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‘Sesame Street’ models inclusivity, but it has left Black viewers behind

Why an alleged racist incident at the Sesame Place theme park isn’t shocking despite the show’s reputation for inclusivity

Lawyer B'Ivory Lamarr stands with community activists in New York City and members of the family of two young girls who he claims were ignored due to their race on July 20 by a Sesame Place actor dressed as Rosita at Sesame Place in Philadelphia.
8 min

On July 16, one of the Sesame Place theme park’s characters, Rosita, allegedly appeared to shake her head at two Black girls who had their arms outstretched for a hug, dismissing them after engaging with White children moments before. After a video of the incident went viral and the park issued an inadequate apology, the girls’ families filed a $25 million lawsuit and the theme park announced new diversity training for employees.

SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment owns the “Sesame Street”-based theme park, but Sesame Workshop, the show’s producer, helped create the park in 1980 and continues to receive funding from licensing fees. The park’s creation reflected how the show’s operators took advantage of its beloved brand to use licensed products — from toys to books to Sesame Place — to generate the necessary revenue to produce the program.

Initially, when video of the incident went viral, this tie to the “Sesame Street” brand made the alleged racism shocking to some online commenters because Americans have long perceived the show as a standard-bearer for racial diversity and inclusion. Yet history shows that the video is a visual representation of the way “Sesame Street” has often avoided talking about issues of race, and in doing so, has left Black viewers behind.

Shortly after “Sesame Street” premiered in fall 1969, a Black adviser for the show, Chester Pierce, wrote to creator Joan Ganz Cooney that while the show had a number of admirable qualities, he felt it was “more geared for Scarsdale than Watts.” Using the juxtaposition of a predominantly White suburban town and a Black urban neighborhood, Pierce argued that the show was not doing enough to reach Black viewers, especially since doing so was pivotal to securing funding for the creation of the program.

At least two of “Sesame Street’s” original funders, the Ford Foundation and agencies within the Office of Economic Opportunity, only committed funds to the project once it promised to reach minority audiences. But the show’s success also depended on securing a large enough audience to demonstrate its value and attractiveness. Louis Hausman, adviser to the U.S. Commissioner of Education, cautioned the workshop that targeting the show “too heavily at the disadvantaged” would alienate White audiences and imperil its success.

Producers were initially sensitive to this concern. They decided to feature a racially diverse cast and set the show in the city, but hesitated to go further. Yet advisers like Pierce pushed them to do more. Pierce wanted the show to depict the city from the perspective of a Black child, address issues of poverty directly and teach children how to confront racism. Producers pushed back. “I couldn’t imagine how this children’s show could reflect the reality that he was describing and do anything other than destroy the viewer,” producer Sam Gibbon said. “It just seemed so hopeless and awful.” The urban setting and diverse cast seemed like enough.

But responding to Pierce’s concerns, Cooney decided that because the show had received glowing reviews since its premiere, “we can begin to inject more ‘Watts’ as the days go by.” Having secured a large enough viewership to ensure the success of the show, Cooney now worried less about alienating White audiences.

Producers attempted to fulfill this mission in a number of ways. In season three, they invited prominent Black activists and artists to visit “Sesame Street” and speak directly about race.

Nina Simone sang “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black”; folk artist Brother Kirk performed songs about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman; and the Rev. Jesse Jackson recited a rendition of the civil rights call and response poem “I Am — Somebody” with a group of children.

Perched on the brownstone stoop of “Sesame Street,” Jackson called out to the children and they responded in kind: “I am Black, brown, White, I speak a different language, but I must be respected, protected, never rejected. I am God’s child. I am somebody.”

Jackson’s appearance is now regularly featured on “Sesame Street’s” social media, particularly when the show wants to promote its legacy of diversity and commitment to racial justice. But in 1972, White parents denounced the performance.

“Appalled,” “shocked,” “disappointed” and “disgusted,” White parents wrote to the workshop to express their concern about the “appropriateness of the Black Power type incidents” in this series of “Sesame Street” episodes.

“I was horrified to see you make these children chant,” one mother wrote. “I don’t care what they shout in unison, it is totalitarian & repellent!” Parents expressed concern that the children did not know what they were repeating. “The entire technique seemed very reminiscent of a Nazi rally,” one parent objected. “What was presented was indoctrination, not education.” Parents also objected to the content. “Perhaps some welfare recipients are ‘somebody,’ ” wrote one disgruntled parent, “and perhaps some blacks have more reason to be proud of being black than American …. [but] this type of regimented indoctrination has no place in an educational TV program.”

These parents demanded a return to the show’s “subtle technique of showing people living, working, and playing together.”

And the workshop listened. Moving forward, they chose a more colorblind approach, stepping away from explicitly talking about race and featuring Black artists who encouraged the racial pride of Black viewers. Colorblindness enabled producers to continue to represent Black viewers through the racial diversity of the cast without alienating the White audiences outraged by Jackson’s version of “I Am — Somebody.” It was the safest option to sustain the largest audience possible.

Two years after Jackson’s performance, folk singer and activist Jimmy Collier performed a more musical rendition of “I Am — Somebody” that demonstrated this new tact. Instead of talking specifically about race or class, Collier had the children focus on attributes like having short hair or long hair. His performance is one example of how “Sesame Street” embraced implicit messages to encourage children to accept differences over explicit mentions of race or racism.

“Sesame Street” has occasionally broken the colorblind script. In the early 1990s, the show featured a four-season-long curriculum on multicultural education. Incidents of racial violence in cities made head writer Norman Stiles realize that there wasn’t “a heckuva lot of racial harmony” outside of “Sesame Street.” Executive producer Dulcy Singer saw it as a time to be “more explicit about these things than in the past.”

The curriculum was one of many changes on “Sesame Street” for the show’s 25th anniversary. But when the tweaks failed to stanch the ratings losses experienced due to the success of “Barney & Friends,” producers abandoned most of them, including the curriculum.

In 2021, the workshop again interrupted its usual colorblind programming to demonstrate “Sesame Street’s” commitment to racial justice after the murder of George Floyd. It debuted a new initiative called “Coming Together,” which aimed to provide educational resources for families and integrate content about race and racism into “Sesame Street.”

But elements of “Sesame Street’s” legacy of colorblindness remained.

As part of the initiative, the workshop produced a new song that used the refrain “I Am — Somebody.” The song emphasizes the similarities between children, that everyone is “somebody” and children should stand up for one another. Even so, the lyrics did not mention what children should stand up against or what was dividing American society. It never explicitly named the threat of racism.

This exclusion exposed how the “Coming Together” initiative is not perfect. Nonetheless, it is a serious attempt to address racism and talk explicitly about race — a significant departure from most of “Sesame Street’s” history and a step toward the sort of “sustainable action plan” for “ending racial discrimination” that Jackson recently demanded from Sesame Place after the July incident.

Sesame Place is not part of the “Coming Together” initiative because it is not owned or operated by Sesame Workshop. But if “Coming Together” is central to “Sesame Street’s” brand, it offers an opportunity to partner with SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment and extend the mission to the theme park, where children go to see their favorite characters. The show’s powerful brand gives it an opportunity to be a force to actively combat racism. Surely it has acquired enough success to do so now.