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On 'Sesame Street,' Two New Black Muppets Teach Kids About Systemic Inequality, Racism

Wesley Walker (center) and his father Elijah (left) (Richard Termine/Sesame Workshop)
Wesley Walker (center) and his father Elijah (left) (Richard Termine/Sesame Workshop)

“Sesame Street” has a few new neighbors.

The children’s program introduced its first gay couple earlier this month in an episode called “Family Day.” And now, the world meets two new Black muppets who are taking on race and racism: 5-year-old Wes and his father Elijah.

Throughout the show’s 52-year history, “Sesame Street” has taken on many societal issues. The new characters are part of a series called “The ABC’s of Racial Literacy.”

Rocío Galarza, vice president in the U.S. Social Impact Department at Sesame Workshop, says the show wanted to deliver messaging around race in an age-appropriate way for young children.

“[Racism is] an issue that preschoolers are tackling because children begin to observe and internalize messages around race at a very young age,” she says. “And for us, it was very important to have tools and resources to be able to tackle this in an explicit way.”

Two Black muppets, Tamir and Gabrielle, were already “Sesame Street” residents but they’re a bit older than Wes. Young children need their caregivers to guide them through these issues, Galarza says, which inspired the character of Elijah.

Elijah’s guidance and explanations can serve as a model for how caregivers can talk to children about race and racism. “Sesame Street” aims to give adults talking points to facilitate these conversations, she says.

“Children are not colorblind and we know that they’re very curious about the skin color, how they look. They want to talk about these things,” she says. “And it is up to us, to us adults to use language that is age-appropriate to then explore it with them and to be as honest as we can, but still be very understanding that they are seeing it through a kid’s eyes.”

“The ABC’s of Racial Literacy” is starting the conversation with young kids talking about identity in ways such as understanding skin color. The next stage will focus on fairness and what unfair situations look like.

In one scene, someone makes fun of Wes’ curry chicken lunch and Elijah helps his son cope with this race-related situation, she says.

“It’s an ongoing conversation so we have to keep updating and providing more resources,” she says. “But right now, we’re talking a little bit more about those circumstances that children experience themselves that are not fair.”

In another scene, Wes and a character named Alan comfort a young girl who says a boy at the park told her she was “ugly” because of her “slanty” eyes. This interaction turns a hurtful situation into a learning moment that connects the shape of the girls’ eyes to her family story.

“Having a simple strategy that at least connects their feelings to the situation and also lets [kids] know that they can reach out for help for an adult is very important to have beforehand,” she says. “And hopefully we can prevent some of these situations from happening.”

Marcelle Hutchins produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill RyanAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.