Playmobil is perhaps best known for being the also-ran in the best-toys-that-snap-together competition against Lego, despite predating its Danish counterpart. But the German toymaker has been selling perfectly enjoyable sets like this knight-and-dragon combo, or this homage to Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid” painting, for a while. Unfortunately, the professed attention to historical detail that Playmobil incorporated in its pirate-ship set has created a public relations nightmare.
On Tuesday, CBS Sacramento interviewed Ida Lockett, who said she recently helped her son put together a Playmobil set he got for his birthday. As mother and son were assembling the pirate ship, they noticed that one figure was dark-skinned, shoeless, and appeared to be wearing tattered clothes. They then saw a little gray collar and what appeared to be instructions for placing the collar around the figure’s neck.
Lockett said she was appalled by the implications of shackling one of the set’s dark-skinned figures as part of “playing pirates.” The figure in the photo above was also the only one in the set with that kind of “accessory.” She told CBS Sacramento “[i]t was definitely racist. It told my son to put a slave cuff around the black character’s neck, and then to play with the toy.”
Playmobil didn’t respond to CBS Sacramento’s request for a comment on the matter earlier in the week, nor did it appear to reply to Lockett when she reached out to the company via Facebook. But the toymaker did attempt to clear up the snafu with a statement to The Washington Post.
“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 anyway.”
Now, no one thinks of pirates as especially nice guys, not even when they’re played by actors like Johnny Depp and pickled musicians like Keith Richards. Even the ones in that VeggieTales movie were kind of dicks. And although the Playmobil set doesn’t list the year or century in which its toy pirates are pretend-plundering, the fact that slavery went on for hundreds of years means the toymaker isn’t making up the “historical context” in which one of the people aboard the ship might have been once been a slave. And since the figure is a former slave, everyone—including the Sacramento NAACP—should just relax, right?
But that’s not the kind of authenticity that most parents (let alone kids) are looking for when they buy toys, so Playmobil’s decision to utilize that particular characterization is questionable at best. Historical context aside, the company isn’t marketing these toys as educational, as was the case with this game about the colonial-era slave trade that demonstrated the horrors of slavery by having players stack bodies as if they were playing Tetris. And anyway, if Playmobil wants to sell toys with a narrative about former slaves, it should come up with something better than “former slave turns to life of crime on the high seas”—that is, if it wants to prove it doesn’t just lack the imagination of the folks at Lego.