13 November 2013

Good golly, bad golly

Last month I came across the following blog post - Golly Blog - by a guy called Lemn Sissay.  Now before I even start - let me just state I don't have an answer to several hundred years of horrid. None.

In brief, and without the nuances, this fellow was offended by the sale of gollywogs in a shop in Scotland and what he perceived as a perpetuation of racism by the woman that owned the shop.  She sold them, therefore she was racist.  I have read the blog, the comments, the spin offs, some of the media pertaining to the story and I say that the truth is somewhere in the middle.

The 'offending' photo (source)
You see, if you do not live a life blighted by bigotry, you don't necessarily see it.  It's not that you are selfish, it's not that you are horrid or racist or mean.  If you hear people talk about the effects of bigotry on their lives, it can be hard to imagine it, because it is not your reality. And most of us are busy just getting on with the business of living.  We don't spend loads of time wondering why we aren't somebody else, and we VERY rarely wonder why we aren't somebody else with more problems.

I mean we say things like "but I don't see why the gays need to get married" when you yourself would be mortified if your heterosexual children had babies without being married because you think that true commitment means marriage.

We say things like "but everybody knows that the Aboriginals were here first, why does it have to be in the constitution" when we get offended that we weren't mentioned in Joe's wedding speech because we bloody well introduced them.

We say things like "well of course its best to detain refugees somewhere like Villawood because they could be a rapist or a criminal", at the same time as we wonder if the girl wasn't just a bit stupid going back to the home of a footballer on Mad Monday.

We say things like "that's just Al on her soapbox again" completely dismissing the fact that there is room on my soapbox for two. Or three. Or four. And that we have plenty of time to complain about the price of bananas or smelly people on the train.

And that was what really struck me with the Lemn Sissay blog.  He lives his life expecting bigotry. She lives hers expecting none.  And instead of a dialogue there was defensiveness. Hurt. Anger. A distortion of two truths which are equally valid.

I confess that up until recently, there have been gollywogs in our household.  I have never seen them as sinister, in fact, they have been beloved toys gifted to me as a child and then my children.  The fact that they were black and dressed in stripes had absolutely no relevance to me.  They were just beloved toys in stripy clothes.

And that is good on one level.  We should make sure that signs that are indicative of evil or malice lose their potency by reducing them to nothing.  It is ultimately a rag doll no matter who dreamt it up when and where.  But it's symbolism is something extraordinary, its power is ongoing.  It represents a big big issue which is still not resolved.

It is something on which people can focus their rage, their hurt and their bewilderment.  And that makes it bad.  For if we can take away those symbols, if we acknowledge that these small toys which mean nothing negative in our own bigotry free world, but which means a world of pain in another... we can in a small way make a difference.

So the gollies are gone from our house.  Because in reading Lemn Sissay's blog, I got to thinking about how we can all justify small breaches of peace and tolerate small acts of bigotry. I read the comments and was embarrassed to find that even this bleeding heart leftie socialist was understanding the points of view that basically said "duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuude, it's just a doll, chill."

Ouch.

What is that teaching my girls?  What if they ask me later on 'Mum, did you know that gollywogs are symbols of oppression and really upset some people because it reminds them of some really horrible things?' and my only answer was 'Yeah, but duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuudes aren't they are cute'?

What then? What next?