Playmobil’s Mythical Africans: Part II

Written by Love Isn’t Enough Contributor TAB. This is the second in a two-part series. Read Part I.

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I believe the many negative, misinformed stereotypes about Africans starts from an early age, which is why I was incensed about Playmobil’s “African” figures. I am grateful that such misguided images have had minimal impact on my children since they are countered by far more frequent interactions with my family. But how many children who see Playmobil’s “African” figures have that? How many, instead, will be socially conditioned, with the help of such toys, to see Africans as something exotic, and, if they are black children, as something shamefully exotic? (See the Clark Doll Test). Presenting African dolls as different-in-a-bad-way is a perpetuation of the prejudice discussed in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 which specifically cited the test as a basis for outlawing racial segregation in public schools; to that extent, Playmobil singling out its “native” African dolls as the only ones without technology, weapons, or non-violent options also has an effect of segregation. It is Othering and essentialist in the extreme. (See also A Girl Like Me showing similar results about 50 years later.)

These negative stereotypes highlight the danger of promoting a single image and a single narrative. It is not uncommon to find Americans of all ages, including college graduates, who think of Africa as a monolithic, primitive country [sic] filled with people who have no history of civilization, notwithstanding ancient Egypt, which is routinely perceived as un-African. In fact, Playmobil’s separate “Egyptian Family” (2010 Catalog, #7386) and “The Soldiers of Pharaohs,” (#7382, #7383) support this belief: they are lighter-skinned than the “African Natives,” perpetuating the erroneous belief that melanin content is inversely proportional to intellect, as exhibited by technological advancement. For example, the Egyptians are fully-clothed and sporting jeweled necklaces but the “African Natives,” in varying stages of dress, wear animal teeth. The Egyptian soldiers carry weapons that involve a more sophisticated level of handicraft, such as arrows and axes. The “Africans Natives” carry spears and shields. The “African chief” carries a spear with a skull on it. The Egyptians and white dolls have armies. Despite being warriors, the “Africans” have no organized military unit, no transportation, nothing.  “Africans” are aggressive but apparently not intelligent enough to organize an army.  An army implies organization, strategy, purpose and the potential to conquer.  There is only one “Zulu warrior,” and the “chief” and “natives,” although equipped with weapons, are apparently aimlessly violent.  In a battle against the “Egyptians,” “Romans,” “Vikings,” etc., who would win? (I understand that many parents have issue with violent toys for children but that is a different point. For the parents that do not have issue with it, what else are their children learning when they play battle?) The “native” “Africans” are incapable of defending themselves to any great extent. Without empires, villages or even families, they have nothing to defend, nothing to lose, little of value outside of their presumably-fit bodies. It is as if they were built to be subjugated. The level of disregard for Africans’ place within human history, or even the human race, is significant.

After all, if we had anything worth showing, Playmobil would have included these things as it did with the other “races,” right? Stripped of any further context, the vacuum created by Playmobil leaves consumers, especially Western consumers, unlimited freedom to project whatever (mis)interpretation they like onto these dolls and, by extension, Africans.  We have no meaning, serve no purpose, absent Western assignations.

It is significant that the only Playmobil buildings related to Africa belong to the ancient Egyptian or “Vast African Wild Life” collections.  As previously discussed, Playmobil has distinguished these collections as clearly unAfrican. For example, Playmobil’s “Vast African Wild Life” collection includes a play set with a Wild Life Care Station, staffed, one assumes from their clothing and accouterments , by zoologists or naturalists, all dressed in Western clothing.  Given the racial composition of the dolls, with only one sharing the same dark brown color as the “natives,” “chief” and “Zulu warrior,” it is clear not only who is running the Station but at whose direction it was built. Playmobil’s dearth of African architecture is a telling omission.  All of the discrepancies convey a clear message that “Africans” in their “native” state are less-than.

The idea of Africa as unevolved persists.  For example, a well-intentioned American acquaintance of mine expressed surprise that there were farms in Kenya – despite regularly buying coffee at Starbucks, which lists Kenyan coffee beans among its stock. She was college-educated yet could not conceive of an African country being “civilized” enough, or having people intelligent enough, to start and sustain farms, let alone farms that conducted business internationally. With nothing to counteract it, she had accepted the stereotype of Africans as incompetent as fact.

Playmobil’s misrepresentation of Africans is a big deal. It is a line of toys produced by the Brandstätter Group, a German-based company with worldwide distribution. Its influence in shaping children’s perceptions is that much greater.  Its inadequate portrayals of non-Westernized Africans sends a subtle yet insidious message to children regarding who is civilized and desirable and who is not  and, therefore, who is “better” or superior . . . and who is not. They may not understand the message as children, but I have encountered enough adults who assume most Africans had no self-governance, technology, or even agency, prior to European invasion. They see us as a continent of children in adult bodies, fully formed yet still fundamentally undeveloped. 

You may be wondering what I did about the Playmobil dolls. I spoke to store managers at different stores. They understood my concerns. They contacted the store’s buyer, who called to apologize, and they pulled the doll from the stores. I also wrote to the USA Playmobil subsidiary. I am awaiting a response. For now, although my children love Playmobil, my family and I will find other manufacturers to financially support.

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