Thursday, February 5, 2009
Oldfashioned british racism
6 February 2009
Poor Carol Thatcher. I used to have a sneaking sympathy for her. Imagine being the daughter of the Iron Lady, a woman who was, at different times, almost universally hated or adored. Then imagine being the sister of that other Thatcher sprog, the charmless Mark. The one who is known for having got himself gormlessly lost during the Paris-Dakar motor rally. The one who escaped being indicted by the skin of his teeth for some dodgy dealings in a failed African coup. There's nothing promising here, but viewing Carol through the lens of my TV screen, it seemed to me that she brought a sort of lumpy grace to being a minor celebrity, with nothing very much to say, primarily in demand because she happened to be her mother's daughter.
That was before her now notorious quip about a black French tennis player looking like a golliwog. The resulting furore seemed, at first glance, like a storm in a teacup. This may be partly because, to a black person who grew up in Britain, the casual racism is implicit in the remark. This is still the way that a substantial minority in the population talk about black and Asian people when they believe they're among friends. My white friends are continually confronted by the dilemma of how to reply to the taxi driver or the builder or the new acquaintance who launches into a racist diatribe; and the racist jibe is by no means confined to the bottom of the class ladder. The same conversational style can be heard in common rooms and posh clubs up and down the land.
"Golliwog" is special, though. A stock character of Victorian entertainment was the "nigger", usually a blacked-up white man lampooning African-American voices and behaviour. Over the next hundred years the "nigger" became the "golliwog", adapted for use by manufacturers of various products like Robertson's jam. This was partly because of the image's supposed appeal to children in Britain, given that they had already been brought up reading books like Enid Blyton's, which featured golliwogs as comic characters or vicious and "uncivilised" children.
The point is that the racist history of the word was enough to make it offensive. Everyone knew that the golliwog was a racist caricature of blackness. In my school playgrounds, during the 50s and 60s, "golliwog" was a routine piece of racist abuse, a fighting word, and, after all this time, it's hard to believe that Carol Thatcher was using the word innocently. But that is precisely the problem. The racist language that many white people took for granted in the middle of the last century has been, more or less, exiled from public broadcasting for a couple of decades. You'd have to be downright dim not to know that such language in contemporary Britain is offensive and slightly indecent.
On the other hand, Carol Thatcher's word blindness might be to do with the fact that she simply couldn't help it, that she was so deeply indoctrinated that the mere sight of a black man screams "golliwog" in her head. That is not a totally unlikely speculation.
Racism is also about the emotions, how people feel. From this perspective it's easier to understand why Carol found it difficult to apologise, and why the usual suspects are declaring her to be a victim of political correctness. It may even be true that the fact she's a Thatcher influences the strength of the reaction. Just think about some of the more unpleasant remarks made by Ken Livingstone not too long ago. But there you have it. Carol Thatcher signed up for being a public figure whose words and ideas are part of the public realm. She can't complain about the heat. Not unless she's prepared to shut up and get out of the kitchen.
From Bedtime Story to Ugly Insult: How Victorian Caricature Became a Racist Slur
Jon Henley traces the history of the toxic symbol at the center of the Carol Thatcher sacking row
He was born in 1895, in a children's book published in London and titled, innocently enough, The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls. It opens with Peg and Sarah Jane, the dolls, playing in a toy shop when they stumble across "a horrid sight: the blackest gnome". In red trousers and blue tailcoat, with a red bow tie on a high-collared white shirt, he was, the struggling 22-year-old artist who created him confessed, "ugly".
The character was inspired, Florence Kate Upton wrote later, by a minstrel rag doll she played with while growing up with her English parents in New York. When they moved to London, she rediscovered the toy in an attic: black face, thick lips, wide eyes, wild dark hair.
"I picked him up from the table in my studio, and without intention of naming him, without the idea of a name passing through my head, I called him Golliwogg," she said.
The book - illustrated by Florence with words by her mother, Bertha - proved an instant hit in Britain and the empire, going into a second printing almost immediately with the title The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg. Over the next 14 years the Uptons published 12 more volumes of the trio's adventures, starring the Golliwogg - who was generally a brave, lovable character.
His career took off. But they had failed to copyright their creation and dolls (without the final "g") appeared in Britain, the United States, Europe and Australia. At first they were homemade, but the German teddy bear manufacturer Steiff was mass producing them as early as 1908, followed by British rivals.
Robertson's jams began featuring the golliwog as its trademark in the early 1900s, apparently after John Robertson saw children playing with a black-face doll in the US. According to David Pilgrim, who has studied the toy's history, Robertson was always convinced "Golly" was a straightforward mispronunciation of "dolly". The company would continue using the Golly as its trademark as late as 2001.
Golliwogs soon started cropping up in other children's books; several Enid Blyton titles feature golliwogs, although only three as central character. But by contrast with the Uptons' work, Pilgrim points out, Blyton's golliwogs were often "rude, mischievous villains".
Nonetheless, after the teddy, the golliwog was by far the most popular children's soft toy in Europe for the first half of the 20th century.
Its image, for white children, was overwhelmingly positive; the art historian Sir Kenneth Clark wrote that the golliwogs of his childhood were "examples of chivalry, far more chivalrous than the unconvincing knights of the Arthurian legend".
Many continue to see golliwogs that way. "I'm not going to tell you how many golliwogs we sell because I don't want to cause offence," says Joan Bland, who runs a well-known teddy shop, Asquiths, in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. "I will say that the word 'golly' simply means 'doll', and that the golliwog's duty is to spread love and happiness. And they do spread love and happiness. Masses of people buy them and collect them, people of all races. We have no complaints, everyone likes gollies. All it is, is a toy."
Following the outcry over a souvenir store at the Queen's Sandringham estate selling golliwogs, Hamleys withdrew them from sale yesterday. But the internet retailer Amazon was still advertising them, and the Signed, Sealed, Delivered website advertised a "traditional golly gollywog" with the message: "Help bring them back into circulation and stop all the 'Non-PC' nonsense."
The owner of Tree Top Toys in Lytham St Annes, Lancashire, who declined to give her name, said the "Traditional Golly Doll" she stocked was not offensive as it was not called a golliwog. Martin Oliver of Merrythought, which makes and sells golliwogs and used to supply them to Harrods and Hamleys, said he did not think "anyone who works" at the Telford-based company "sees them as a racist product".
Most black people would see it differently. From the 1940s, particularly during the war, the golliwog's reputation was irreparably damaged by its association with the racial insult "wog".
Golliwog fans today dispute the link, and cite possible alternative origins ("Wily Oriental Gentleman") for the term, but by the 1960s golliwogs were at best seen as symbols of racial insensitivity. Books were withdrawn from libraries; Robertson's was petitioned. MPs of the time including Tony Benn and Shirley Williams backed a campaign to ban them.
"The golliwog," concludes Pilgrim, "was created during a racist era. He was drawn as a caricature of a minstrel, itself a demeaning image of blacks. There is racial stereotyping of black people in Upton's original books, and certainly later golliwogs often reflected negative beliefs about black people - thieves, miscreants, incompetents. Finally, there is little doubt that the words associated with golliwog - golli, wog, and golliwog itself - are often used as racial slurs."
That is certainly the experience of many black Britons. "For as long as I can remember and I'm in my mid-40s, it has always been something people have used to poke fun at people like me," said Michael Eboda, publisher of The Power List of Britain's 100 most powerful black men and women. "There are some white people who've been trying to say that when we were all young it wasn't offensive. I just feel like saying: Maybe not to you. To me, it always has been. To use that term of a black person is an unequivocal insult. There's no other way of interpreting it, and it really makes me wonder how many other people use those terms in their private worlds."
Buckingham Palace has issued an extraordinary apology after the Queen's shop at Sandringham was found to be selling golliwogs.
A palace spokesperson said : 'The Queen wouldn't tolerate any kind of racism. She has worked tirelessly to improve race relations in this country for many, many years.'
Maybe the Queen should also offer counseling to her own family starting with the gaffe-prone Prince Philip. He has helped to showcase royal bigotry and racism over the years with remarks that, much like Thatcher's comment, are passed off as misspeaking, jokes or simply 'moments of confusion.' Prince Harry could use some input also.
For evidence of royal tendencies in this direction link here, here and here.
Judging from the howls of outrage from people who think the Thatcher episode was blown out of proportion, you have to conclude that a lot of Brits simply don't get it.
Some of the English online commentators who think Thatcher was treated unfairly wouldn't be caught dead dropping 'golliwog' in conversation with their professional associates - but nonetheless refuse to candidly acknowledge that the word is problematic.
It's a case of denial... denial about a history of colonialism, racism and snotty attitudes toward foreigners... aka "wogs" in some circles.