08 February, 2009


Gollygate rumbles on

One might have hoped that this nonsense would have run its course by now, but the popular prints on both sides of the fence are still enthusiastically flogging this dead horse even as it begins to rot. But enough of this florid metaphor.

In today's Observer, a startlingly mixed bag of well-known Black people is wheeled out to tell us how offended they are. On the other hand, the Sunday Mercury reports that a shop in hideously White Cheltenham is struggling to keep up with demand for golliwog dolls. Let battle lines be drawn. If I had collected golly badges in my younger days, I would be searching the further recesses of dusty long unvisited drawers for them even now.

And yet those largely White people who have responded to this tedious furore by claiming that the golliwog doll is no more than an innocent children's toy with absolutely no racial overtones are either being disingenuous or feel too constrained by the oppressive and counterproductive conventions of politically correct discourse to say what they actually mean.

The origins of the figure in the imaginations of Florence Upton and Enid Blyton are neither here nor there. That its creation and development was informed by then prevalent middle-class White attitudes to Blacks is clear. On the other hand, the claims by the usual suspects that it is some kind of deliberate tool of oppression and abuse is no more than the self-important whining of those for whom victimhood is at best a displacement from addressing with their own failings and at worst a cynical source of income.

But it cannot be denied that the term has been co-opted as a derogatory or abusive term for Black people. If Floella Benjamin was called a golliwog in the school playground, then I am sure it was intended insultingly. And I have no doubt that, after all this hoo-ha, this rather archaic term will gain a new lease of life in playgrounds across the country.

That the term is derogatory, and I will put it no more strongly than that, is beyond doubt. What is interesting and rather more important is the unholy and disproportionate fuss that has arisen from its use.

Current tittle-tattle, attributed to Adrian Chiles, is that Carol Thatcher referred to the mixed-race French tennis player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga as "that Froggy golliwog guy". Now if I were a Frenchman, of whatever hue, I would be minded to complain about the use of the derogatory term "Froggy". And yet nary a peep have we heard about the use of this word, either from those delicate flowers Adrian Chiles and Jo Brand, or from the BBC, or from the media at large, or from the legions of the professionally offended.

Curious, that.

In Friday's Guardian, MIke Phillips expresses his outrage. Mr Phillips, apparently a near contemporary of mine, says
In my school playgrounds, during the 50s and 60s, "golliwog" was a routine piece of racist abuse, a fighting word,...
Well, I was a primary school child in the 1950s. As it happens, I have worn spectacles since the age of two. In consequence when I went to school I was the butt of playground abuse and bullying, as any child who was in any way marked out as different would be.

I might then reasonably regard the term "four-eyes" as deeply abusive and offensive. Yet what do we find in that self-same issue of the Guardian? On the front of the paper, on the very masthead indeed, is a puff for a feature in G2 (the "magazine" section of the rag, for those who unfamiliar with the august liberal publication). This feature is about the rise of spectacles as a fashion item or accessory. The puff on the front page consists of a picture of a piece of self-confident posh-looking totty wearing a pair of apparently fashionable specs - I'm afraid I don't keep to speed with the trends in such matters - and is wittily captioned
Oi, four-eyes - you look great.
How glasses got sexy.
"Four eyes?" Why isn't the RNIB up in arms? Should I complain to the Press Complaints Commission, d'you think? Or will they laugh at me and tell me to get a life?

Bit of inconsistency here, I feel. Never mind the complimentary tone; that doesn't make it any better. How you feel about
Oi, nignog - you look tasty.
How black models conquered the catwalk.
Spare me the victimist crap about how racism and racial abuse are somehow different, about slavery and the Empire and all the tiresome special pleading and all the manipulation of White liberal guilt. Insults are insults. Abuse is abuse. To be sure some insults are more wounding than others, but hasn't the calculus of offence become unduly distorted in particular directions?

In the real world, group tensions exist and, amazingly, not everybody likes everybody else. People favour their own tribe over others. And at times it all gets a bit rude and shouty. So it goes.

It's a hard world out there. Grow up and handle it.

I'll cut you a deal, Black and Brown people and your bien pensant White Liberal camp-followers. If you stop whingeing about racism all the time and telling us how hard done by you are because of your "skin colour", I won't whinge about how hard done to I am by virtue of being a middle-aged middle-class White heterosexual male four-eyed Northern git.


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