A golliwog is not ‘inherently racist’

It’s official: using the term ‘golliwog’, even just in a passing reference, is ‘inherently racist’. Yesterday, a judge ruled that a chef, who used the term in front of a black colleague when discussing the Robertson’s jam labels – which featured an image of a golliwog as its mascot up until the 1980s – was guilty of racial harassment.

Of course, the golliwog did originate as a racist caricature, and for many years served as a reminder of the ongoing influence of Britain’s racist, colonial past. But today it holds little of the same power. As recently as the 1970s and 1980s, racism was still a virulent social force in Britain. Discrimination, racial tension and violent racist attacks were everyday occurrences. 

Nevertheless, even in the 1980s, when the Greater London Council banned Robertson’s jam from its canteens, such crass examples of anti-racism were a distraction from the kind of racism that actually cost lives, and served only to discredit more important anti-racist efforts that tackled real structural inequality. In modern, diversity-fizzing Britain, crackdowns like this seem all the more pointless, racism having ceased to be a socio-political force.

Saying that any image, or even mention, of a golliwog is racist is not just a bad argument, but a pernicious one. The cultural climate we should be worrying about today is not racism, but the idea that people are so helpless and hapless that words, phrases and images will either inflict mortal emotional wounds or trigger our inner racists.

The judgement yesterday reflects the rise of an official anti-racism that is all too eager to elevate the elite as moral guardians over the vulnerable and/or bigoted masses – cracking down on free speech in the process. This is something far more troubling then the occasional reference to an old racist caricature.

Adrian Hart is a film-maker and researcher, and author of the Manifesto Club reports, The Myth of Racist Kids and Leave the Kids Alone.

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