Sesame Street has introduced two new Black characters — 5-year-old Wes and his father Elijah — as part of their effort to help children understand racial literacy, build empathy, and embrace diversity.
Sesame Workshop, the non-profit educational organization behind the long-running show, wants to support families in talking openly to their children about race and how to stand up against racism. “ABCs of Racial Literacy” is part of Coming Together, the organization’s ongoing racial justice initiative.
“At Sesame Workshop, we look at every issue through the lens of a child. Children are not colour blind—not only do they first notice differences in race in infancy, but they also start forming their own sense of identity at a very young age,” said Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, Senior Vice President, Sesame Workshop. “‘The ABCs of Racial Literacy’ is designed to foster open, age-appropriate conversations among families and support them in building racial literacy. By encouraging these much-needed conversations through Coming Together, we can help children build a positive sense of identity and value the identities of others.”
Families can watch music videos where Sesame Street Muppets celebrate their own unique identities, see real families talking about their experiences, and participate in activities together. There are also “conversation sparks” to encourage questions and dialogue about race and racism.
Five-year-old Wes and his father, Elijah, made their debut in a short online video. In it, Elmo meets Wes and Elijah sitting on a bench amid colourful falling leaves. Holding up a red leaf like his own fur, and one that’s brown like the colour of Wes’s skin, Elmo asks why Wes’s skin is brown. Elijah explains the concept of melanin and that the colour of our skin is an important part of who we are, and that it’s ok that we all look different in so very many ways.
In an upcoming video, Rosita’s mom and her friend Sofia help Rosita cope with a racist incident in the grocery store, while also celebrating speaking Spanish. Content will also address the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes across Canada and America with an original song specifically about anti-Asian racism.
Sesame Workshop explains that content is created through extensive research and consultation with experts, and that the framework will help guide and inform the creation of new content going forward.
“Sesame Workshop has always stood for diversity, inclusion, equity, and kindness. As a trusted source for families, we have a responsibility to speak out for racial justice and empower families to have conversations about race and identity with their children at a young age,” said Kay Wilson Stallings, Executive Vice President of Creative and Production, Sesame Workshop. “The work to dismantle racism begins by helping children understand what racism is and how it hurts and impacts people.”
In addition to its resources that currently target kids aged 3 to 5, the Coming Together initiative will expand its racial justice educational plans to children 6 to 8, and then again to include parents of toddlers and infants.
Coming Together: The ABCs of Racial Literacy resources are available for free in English and Spanish at SesameWorkshop.org/ComingTogether. New content will be added regularly.
Racism and discrimination in Canada
Racism and discrimination are a worldwide threat, and Canada is no exception. Children First Canada’s report Raising Canada 2020: Ringing the Alarm for Canada’s Children, lists systemic racism and discrimination as one of the top 10 threats to childhood. The report notes that “racism profoundly impacts the physical and mental health of children, adolescents, emerging adults, and their families.” In a recent Angus Reid survey of more than 500 Canadian adults of Chinese ethnicity, half (50 per cent) reported being called names or insulted as a direct result of the COVID-19 outbreak, and 43 per cent said they have been threatened or intimidated. Just over half of adults surveyed worried that Asian children would be bullied on their return to school.