002 when it was retired. Although this was a multi-generational hobby, at no point did anyone mention that what I was collecting was actually a racist depiction of a black person.
Looking at the Golliwog from 2017, I’m amazed that it took until 2002 for the Robertson’s “Golly” to be discontinued. The company maintained it wasn’t motivated by political correctness, but rather lack of popularity from parents and children, although it had faced criticism and boycotts during the 1980s that had led to them not using “Golly” in their advertising campaigns. Unsurprisingly, I was unaware of these goings on as I had yet to take an interest in the news at the tender age of 5. The use and meaning of the Golliwog is still debated over today. I may feel a sense of nostalgia when I see one, but it is clear that they are racist. It is hard to argue it is not, with its depiction of a smiling, red lipped, frizzy haired black character, it evokes the minstrel shows and the traditions of blackface that have their origins in the middle ages where performers would use it to entertain white audiences with depictions of the “Moor” of the Holy Lands. The practice of “Blacking-up” may be centuries old tradition, but that doesn’t mean it should be protected from change. The argument that it is simply a “joke” or was “a bit off a laugh” is mitigated by the fact that the people who make these arguments are usually white. Furthermore, the argument that the “Golly” is not racist evaporated the moment it was first used as a derogatory term for black people, which I imagine was fairly soon after its inception.
While I was collecting them, the term “Golliwog” or “Wog” was being used to insult black people all over the UK. I had no idea, because I lived in a white family. The worst discrimination I ever experienced was due to my ginger hair, which is to say very little. However, for the black community of the UK, Golliwogs were not a cute throwback to childhood or an innocent company mascot, they were a signal of non-acceptance, they were an insult and they were actively used to offend. The poet and actor Benjamin Zephaniah, had no nostalgic remembrance of the “Golly” when growing up in Birmingham:
“I used to have the Robertson's golliwog sticker put on my jacket when it was hanging in the school cloakroom and on my satchel and stuff like that, and the shortened word "wog", which is the most offensive.
I just felt this is what white people do, because my mother said don't complain, this is the way they are, we have to get used to it. My mother, coming from Jamaica, thought she was a guest in the country and she shouldn't make too much of a fuss about it. I grew up and I said no, I will not have people calling me a wog, I will not have people leaving offensive stuff on my jacket.
Once my generation started to stand up and not take that stuff, then it disappeared.”
What Zephaniah points out is that racism, bigotry and xenophobia will remain mainstream as long as it is never confronted. Over time, and through concerted effort, exposure and education public opinion can change for the positive. In the globalist world we live in, it is increasingly hard to maintain the prejudices (positive or negative) of the past and even harder to maintain the trappings of prejudice such as the Golliwog. However, the process is never easy and there are always holdouts.
Carol Thatcher, daughter of the former Prime Minister, used the term as a descriptor for a French tennis player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga following her appearance on the BBC’s The One Show in 2009. When the BBC demanded she apologise, she refused, claiming it was simply a reference to the former Jam mascot and that it had been a beloved toy from her youth. 2011 saw two Conservative party councillors suspended for using it in their campaign against PC culture. Claiming it was an attack on free speech they unsurprisingly joined UKIP instead. In 2013, a councillor in Brighton was disciplined for claiming that the Golliwog was not a racist symbol, but simply a nostalgic piece of British culture. Whether high profile or not, the arguments in support of the Golliwog were nearly always similar: it was an attack on free speech, it was an attack on British tradition and it was an attack on harmless nostalgia. The other common thread? The high profile Golliwog supporters were all white.
The Golliwog controversy highlights a number of the problems faced by the UK. Much of the issues concerning Britain whether politically, socially or culturally often stem from an inability to deal with its colonial past; Golliwogs themselves originate in America, but their popularity in the UK has roots in the parental infantilising of Britain’s colonial populations. Empire helped the British to understand their place in the world, it gave purpose. However, over the decades, the certainties of the past have slowly been chipped away. The arrival of thousands of immigrants, such as Benjamin Zephaniah’s parents, brought the colonial experience into stark relief. Over decades, as these groups became part of British society and older modes of thinking were challenged by younger generations, there was a realisation that older prejudice could not stand up to the rigours of modernity. Naturally, there are people who will rile against change, claim it is an attack on “their” culture or an attack on free speech, but my hope would be that these ideas become the minority and eventually die out. Interestingly, Germany is currently facing these same questions over acceptable traditional practices, with much the same argumentation, some more particularly German logic and a lot more complexity.
Every year, in the run up to lent, Germany celebrates Fasching or Carnival. It is a chance for many to dress up in funny costumes and drink beer in epic all day binge sessions, accompanied by parades, dancing girls and schnapps. At the same time as the news becomes preoccupied with colourful floats and drunken revellers, it also shines a light on the practice of blackface that is still maintained by various groups. The question of blackface is one that has occupied my thoughts ever since I discovered it was still a viable costume. Early in the year, the 6th January, it is common to see children going door to door dressed as the three kings. It is also common to see one of the children in blackface to represent Balthazar. The argument that is put forward whenever I suggest this is offensive is one of pure German logic. There was a black Magi, therefore to accurately portray the three kings, there must be a black Magi. It is a literal interpretation of the story. Advocates for this position further argue that it cannot be racist, as Balthazar is a king and an equal. There is no negative message to be drawn. Despite this, I feel intensely uncomfortable with the practice and I would certainly prevent my child from doing it. Nevertheless, “The Balthazar Defence” as I would term it, still holds weight with many people.
German logic also extends to the argument surrounding a fasching event held in the village of Raindorf, Bavaria. For the last 36 years, the village has held an ball in order to raise money for development projects in Africa, a justifiably praise-worthy activity. The problem is not so much the event, but the choice of name. Originally the ball was a called “young people dance for Africa” but was changed instead to “Negerball”, “Neger” being a traditional Bavarian term for a person with dark skin. Of course, directly translated it would mean"negro ball" or "nigger ball". The argument put forward by supporters of the ball is that a.) the word is simply dialect and b.) it cannot be racist as it is not meant or used by Bavarians as racist. Frankly, that level of logical gymnastics is difficult to comprehend. Like “The Balthazar Defence”, the “non-offensive use defence” has parallels in the arguments for preserving the Golliwog in the UK.
Blackface was more directly in the news when a Carnival club of 100 members in Hessen was forced to retire their traditional outfits under pressure from police. Following worries that the group may be attacked during the Fasching parade and a critical open letter from the University of Fulda , the club decided to retire their usual costume of several members in white colonists outfits and one member in blackface, sporting a bone through his afro wig and wearing a leopard print costume, replete with bone necklace. Arguments in support of the costume ranged from the fact it was a “fantasy costume” and that people who were offended were “thin-skinned”. Organisers opted for the “non-offensive use defence”, saying it wasn’t meant to be offensive and was only a bit of fun.
Like the UK, Germany’s problems over the use of blackface and the changing tides of acceptability have their roots in history. However, unlike Britain, Germany has a very clear understanding of historical legacy. However, that historical understanding is very much centred around national socialism and the holocaust. To call someone a racist in Germany, as Joel Stonington points out, is the same as calling them a Nazi. This makes claims of racism even more problematic. It is perhaps education that is the only way out of the mire of controversy. Tahir Della, of the Initiative for Black People in Germany (ISD), argues that Germany needs to also learn about the colonial era to gain an historical understanding of why blackface and terms like “neger” are offensive.
For me, Germany is not a hot bed of racism. If anything, Germany is simply learning that it is part of a global community, one that will confront certain practices and highlight areas of offence that were previously hidden. The questions surrounding the use of blackface are not always so clear, take for example the use of blackface by a local football team to show solidarity with two Sudanese team mates who had been attacked, it would be incredibly difficult to claim this as racist or offensive. However, this example is the exception. Germany and the UK are and will be confronted with aspects of tradition that have no place in modern societies. It is a slow process that requires patience and understanding on both sides. Ignorance is no defence, but attempts must be made to educate rather than scold. I withhold my scorn for the ignorant, but pore it whole heartedly on those who wilfully continue to perpetuate racism.