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Racism in Society

April 28, 2012

For those unfamiliar with the racist caricatures of the 19th and 20th centuries, they might be surprised to know that a good many objects on sale in society have links to slavery, minstrel shows and racism – including objects designed for children.

In a series of trips to shopping centres in Japan, we collected samples of memorabilia that had characteristics easily identifiable with earlier racist characters. In this first photograph, we documented a series of key chains. Whilst some look just fine, there are at least two that are questionable. The characters in question are called “sock moneys.” It is worth noting that though there is a possibility it is just a funny looking monkey key chain, they have black eyes, a strange noses and exaggerated red lips. If it were just a “monkey.” perhaps one would leave it at that. But it is the inclusion of physical characteristics that resemble those found in minstrel shows that our attention was drawn. No human being, or monkey for that matter, looks quite like these “sock moneys.”

These faces exhibit the exaggerated lips often found on blackface characters.

Al Jolson in "The Jazz Singer," 1927.

Many people might remember “The Jazz Singer,” the 1927 film with synchronised audio. In it Al Jolson appears in blackface with large, exaggerated red lips. There are differences, of course. Jolson is supposed to represent “black people,” and not monkeys. The “Sock monkeys” are supposed to represent “monkeys,” but they look more the intent was mimic minstrel characters. If true, one would have to ask why.

Whatever one’s opinion of these objects, there is no question that they can easily be purchased and used by children as ornaments attached to their school bags. It is currently the fashion for children of all ages to buy character pencil cases, note books, key chains, ornaments to attach to bags, pencils, erasers and more. We did not observe many instances of this, but there were a few. When we interviewed the students who had blackface dolls, they said they did not know what blackface was, and it was apparent that they thought they were just “kawai,” or cute characters.

Though this image does not contain a racist image, it illustrates how common characters are in educational settings. In the classrooms we visited, 9 out of 10 children had some sort of character on his/her person.

That is to be expected. Racism is not dealt with in Japan as it is in many societies, and children – according to our investigations – are often exposed to racial treatment that would be appalling to many in Europe of the United States. But Japan is not Europe, and does not ever confronted the major problems of racism. In one of the schools we visited, for example, the first things the teachers and staff did was to say, “Oh, we have mixed-race children in this school.” Such may seem like an innocent comment, and perhaps it was in this case. But why is race the first thing that came to their minds? Why was it necessary to point out and distinguish “mixed-race” children at all? The information, after all, was not solicited, and it was not clear how it would have been helpful to us in the least.

This is not to say that the school officials were racist. The point is show that race is a problem that needs to be dealt with. It is clear that school officials, students and society in general are exposed to things others would recognise as questionable, but are routine in the situations we observed, which go beyond the excerpts we discussed here. What role does ignorance play?

In racism the answer is quite a lot, actually. Just take the students mentioned earlier. They did not even know they were walking around with images designed to mimic slaves in the 1840s. When we pointed this out to them, their demeanor changed. They made it clear that they had no intention whatsoever of insulting African Americans or blacks in general. Some that we spoke, when informed of the similarities, did not look at those characters they had in the same way again. In short, they wanted to distance themselves from objects related to racism.Would education lead to a greater number of individuals rejecting racist imagery? The evidence suggests this is a possibility. Maybe those students might not purchase a “monkey” to walk around with when there is the possibility it is a reference to black people, something many people would find offensive.

Civis Journal

  1. swandiver
    April 30, 2012 at 16:23

    I am quite familar with the images of black people in the 19th and early 20th century. My father was a collector of “Negrobilia” as a reminder of just how far black people had come in such a short while. Given that, it was not the first thing that popped into my mind. The first thing that popped into my mind when I saw those toys was, in fact: sock monkeys.

    Sock Monkeys have been around so long as a children’s toy, I did some quick Google research in case I was ignorant of some hidden racial aspect. There was none. Sometimes a toy monkey is just a toy monkey.


  2. November 1, 2012 at 16:33

    Research is good. Unfortunately Wikipedia is not considered “research” by any stretch of the imagination. Tertiary sources are inadmissible; might try some primary and secondary sources instead.

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