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How Sesame Street Uses Muppets to Teach Inclusion in the US and Abroad

We spoke with Professor Naomi Moland to learn more about how Sesame Street and its cast of Muppets teach children around the world to respect diversity--and each other.

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Sesame Street Muppets in Universal Studios Singapore.

In addition to educating about letters and numbers, Sesame Street and its cast of Muppets teach children around the world to respect diversity and promote inclusion, with more than thirty co-productions of the program viewed in more than 150 countries. Recently, Sesame Street introduced two new Black Muppets to teach children about racial difference.

We spoke with SIS professor Naomi Moland, author of Can Big Bird Fight Terrorism? Children's Television and Globalized Multicultural Education, to learn more about Sesame Street’s cast of Muppets, how the show approaches complex topics in child-friendly ways, and how international versions of the program tackle country-specific sensitivities in a non-Western context.

Q: Sesame Street recently introduced two new Black Muppets to teach children about racial difference. First, are you surprised that it’s taken so long for Sesame Street to include Black Muppets, given the show’s long history of diverse human casts?

Well, it is not quite accurate to say there have never been Black Muppets. In the 1970s, there was a character named Roosevelt Franklin. He was technically purple—part of a recurring segment that took place in an elementary school with other Muppets whose hairstyles, dress, and speech (which some linguists might call African American Vernacular English) were designed to represent Black communities. Ultimately, he was taken off the show. Some critiqued his representation as stereotypical and inauthentic; others objected to the fact that his school portrayed rowdy and unruly scenes. The issues around Roosevelt Franklin illustrate a central dilemma in representing diversity: depictions of difference can potentially reproduce stereotypes.

More recently, a 2010 segment called “I Love My Hair” shows a Muppet with brown skin singing about her hair and how she likes to wear it natural, as an Afro, in cornrows, braids, and so on. Many other segments throughout Sesame Street’s 50-year history have included Muppets who come in all colors.

It is true that none of the main Muppet characters on Sesame Street have been Black Muppets, but very few of the main characters are humanoid and of any skin color, or arguably, any race. Most of the other main characters—Big Bird, Elmo, Cookie Monster, Rosita, Abby, Oscar—are monsters or birds or fairies and come in a wide variety of colors. Sesame’s creators have always seen this multi-hued cast of monsters as representing diversity, even when the characters do not represent particular races or ethnicities.

Throughout the years, though, Sesame Workshop has conducted research that suggests that metaphorical representations of diversity (such as multicolored Muppets) might not be explicit enough for young children. If a young child sees that blue and green monsters can be friends, for example, he or she might not transfer that idea to an understanding that diverse humans can be friends. The program has always included humans cast members from all racial backgrounds. The recent move to create more explicitly Black Muppets is part of their move to address racial issues head-on.

As part of these efforts, Sesame Street Muppets teamed up with CNN last summer—weeks after George Floyd’s killing—to host a town hall, “Coming Together, Standing Up to Racism.” Muppets, children, families, and child development experts discussed racism, white privilege, protests, and police brutality in terms kids can understand, such as fairness/unfairness, sadness, anger, and kindness. Kids submitted tough questions, such as “My nana used to protest in the 1960s. Why do we have to do this again and again and again?” and “If a police officer is supposed to serve and protect people, why would he hurt me because of the color of my skin?” By co-sponsoring and organizing events that address such questions, Sesame Workshop is light years ahead of many children’s television programs that still fail to include diverse characters. Their new Black Muppets—and the explicit discussions these Muppets are having about race and racism—are pretty groundbreaking.

Q: How has Sesame Street, either the original US version or any of the myriad global versions, used new Muppets in the past to teach children about other topics like HIV, autism, and homelessness?

Sesame Workshop has relied on the appeal of loveable Muppets to approach all kinds of complex topics in child-friendly ways. The Muppet Kami, who first appeared on Takalani Sesame in South Africa, is HIV+ and teaches children that you can be friends with someone who is HIV+ and that you cannot catch the disease from hugging them. Julia, a recently added autistic Muppet on the American Sesame Street, teaches that children with autism sometimes communicate and process emotions differently. In the US and around the world, Muppets have tackled complex issues including parent incarceration, homelessness, obesity, malaria, ethnic and religious tensions, and so on. Sesame Workshop conducts extensive background research to develop characters that will appeal to children and communicate complex topics in ways children can understand.

Q: Your book, Can Big Bird Fight Terrorism?, focuses on the Nigerian version of Sesame Street, which is called Sesame Square. How does this program specifically teach children to respect diversity and tolerate others in a non-Western context?

In Nigeria, themes of diversity were more connected to religion and ethnicity than to race. The program’s creators had to represent diversity in different ways than by the various skin colors which would be used to represent diversity in the US. Creators used diverse clothing, foods, languages, names, and religious symbols (such as the hijab) to illustrate diversity, and also included Sesame’s general messages about kindness and respect for people who are different from you. In the book, I argue that these celebrations of diversity played out differently than they would in the US context, due to deep demographic divisions and escalating ethno-religious violence in Nigeria. Some of the program’s creators worried that celebrating diversity could ultimately be divisive, given the current context. This debate illustrates a fundamental dilemma of multiculturalism.

Q: You’ve previously joined us on the Big World podcast to discuss this research. For those who haven’t yet listened to your interview, how does Sesame Square break down barriers and unify Nigerian identities while also combating extremism and tackling country-specific sensitivities?

The task of celebrating Nigeria’s diversity and attempting to build national unity—amidst escalating terrorism—was a daunting one. Sesame Square’s messages of tolerance and unity were undermined by the surrounding atrocities committed by the terrorist group Boko Haram and by the Nigerian government. In this context, some of the program’s creators worried that showing diverse children playing together would seem unrealistic to viewers. Nevertheless, the program proceeded in promoting messages that directly countered messages from Boko Haram, including messages about the importance of education, girls’ empowerment, and ethno-religious tolerance. Peace Education scholars theorize that sometimes during active conflict, the most that education can do is help to humanize “the other,” and Sesame Square certainly worked to do that by including children from all parts of Nigeria.

Q: How can Sesame Street and its cast of Muppets continue to support diversity and tolerance in different ways? What other groups or topics would you like to see represented on the program in the future?

Sesame Street and its 30+ international iterations have continually evolved in their approaches to addressing diversity, and it will be fascinating to watch how these programs continue to adapt. Conversations about diversity are in some ways very particular to local contexts; all countries have different types of diversity with different histories and saliences. On the other hand, diversity conversations are also increasingly globalized. For example, George Floyd’s killing sparked all kinds of protests—related to all kinds of identities and injustices—around the world. Studying international versions of Sesame Street provides a fascinating window into how different societies are seeking to address diversity and build intergroup tolerance.

In the US, it is high time that Sesame Street include human characters from the LGBT+ community. This is a complex undertaking, especially since inclusion of LGBT+ characters might lead to boycotts in other parts of the world against Sesame programs. I still think this is an important next step for the American Sesame Street, as I argued in my op-ed in USA Today. American families need resources for teaching children about diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.