Outraged customers demand Playmobil stop selling 'racist' figure

The NAACP is demanding action after discovering a Playmobil toy character portraying a dark-skinned figure with a slave collar. Is it racist?

Luke MacGregor/Reuters
A security guard watches as a giant Playmobil character is carried during the launch of an event to mark Playmobil's 40th anniversary, at Camden in London April 30, 2014.

The NAACP is demanding a response to what it calls a “deplorable” toy character in a children’s pirate play set, a dark-skinned male doll that it says looks like a slave.

“It’s a racist piece, it’s a racist toy,” said Ida Lockett, whose son received the toy set for his birthday. “He was excited when he got it. I spent the weekend putting it together.”

Ms. Lockett told CBS Sacramento that she believed the character was intended to be racist after finding a separate piece they were instructed to put around his neck.

“You cannot have this specific accessory and call it anything else,” she said. “The fact that you can Google it, look it up, try to say what it is—it’s a slave collar.”

She also said the ship contained what appeared to be a dungeon.

“This is deplorable, this cannot be accepted, and it needs to be pulled off the shelf,” said Sacramento NAACP President Stephen Webb.

Aimee Norman, the aunt who had gifted the set to Lockett’s son, took to the manufacturer’s Facebook page to complain.

#PlaymobilUSA, I am MORTIFIED to have recently bought your Pirate Ship Set 5135 for my nephew only to hear that when assembling it, they found that its assembly instructions indicate to add the neck cuff/shackle to the black character's neck,” she wrote. “I suppose it's optional as to whether a kid chooses to then place said character into chains or into a prison cell at the bottom of the ship.” 

Playmobil said in a statement to The Washington Post that the set was created to portray pirates in the 17th century.

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.

This is not the first time the German toy company has been accused of insensitivity, racial or otherwise. 

Some have complained in the past that the company's sets relegate minority characters to stereotypical or backward roles, and fails to integrate them into mostly-white play sets. Others have criticized the company's portrayal of indigenous characters.

Boing Boing's Tanya Schevitz explained her discomfort of the "clueless" company's products, such as a policeman arresting a drunk, apparently homeless man and a cowboys-and-Indians battle at an Old West fort: 

... it was when my preschooler expressed his excitement over the massacre of the Native Americans, that I really realized that Playmobil actually provides the perfect opportunity to teach social justice – through its absolute and utter failure at it.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.