Playmobil Stumbles Over Race in America; What We Can Learn

Headerf PlaymobilThe Playmobil Pirate Ship, pictured above, seems pleasant enough.  It contains 176 pieces including 4 pirate characters.  One of the pirates, however, is distinctive.  He is Black and he has a shackle around his neck.  Not only does he have a shackle around his neck but the instructions actually direct you to place it there (see image below).

Playmobil9n-4-webThe mother of an African-American child purchased the product, saw the shackled Black character and took to the social networks.   Did it have an impact?  You bet it did and that is why I got a call from the New York CBS affiliate to do an interview.  (Click here to see the interview)

Here are my thoughts and some lessons we can all learn from this incident:

1.    Depicting a Black character as a prisoner will be seen, particularly in America with our history of slavery, as an enslaved person.

2.    The concern on the part of that mother is fully understandable.  By showing the only Black character as enslaved, it provides her child with a subliminal if not overt negative message.

3.   Certainly,  no one at Playmobil saw this coming.  If they had it would never have left the design department.  

4.    So, how did it get out the door?  Possibly it was because the designer was a European (Playmobil is a German company) and lacked an American's sensitivity to our country's racial and slave history.  Maybe because whomever was in charge of designing the directions was not talking to whomever was designing the ship.  Maybe because they just screwed up.

So, what can we learn from this incident?  Well for one thing, Americans are not the only ones who make cultural errors when dealing in foreign markets.  European companies may want to check in with their American compatriots about potential, unintended cultural implications.

Ironically, another lesson is that being racially inclusive calls for designers and manufacturers to  have an enhanced sensitivity about race and ethnicity.


The toy industry in the mid-20th century tended to err on the side of omission.  It was rare to find a package that bore the faces of people of color.  That has, fortunately, changed and I suspect that Playmobil was trying to do the right thing by including a pirate of color.  

Obviously, showing people of color is not enough.  Yes, we need to be fully inclusive but realize that almost every racial and ethnic group carries a history of being stereotyped. Care therefore has to be taken with each individual character to determine whether the way they are depicted may cause unintentional hurt and anger.

I would like to know what you think.  Please let us know your thoughts.   

3 thoughts

  1. I can certainly understand and sympathize with a decision not to “go there” at all, but it’s also worth pointing out that this character is not enslaved _now_. He’s a scallawag, sailing the seven seas in search of plunder and adventure, and whether his shackle indicates a previous condition of enslavement or imprisonment, he clearly escaped that condition through courage and skill and no small derring-do. There’s a reality to slavery that we probably don’t want children to grapple with, but the reality of pirates — rife with murder, rape, betrayal, robbery, the spread of disease and misery — is no prettier. The version a child will play will be about adventures on the high seas… and would treat the shackle on one character’s neck as a signifier of earlier adventures. There can be time enough later for the child to learn that neither piracy nor enslavement was as fun as they imagined playing Playmobil Pirates.

  2. Sorry, but I must strongly disagree.
    1. The figure not a slave. He’s standing on top of the ship with a map and a gun.
    2. The figure is not of African descent – unless you want to see that hair as dredlocks, which is a stretch.
    3. The concern of the mother is overreaction. The pictures she posted on social media were ridiculous – the child crying, etc.
    I appreciate that Playmobil doesn’t gloss over anything in its toys – TSA playsets, guns, criminals, port-o-potties. If it’s part of life, it’s in a Playmobil set.
    If you are personally offended by the neckwear of a Playmobil fig, then throw that part away and move on (which my parents did with all the Playmobil pistols when I was a kid. They also blacked out certain Trivial Pursuit questions with a Sharpie, but that’s a longer story).
    Anyway, great to see you in Dallas, and thanks for bringing this story to the industry’s attention. I look forward to seeing more comments.
    Best,
    Ryan Hamilton

  3. I wonder if this isn’t better than the Texas school books that implied that slaves were simply “workers” in a section of the book that discussed patterns of immigration. I’m not saying that this toy is at all appropriate (the neck chain is definitely uncalled for), but pretending the past didn’t happen isn’t a solution either. Pirates aren’t just about gold and hidden treasure — but instead they played a big part in the slave trade. They attacked ships and costal settlements to obtain captives to sell into slavery. Granted if you dig deeper into the history of piracy you’ll learn that there were North Africans who attacked Europeans and took them as slaves. If Playmobil insists on including slaves in their play set, maybe the solution is to have multi-racial slaves onboard the Playmobil ship — but I’d still ditch the neck chain.

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