It is easy to forget how explicitly racist British society was within living memory. I’m not talking about unconscious prejudice, or social media tropes. I’m talking about openly celebrating racism in the public space, about major companies making racism integral to their brand, a selling-point.
Roberston’s, Britain’s leading jam maker, made their orange marmalade sweeter to generations of (white) British children by associating it with a “golliwog”. One of the fondest memories I have of my childhood breakfasts was collecting golliwog tokens on the jar label. Collect enough and you could send away for a golliwog badge. More than 20 million badges were issued. I remember proudly wearing one.
Most white children, of course, absorbed – with the unquestioning trust of a young, unformed mind – the racist assumptions behind those golliwog figures. There are still Britons, like this Conservative councillor in Bristol, who never grew up. They continue to celebrate their breakfast-time lessons in racism – and can count on a newspaper, like the Metro, to give their views an unchallenged airing.
Racism was not just a feature of my childhood breakfasts. Friends had golliwog dolls in their beds, and Little Black Sambo story books on their shelves. Leisure time was spent watching TV shows like the BBC’s Black and White Minstrels Show – black-up as family, round-the-campfire entertainment – or comedies like It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (with grinning, ridiculous locals providing the exotic backdrop to a nostalgic romp around the British empire) and Mind Your Language (with simple-minded “immigrants” from the former colonies struggling through English-language classes).
Victims of empire
Britain’s education system played its part too. History and other subjects took it as read that Britain had a glorious past in which it once ruled the world, spreading enlightenment and civilisation to the dusky natives. The only significant event I can recall from lessons on Britain’s colonial involvement in India is the Black Hole of Calcutta, a dungeon so cramped with prisoners that many dozens suffocated to death one night in 1756. That event, from more than 200 years ago, was obviously explained to me with such impassioned horror by my teacher that it left an indelible scar on my memory.
Many years later, overlaid by my much later leftwing politics, I recalled the Black Hole deaths as referring to British crimes against the native Indian population, and saw it as a hopeful indication that British schools even in my time were beginning to address the terrors of colonialism.
But when I looked it up, I found my assumption about the episode was entirely wrong. It was native Indians rebelling against the rule of the East India Company, a trading corporation that became more powerful than the king through its pillage of India, who forced British mercenaries into the Black Hole. Paradoxically, the East India Company’s foot-soldiers – there to oppress the local population and plunder India’s resources – died in the very dungeon the firm had built to punish Indians.
History classes were designed to impress on me British victimhood even as Britain was in the midst of raping, pillaging and murdering its way around the globe.
Jar sales versus complaints
Until I researched this post I had also assumed that Roberston’s quietly shelved the golliwog badge back in the early 1970s. But no. Apparently the badges were still available for children until 2002. In the tiniest of makeovers in the 1980s, Robertson’s reinvented the golliwog as a cuddly “golly”.
It is hard to imagine a spokeswoman for a major corporation – in this case, Rank Hovis McDougall – defending the use of the golliwog now as they did back in 2001:
We receive around 10 letters a year from people who object to the [golliwog] character. That compares to 45m jars of jam and mincemeat sold annually.
The scales of trade: 45 million jars a year weighed against 10 killjoys. Golliwogs were simply good for business, given the cultural climate that had been manufactured for the British public. In a way, you have to appreciate the corporation’s honesty.
The linked Guardian article is worth reading too. Less than 20 years ago the country’s only “liberal-left” newspaper felt quite able to report the dropping of Robertson’s golliwog character in faintly nostalgic terms, an example of “Gosh, how the times, they are a-changin” journalism, instead of the unalloyed disapproval we would now expect.
Those approaches contrast sharply, of course, with today’s sloganeering from Nike, Reebok, Amazon and many other corporations as they hurry to show their support for Black Lives Matter in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin late last month.
Have the assumptions of the corporate world changed so dramatically over the past 18 years, or have their priorities remained exactly the same: to make money by making us identify with what they need to sell us?
Golliwogs no longer shift product. What does is empty corporate slogans about equal rights, humanity and dignity – as long as corporations don’t have to deal with inequality in their boardrooms, or, more importantly, recognise the humanity of labourers in their Third World factories or their local warehouses.
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