B is for Blunder

Pretty much the last place you’d expect to hear accusations of unkindness is on Sesame Street.

While, in these fractious times, the venerable children’s program has run into opposition for depicting facets of everyday life that rankle conservatives, such as Covid and the existence of LGBTQ people, the show has still served as something of a unifying force, right up there with Mr. Rogers. Maybe it’s me just being a pollyanna, but these are characters so iconic that . Sesame Workshop, the production company behind the educational show-cum-sprawling licensed product juggernaut, reached this level of cultural relevance by keeping its focus on kids: kids live in worlds full of things that you might not like — like death, grief, food and housing insecurity, having parents who are incarcerated or struggling with addiction, and racism — but that they have to be able to deal with, and here they can learn about these things from characters they implicitly trust.

That trust is the most critical ingredient in the soup that makes Sesame Street so remarkable. Big Bird, Grover, Elmo, and company are essential companions for millions of kids, comforting friends who help them to learn and grow, and it’s why the company has largely avoided paying a cultural price for stepping beyond the boundaries of content that hand-wringers might consider appropriate for children, even when the topics themselves, such as AIDS, are cultural flashpoints. But trust is a fragile thing, and it can be easily damaged.

The current fracas surrounding video of alleged racial bias from a costumed performer at Sesame Place, an amusement park in Pennsylvania themed on the show, derives in large part from a sense of betrayal in that trust. The video is heartbreaking: the performer high fives someone in the crowd before coldly waving away two young Black girls whose excited faces immediately drop. Whether racially biased or not — the video certainly looks that way, although the performer says the wave wasn’t directed at the girls in particular — the outcome was the same: a beloved Sesame Street character made two kids cry. And that stings us in our souls.

This is extremely difficult terrain for Sesame Place because of the intense emotional bonds involved, a parent for a child and a child for a favorite character. Most consequentially, it stirs up in us, a sympathetic audience, pain on behalf of those girls, pain that we want immediately to fix. Soon, a furor erupted, intensified by the emergence of more videos alleging racism and biased treatment toward Black and Brown children from the same character. And so, the park’s management hastily released a statement explaining that the performer didn’t act intentionally and that visibility within the costumes can be so limited that the girls might not have been seen at all. But nobody wanted an explanation; regardless of what had happened, those two girls still cried. What good is an explanation? Harm done even unintentionally is still harm.

It was widely received on social media as a non-apology “apology,” a “we did nothing wrong, but sorry, I guess?” The tone was dismissive. The statement took for granted the employee’s assertion that the incident wasn’t intentional and gave no indication that it took the family’s complaints of racism seriously. No type of internal investigation was announced, and the statement suggests that the park gives no credence to even the possibility that the complaints were well-founded and valid.

And on top of all that, the statement seemingly lied in an apparent attempt to sweep things under the rug. Sesame Place claimed to have been in contact with the family and was making things right — something it should indeed have done well before issuing a statement. And yet, shortly after the statement was issued, the family said that they had in fact not received any kind of response or remediation from the park.

Eventually, a second apology followed. Where the first focused on absolving itself of responsibility, the second (if indirectly) acknowledged that harm was done, promised better training, and committed to not making guests feel unwelcome or unseen. This is a critical difference. I have no doubt, based on its history, that if Sesame Workshop owned the park, this would have been the first and last word; we are sorry, we hurt those girls, that was not our intent, but it happened, and we will do better. But, alas, the franchise is licensed to SeaWorld, a company that spent literally decades on the defensive for its treatment of cetaceans, especially orcas, and who (despite purchasing the park 14 years ago) does not seem entirely aware of the awesome responsibility of stewarding these characters and maintaining the trust of the franchise’s young audience for whom this is not simply entertainment, but a window out into a world they’re still trying to understand.

Regardless of how this was allowed to happen, whoever’s fault it was, it is Sesame Place’s duty to actively ensure that racism doesn’t permeate its park and to make things right for these girls and all its guests. To disclaim responsibility and minimize harm done to children to cover your own ass is antithetical to what Sesame Street is supposed to be. It might just be corporate IP to you, but it isn’t. Characters and stories are so much more than that. And unless you’re able to understand that, you have no business in show business.

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Eric Yaverbaum

Eric Yaverbaum

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New York Times Bestselling author of seven books. CEO of Ericho Communications