Many who collect for nostalgia absolutely believe in the innocence of the dolls. They feel abused by accusations that their hobby and holdings are offensive. “I have to say that for me, gollies were just childhood toys and the badges part of our childhood here,” says Wood, who still stresses that, while he makes golliwog collectibles, he does not collect them himself. “I have never understood those that make claims about racial issues.” All of the collectors he’s worked with he describes as lovely people with a pure view of a blameless collectible. To Jodi, the criticism that collectors face is nonsensical because, “at the end of the day, it’s just a doll—a toy,” she says. Ged Grebby, founder and chief executive of the British advocacy group Show Racism the Red Card, summarizes the attitude of these collectors by referencing a common defense of those who own, do, or say questionable things: “[the dolls] aren’t meant to be offensive, so they aren’t offensive.”
Much of this seems to stem from a certain lack of logic and introspection in the way the golliwog collectors understand what people mean when accusing them (or, more properly, their collectibles) of carrying racist overtones. “Really, their negative attachment to Golliwogs has gone purely because our world is not a racist place anymore,” says Jodi of collectors and, apparently, of the state of minorities and skin color in the Western world. “Because we are truly a global melting pot. The segregation just does not exist and the way people look at things are very different now then they were 100 years ago, even 30 years ago.” Jodi goes on to accuse people who call golliwogs racist of creating drama and racism by pointing out a problem that no longer exists. She feels that the demands of those offended by the dolls are irrational, citing criticisms of Barbie dolls for being only white many years back, and justifying the golliwog as an answer to that call for more multi-ethnic and inclusive playthings. This inability to acknowledge the contours of racism beyond openly violent bigotry and segregation, and to understand why a blackface minstrel might not be what people are looking for in an ethnically inclusive doll, is symptomatic of cultures and homogenous communities rarely confronted with conversations on race or the realities of inequality in the modern world, then suddenly thrust into a growing tide of national debate. It cannot even be classified as willful ignorance as, when one does not encounter the arguments, it’s hard to purposefully ignore them.
This occasional strategic ignorance in the collector community ignores some of the most blatant cases in which golliwogs have been used for expressly racist purposes—the kinds that Jodi believes do not exist in the modern world. Another 2013 court case saw a worker awarded £13,500 because his employer, a Gloucester vegetable wholesaler, blithely, regularly, and derogatorily referred to him as “Golliwog Brian.” A few years earlier, in 2009, Carol Thatcher, the media personality and daughter of Margaret Thatcher, got into hot water for referring to a French tennis star Jo-Wilfried Tsonga as a golliwog. On the far right, in July 2013 a member of a Welsh white power movement posted a YouTube video of himself symbolically lynching a golliwog as the archetypal symbol of the black Brits to whose presence in “his” nation he was opposed.
Pilgrim and other race issues advocates have an optimistic faith in the power of emerging dialogue. He notes that many people who come to his Michigan museum have never before encountered golliwogs, but express universal condemnation and concern, viewing the dolls as ugly and insulting depictions of black people.
Coverage of Ukip and other groups in the UK is shoving those conversations into the national fore
He hopes these, among other mass exposures to the trope, will create conversation and overwhelming opinion with the power to enlighten collectors as to the harm their habit can cause others. “I know this sounds trite,” he says, “but I speak as an educator who believes in the triumph of dialogue. Many people are uncomfortable discussing race relations in places where their ideas are challenged, but we must have sustained, intelligent dialogue about race relations.” We need, he believes, to just find new language, modes, and venues to have these conversations. Meanwhile, more simply, Grebby hopes that, as he says, “Once people are made aware that black people find the things they do offensive, they’ll start to change their behaviors.”
Coverage of Ukip and other groups in the UK is shoving those conversations right into the national fore. The problem is that golliwog collectors seem more inclined to hedge themselves off, refusing dialogue with what they see as an aggressive, abusive, and hazy and illogical movement. “I did used to get the odd abusive e-mail,” says Wood, “but [I] just blocked them.” Jodi brushes off critics as well, saying, “Not everyone will agree with you and that’s just why the world is such an exciting place to live. I don’t believe in collecting animal heads to hang on walls. I don’t abuse or slander the people that do. That’s their choice and what they find beautiful.” Wood and Jodi, like others, pick up on the knee-jerk reaction of campaigns like the one to eliminate the Alice and Wonderland mural in Scotland, which Grebby admits was a silly case, which made it seem like race rights activists were interested in white-washing history rather than contextualizing and teaching around artifacts of a very real past. It’s easy in such a reactionary environment for the collectors of golliwogs to catch onto weak threads of argument and deny the legitimacy of critiques against their hobby.