The muppets were introduced as part of a set of new resources to support families in talking to their children about race and racism.
The importance of multiculturalism and inclusivity has been at the center of Sesame Street's messaging since its debut over five decades ago. In recent times though, it has taken a conscious head-on approach to address the topics of race and racism. Explaining the reason behind this shift, Kay Wilson Stallings, the executive vice president of creative and production for Sesame Workshop, told TIME: "After last summer with the racial unrest that happened and the murder of George Floyd, we collectively as an organization decided that the only way that we could go about dismantling racism was by being bold and explicit."
"People were working remotely. People were feeling a lot of emotions, and it was almost like everyone had the same realization. If not Sesame, who's going to address this? It felt like everyone had the same, 'Yes, we've got to do something about it, and the first way to address it is that we need to define racism for 3-year-olds,'" Stallings added. Thus was born Coming Together — a racial-justice initiative with an educational framework and curriculum — which in the eight months since its launch has organized a town hall with CNN to talk to young viewers about "racism, the recent nationwide protests, embracing diversity, and being more empathetic and understanding" and released a special speaking out against systemic inequality and prejudice.
Now, it is releasing "ABCs of Racial Literacy," a set of new resources to support families in talking to their children about race and racism. According to a press release, this latest addition to Coming Together is "designed to provide families with the tools they need to build racial literacy, to have open conversations with young children, to engage allies and advocates to become upstanders against racism, and more." Jeanette Betancourt, the senior vice president of US social impact for Sesame Workshop, said that this initiative is a logical step in its evolution. "It's not necessarily taking a risk but meeting a demand that we know we need to meet," she said.
One of the new racial-literacy videos released this week introduced two new Muppets — a Black father and son named Wes and Elijah — who further advance the discussion about race and racism. The roughly three-minute clip, titled Explaining Race, shows the pair enjoying an afternoon nature walk until they meet Elmo who engages them in a short and age-appropriate conversation that touches on their Black identity. "Elmo has a question," Elmo says in the video. "Elmo wants to know why Wes' skin is brown."
"I know why, Elmo, my mom and dad told me. It's because of melanin," Wes proudly replies, before turning to Elijah. "Right, Dad?" Elijah agrees with his son, before diving into a straightforward, clear, and age-appropriate explanation of how melanin determines skin, hair, and eye color. "The color of our skin is an important part of who we are, but we should all know that it's O.K. that we all look different in so very many ways," he tells Elmo. Sesame Workshop also released a music video to the song "Giant" which featured "Sesame Street" Muppets celebrating their "own unique identities."
"At Sesame Workshop, we look at every issue through the lens of a child. Children are not colorblind — 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," Sesame Workshop's Senior Vice President Dr. Jeanette Betancourt said in a statement. "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."
"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 Stallings. "The work to dismantle racism begins by helping children understand what racism is and how it hurts and impacts people. Sadly, today's announcement comes at a time of racial and social discord when many families are in need of support in talking to their children about racism. We're proud to reaffirm our Coming Together commitment to racial justice, which will be woven into new Sesame Workshop content for years to come." Families can access the new Coming Together: The ABCs of Racial Literacy resources — which are available in English and Spanish — at no cost here.