The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
PHILADELPHIA — Officials at Sesame Place have issued multiple apologies after an actor in a Rosita costume snubbed two little black girls who visited the amusement park this month. In the stormy aftermath that has included protests and additional allegations of racism, Sesame Place has pledged to institute mandatory diversity, equity and inclusion training for its staff.
Real talk: DEI alone will not solve this problem, because DEI does not teach decency and good manners. A mean person, disguised as a friendly “Sesame Street” monster, decided it was okay to behave meanly towards two black children. Instead of greeting the little girls with outstretched arms — or at the very least giving them a high five — this moron, disguised as a puppet, chased them away after giving other kids — white kids — mad love. And more and more videos have surfaced of black children being ignored by Sesame Place characters, demonstrating a pattern of abuse.
And to top it off, another federal lawsuit was filed Wednesday in Philadelphia accusing Sesame Place and its parent company of allowing more costumed characters to racially discriminate against black children. This complaint alleges that multiple characters — Elmo, Ernie, Telly and Abby Cadabby — ignored 5-year-old Kennedi Burns of Baltimore on June 5. Kennedi’s father, Quinton Burns, appeared at a press conference in Philadelphia on Wednesday afternoon to announce the lawsuit.
That’s a shame.
Let’s be clear: this column does not impugn the need for DEI training, so people who complain about being forced to recognize black history as American history may chill their racist heels. Diversity, equity and inclusion training in the workplace aims to teach people to recognize the unconscious biases that lead them to treat their black colleagues as servants. DEI also helps institutions educate employees about systemic racism that results in inequities in housing, pay, education, transportation, and access to food.
DEI training, however, does not teach basic manners. It doesn’t encourage kindness. That doesn’t heal a bitter heart. Call me crazy, but a person shouldn’t need DEI training to know that they should treat black children with the same compassion they treat white children.
This is the work of home training. Sesame Place needs to do a better job of making sure to hire employees who are home trained. DEI training helps employers spot racists and reject them because racists are not good people.
We’ve known since the 1940s, when psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s doll test showed the world that black children overwhelmingly chose white dolls over black dolls, that black children internalize their feelings of inferiority and are perfectly aware of the preferential treatment given to white children. . A 2020 study by the American Psychological Association found that by preschool age, children are well aware of race. Parents’ discomfort when it comes to discussing race doesn’t mean children won’t pick up on racist attitudes, which have the power to shape behavior throughout life. And young children of color who experience racism remember that, and those experiences have a lasting impact on self-esteem.
Skylar and Nylah Brown, the snubbed little girls at Sesame Place, are only 6 years old. When Rosita waves them away, you can see the pain in their eyes. I have no doubt that day will be etched in their memory – and it won’t be because of all the media coverage. I was 8 the first time a white child called me the N-word. Forty years later, I still remember that warm feeling in my cheeks and the way my body started shaking. I remember how my mother tried to explain it, but she couldn’t.
“Sesame Street” is one of the happiest children’s television shows of all time. As a child of the 1970s, I have fond memories of “Sesame Street”. Before Heathcliff and Claire Huxtable, there were the fictional street black patriarchs Gordon and Susan. Maria, who eventually married Luis and took over Mr. Hooper’s store, was a role model for young women of color.
The black and brown children of “Sesame Street” sit side by side with the white children as they learn their ABCs. Big Bird helps all children solve their problems. Oscar tells all the kids to scramble. Elmo is every child’s best friend. Rosita, the first Latina puppet who debuted on the show in 1991, helps all the kids with their Spanish.
Maybe the poor excuse for the puppets should have looked more “Sesame Street”. If they did, they would know that based on the legacy of “Sesame Street”, Sesame Place is meant to be a safe place for children where racism is not tolerated. Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit that produces “Sesame Street,” said in a tweet that it was aware of the recent incident, calling it unacceptable. It’s planned. The rogue muppet’s behavior is already calling into question “Sesame Street’s” 50-year legacy of kindness and inclusion.
Sesame Workshop also said it would continue to work with long-time partner SeaWorld to ensure “appropriate action is taken and incidents like this do not happen again in the future.” It’s important that “Sesame Street” doesn’t let this behavior work.
Black people shouldn’t have to wonder whether or not Sesame Place is a safe haven for their child. And if the person in Rosita’s costume isn’t fired, white kids will absorb racist attitudes by not learning to be actively anti-racist.
Companies fire employees who lie, steal, show up late, and don’t do their jobs. These are the basic expectations and requirements of the position. Treating children with kindness and compassion at Sesame Place should also be a job requirement. This must occur prior to any DEI training.
Elizabeth Wellington is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.