A shocked tourist, an Indigenous advocate and a colonial historian have condemned the sale of Golliwog dolls in Australia, dubbing them deeply offensive racist symbols that should be taken off shelves nationwide.
Meanwhile an Australian soft toy manufacturer who sells hundreds of thousands of ‘Gollies’ each year has defended the doll’s existence.
Melbourne woman Soyla Echeverria was shocked to see the divisive dolls displayed in a souvenir store at a popular shopping centre during her working holiday in far north Queensland.
Ms Echeverria confronted management and the dolls were moved from the front display to the back of the store but the tourist said she would rather they were taken off the shelves.
“I was extremely surprised. I felt very ashamed to be Australian, to come here as a white person and see that, I mean it’s 2018,” she said.
Indigenous rights advocate Henrietta Marrie said while the sale of a toy might seem small to some it represented a wider cultural problem.
“It’s a huge problem and it’s laughable this is happening in the 21st century,” she said.
“It’s the look, the connotation and the naming [of Golliwog dolls] which sends a negative message. Years ago it was an insult, and it’s still insulting to us. It gives a negative image about who we are and what we can do.
“Let’s get them off the shelves and educate people as to why we’ve done that.”
The far north Queensland academic, who has also worked for the United Nations, commended Ms Echeverria and encouraged individuals from all backgrounds to speak up when they saw something they thought was wrong.
“The positive thing is a tourist has alerted [the store] to the sensitivity of this issue and that’s brave of her,” Ms Marrie said.
“We need people to make a stand because that’s the only way we are going to be able to change the perception out there.”
Australian soft toy manufacturer Elka ships hundreds of thousands of their ‘Golly’ dolls to every state and territory each year and is releasing a new range this month according to national sales manager Jan Johnco.
She believed it was a vocal minority who viewed the toy as a racist symbol.
“Traditionally, in my childhood and most certainly my mother’s, everyone had a Golly and it was a beloved doll, it was so wholesome and lovely,” she said.
“We sell so many Gollies across the country because people want them.”
Ms Johnco denied the term had racist or negative connotations but conceded Australia’s toy industry needed to be more racially diverse.
She said Elka was working on representing other races in their doll range separate to the golly line but said finding something as popular would be a challenge.
“These dolls have got a very honourable past and I don’t think it’s fair to inflict any sick connotations of racism onto something that’s got nothing to do with racism,” she said.
“People need to get a grip, it’s a doll. We’re talking about an innocent, benevolent, beautiful black doll.”
The Golliwog was first thrust into popular culture in 1895 as a character in a children’s book.
Florence Kate Upton illustrated The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg with the character reportedly inspired by Ms Upton’s black minstrel doll.
Despite quickly becoming a friendly character later in the book the Golliwogg is first described as “a horrid sight, the blackest gnome” who made the dolls “scatter in fright” when they saw him.
Colonial historian Liz Conor said the feeling of denigration among Indigenous Australians when it came to Golliwogs and other black caricatures dated back to the Day of Mourning on January 26, 1938.
“The negative response to Golliwogs [continued during] the civil rights movement in the 1960s [in the US] and the black resistance movement here in Australia,” Dr Conor said.
“In the 1980s the first formal complaint about denigrating representation of Aboriginal people was from the Redfern Aboriginal Legal Service and they complained about some Eric Jolliffe cartoons, Witchetty’s Tribe.”
The La Trobe University researcher said it was clear that white consumers were the ones benefiting and gaining enjoyment from how Aboriginal people were represented in pop culture.
“There’s a lot of denialism still going on,” Dr Conor said.
“It’s a slap in a face to continue to stock images that denigrate [Indigenous Australians] at a time when there’s a very robust national debate about Australia Day or Invasion Day and how we remember this history.”
History of the Golliwog in Australia
Dr Conor said it was during the early 20th century that prominent toy manufacturers began producing Golliwog dolls using a slightly different spelling.
“Whether we like it or not we can’t just step around the [issue of slavery] and why the smiling little doll, much like piccaninny [or minstrel] characters, is racially denigrating,” she said.
Like Upton, author Enid Blyton depicted the Golliwog in her stories. But the character was not limited to books and toys in Australia. It became a popular pop culture figure appearing on postcards, food jars, key chains and in the 1960s as chocolate biscuits manufactured by Arnott’s.
Those biscuits were renamed Scalliwag in the mid-1990s before being discontinued at the end of the decade. The biscuit may be no more but the character continues to be sold by several Australian retailers in the form of gifts and, of course, dolls.