Racism on Etsy: WTF Is a Golliwog and Other Important Questions

Etsy's own policies state that they don't allow items that promote racially motivated hatred. So what's going on here?
Publish date:
October 16, 2012
racism, etsy, stereotypes

The Golliwog dates to an 1895 children’s book, "The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg," in which the figure made its first documented appearance as a doll in traditional blackface minstrel attire. Though Golliwogs both male and female exist, it is typically a sharply drawn caricature of the turn of the century stereotype of a black man, featuring extremely dark skin, an exaggerated and unkempt head of hair, and a gaping red mouth. (If that’s not enough for you, more detail on the history of the Golliwog can be found here.)

SURELY this is a relic of a long-abandoned racist era, right? Something we should only dredge up for its detached historical interest? Of course no one is still producing these racist caricatures and selling them for money!

Actually they are. And they’re all over Etsy, evidently in violation of Etsy’s own policies, which were changed in January of 2011 to specify:

We no longer allow items or listings that promote, support or glorify hatred toward or otherwise demean people based upon race, ethnicity, religion, gender, gender identity, disability, or sexual orientation; including items or content that promote organizations with such views.

Golliwogs, for whatever reason, don’t seem to count under this policy. According to a Change.org petition launched to address this issue:

In May of 2012 the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP attempted to reach out to Etsy only to receive this response: “…our members come from all walks of life, and may hold differing opinions of the legitimate collectability of certain types of historical items.”

Even given this flexible reading of what qualifies as “hate,” the above explanation would only seem to allow wiggle room for “historical items,” i.e., vintage pieces not made new, while Etsy also sells many contemporary Golliwog items. The situation gets murkier when we consider that some people may collect vintage Golliwog or pickaninny or other racist paraphernalia to document the hidden history of pop culture racism, or because it is -- for better or worse -- a major part of the history of American black folks and how blackness has been represented.

The image of the Golliwog is pretty shocking to those of us who haven’t seen it before, but in some quarters of the US -- as well as the UK -- this character is considered a beloved childhood icon of long ago, and it’s not just overtly racist pointy-hat-wearing white folks who are interested.

While I individually find these historical remains of prejudice and hatred to be absolutely horrifying and heartbreaking, I can’t instruct everyone, especially not people of color, on how to relate to Golliwog imagery. After all, erasing Golliwogs from public view does not mean racism no longer exists.

Unfortunately, not all of the Golliwog items on Etsy are vintage. Many are new, which means that some sellers are indeed turning a profit by reproducing these racist caricatures. Etsy, too, makes money every time an item is sold on their site, hence the criticism that they are profiting via the promotion of racism, historical or otherwise.

In an effort to hold Etsy accountable to its own policies, concerned Etsy users have launched a petition demanding that Etsy prohibit any further sales of Golliwog-related items, no matter their provenance.

What do you think? Should these items be banned? Do the vintage versions at least bear any historical value at all? Let us know in comments.