Posted on March 25, 2021

Sesame Workshop Is Talking More Explicitly About Race

Cady Lang, Time, March 23, 2021

Bradley Freeman Jr. was doing some Christmas shopping at Target when he got the email. {snip}


“I had to read it over, like, seven different times to make sure that I actually got the part,” he says. {snip}

The part—the one that had him “hyperventilating in the middle of Target”—is the puppeteer for Wesley Walker, a new Black Muppet who, along with his father Elijah, will be introduced on March 23 by Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind Sesame Street. {snip}


But while Sesame Workshop has always highlighted the importance of multiculturalism and inclusivity—and featured a racially and ethnically diverse human cast—it’s never really tackled race and racism head-on. In recent years, though, it’s become increasingly apparent how important it is to address these topics in early childhood. Studies have indicated that people can begin recognizing racial difference as infants, but a 2019 study by Sesame Workshop, conducted in partnership with the social-research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, found that many parents rarely or never discuss race or ethnicity with their kids.

The decision to give Wes and Elijah a racial identity—and to have them talk about what it’s like to be Black in America—represents a marked shift in approach. “After last summer with the racial unrest that happened and the murder of George Floyd, we collectively as an organization decided that the only way that we could go about dismantling racism was by being bold and explicit,” says Kay Wilson Stallings, the executive vice president of creative and production for Sesame Workshop. “People were working remotely. People were feeling a lot of emotions, and it was almost like everyone had the same realization. If not Sesame, who’s going to address this? It felt like everyone had the same, ‘Yes, we’ve got to do something about it, and the first way to address it is that we need to define racism for 3-year-olds.’”

As a result, Sesame Workshop and its team of educational advisers developed Coming Together, a racial-justice initiative with an educational framework and curriculum, which in the eight months since it launched has included a town hall with CNN about racism and protest, as well as a special, The Power of We, about speaking out against systemic inequality and prejudice. In one viral clip from the June town hall, Elmo’s dad Louie explains the demonstrations Elmo has been seeing outside his window: “On Sesame Street, we all love and respect one another. Across the country, people of color, especially in the Black community, are being treated unfairly because of how they look, their culture, race and who they are. What we are seeing is people saying enough is enough. They want to end racism.”

Now it is launching a set of resources it’s calling the ABCs of Racial Literacy, with the aim of giving children, parents and educators the language and tools to talk more openly about race and racism. It is the latest addition to Coming Together, and another sign that the organization is making this subject matter a more integrated part of the programming and curriculum. Jeanette Betancourt, the senior vice president of U.S. social impact for Sesame Workshop, who has worked there nearly 30 years, says it’s a logical step in its evolution. “It’s not necessarily taking a risk but meeting a demand that we know we need to meet,” she says.


While the protests of 2020 faded all too quickly from many people’s minds, Sesame Workshop doesn’t consider the events of last summer merely a moment of reckoning. Even before Floyd was killed, Betancourt says, the nonprofit was thinking about programming around historical trauma and systemic racism. But the urgency around these issues became clear. {snip}

As part of the Coming Together initiative, Elijah and Wes will be joined by 6-year-old Gabrielle and her 8-year-old cousin Tamir, two other Black Muppets who also appeared in earlier broadcasts. (Gabrielle, once known as Segi, went viral about a decade ago singing a song called “I Love My Hair.”) In another new video, the ebullient teal monster Rosita, who has talked frequently about her Mexican identity and expressed her love for her abuela, confides in a friend about a racist incident she experienced while speaking Spanish in a grocery store. {snip}

Calvin Gidney, an associate professor of child development at Tufts University, says he applauds Sesame Workshop for taking on this topic. “We’re at quite a cultural moment, and I’m glad that Sesame Street has chosen which side of that particular cultural war it wants to come down on,” he says. But he notes that if the organization really wants to confront structural racism, white characters must explore their own racialization too. “If it were just Black, Indigenous and people of color who have these discussions, then it would still perpetuate the idea that whiteness is not a racial category,” Gidney says. “It can sort of make whiteness absent in the conversation, whereas I think whiteness is at the center of the conversation. I think it’s super important that white families also learn how to model talking about race with their kids.” Sesame Workshop’s own study backs this up: only 26% of white parents said they were likely to discuss race and ethnicity with their children, compared with 61% of Black parents.

Wilson Stallings says they intend to speak to a wide audience with their racial-justice programming. “There are different approaches and different needs and different ways of bringing in the audience, whether you’re BIPOC or whether you’re not BIPOC,” she says, but they made a conscious decision that this work would focus initially on Black and brown communities, “because those are the folks that are most impacted with systemic racism.” She emphasizes that Sesame Workshop is making a long-term commitment to talking about these issues from all angles. {snip}

In addition to the ABCs of Racial Literacy, the racial-justice programming will be part of Season 52 of Sesame Street, which will air in late 2021, and a focus of Season 53. The nonprofit will also be developing a framework for parents of infants to 2-year-olds, Wilson Stallings says, and they’d like to create content focused on racial justice for 6- to 8-year-olds. “Racial justice is now part of our DNA,” she says. “You can’t unsee.”