Toys edify children’s social and intellectual development. They tell stories children cannot spell out for themselves and create worlds that children dream to be apart of. The creative blueprint for the production of toys also happens to teach children how the world adapts color and character. The blueprint therefore affects how children see the world, themselves, and others.
PlayMobil, an exceedingly popular toy brand produced by the Zirndorff, Germany-based Brandstätter Group, has adapted the Pirate Ship story via a set, which includes a “Black” figure that portrays an enslaved person. There is no evidence to prove that the toy production was based on inherent racism. Nor is there evidence that the intent was to teach children the story of enslavement through the art of play–a reckless demonstration of sorts. I do believe this is another case of cultural incompetence. The underlying dialogue is that we are all apart of a system that oppresses the disadvantaged or under privileged, leaving no room for sensitivity towards people of color in many cases. The sensitivity should have been placed on whether or not people of color would have been offended by this specific toy set.
It was certainly a sensitive issue for Ida Lockett of Sacramento, whose five-year-old son received the playset as a birthday gift but was surprised when she found what was in the instructions.
“It’s definitely racist,” she told CBS Sacramento. “It told my son to put a slave cuff around the black character’s neck, and then to play with the toy.”
In this case of offense, the production of a toy as a re-telling of a painful story is a true exemplar for cultural incompetence. The opposite, being cultural competence, would insert a sensitivity towards what is communicated in the process of deciding which stories are being told in the production of children’s toys. Cultural competence would also render history based research and parental insight as the leading decision influences for how children are learning, through play, when they aren’t the ones teaching them. It is not enough to suggest that toys are for mere play as the process of toy imagining, proposing, producing, and displaying is quite extensive.
In consideration of the position that Playmobil has held as one of the leading toy producers, especially in comparison to Lego, Hans Beck, it’s originator, initially proposed the figurine and community idea with the notion of allowing children the space to assign whatever story to the toys their imaginations would allow. The birthing concept was not necessarily based on cultural bias, preference or privilege. It was based on finding a way for children to engage in a level of play that did not limit their outlook on fun and community. It also appears as if Playmobil, outside of the notion of flight, fancy, and family, showcases historical bits, whose stories have either been told or are currently being retold because of informational discrepancies or bias delivery.
For their part, Playmobil has been publicly downplaying any intent on racial insensitivity. The company has tried to point out what the character would be in an actual pirate ship setting
“This piece is from a Playmobil pirate playset that is designed to depict life on a 17th-century pirate ship on the high seas, a Playmobil spokesperson told E! Online in a statement. “If you look at the box, you can see that the pirate figure is clearly a crew member on the pirate ship and not a captive. The figure was meant to represent a pirate who was a former slave in a historical context. It was not our intention to offend anyone in any way”
Herein lies the issue. I’m not convinced that Playmobil’s Pirate Ship set was intentionally created to offend or cause the racist discourse that many of us have joined or witnessed. Tales of a pirate’s life and documented history is not unknown to stories of at sea wars and conquests. However, I would strongly assert that it was a poor decision for a toy set to include “Black” figures, while apparently communicating a story type that involves slavery, slave keeping, slave labor, or the like.
We are living in a time where profiling and stereotyping is a real, living, societal organism. People of color have been at war against biases that perpetuate these exact labels. Enslavement, in all its forms, is not a story we should ever ignore, but in relation to people of color, it is not a story worth re-living.
The wisest decision would have been to adapt the toy to mimic a community of people who do not represent the groups of people of color who have been generationally estranged due to enslavement and oppression in any of their ugly forms (i.e. Christopher Columbus and the Indigenous People of America, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the Holocaust, etc.) It would also be wise of toy companies, who desire to re-tell these stories via the art of play, to first consider all racist implications that would deem them the hub of derogatory typecasts, and secondly adopt a mentality that shows how much cultural competence can influence a healthy imagination and worldview.