In a bold and brave move, Sesame Street schools us on protest and racism in a special town hall called, Coming Together: Standing Up Against Racism, proving that things might just be more simple than we make it to be.
“Protest? Elmo doesn’t understand. What’s a protest?” asks Elmo, everybody’s favorite red furry Muppet in his familiar and friendly high-pitched voice, puncturing through the spirited chorus of “black lives matter” that sang through the streets of sunny and a-okay Sesame Street. It is an inquisition of the innocent sort, and in a perfect world, it would be easier to answer, especially to an impressionable child. But being as we live in the reality that we do, it comes with so much more complexities and challenges to narrow down into something simple—or so we thought.
From the other end of the split-screen broadcast, Louie, Elmo’s father, seems to have another idea, one that is a more mature, more confident, and more engaging explanation than one overthinks. “A protest is when people come together to show they are upset and disagree about something. They want to make others aware of the problem. Through protesting, people are able to share their feelings and work together to make things better.”
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Just as kids are naturally more curious, Elmo probes further, wondering why the protesters look upset and sad. Without diluting the conversation as most are wont to do when face-to-face with a child, Louie squares with Elmo, enlightening him on the huge problem their country, and even the greater world is facing: racism. “Elmo doesn’t understand, daddy. Elmo has friends with different types of skin, and fur, too—black, brown, tan, purple,” he wonders.
“But not all streets are like Sesame Street. On Sesame Street, we all love and respect one another,” begins Louie. “But across the country people of color, especially in the black community, are being treated unfairly because of how they look, their culture, race, and who they are. What we are seeing is people saying enough is enough. They want to end racism.”
“Elmo wants to end racism, too. Elmo wants everybody to be treated fairly. What can Elmo do, daddy? How can Elmo support his friends?”
And so begins the continuing decades-long tradition of Sesame Street to engage, educate, and empower children and families, navigating touchpoints that range from the alphabet to arithmetic, as well as of difficult and sensitive topics and truths that are typically shied away from by most. Whether it be introducing necessary characters that represent polarizing real-world issues or walking through the quagmire of tougher parts of life such as foster care, divorce, addiction, and even grief, it isn’t all just fun and games for the iconic puppet-led TV show. With over 50 years to its illustrious name, Sesame Street is still asking the difficult questions, subverting both the young’uns and the grown-ups with lessons that are a little less textbook and more school of hard knocks.
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Over the years, Sesame Street has consistently reminded us of inclusivity and empathy, teaching us that vampires and grouches are misunderstood and not to be feared, that it is okay to have an imaginary friend even when no one believes you, and that you can absolutely do anything from counting beyond ten and perhaps even dreaming of flying into space. This commitment has not waned by one bit, as the childhood institution continues to expertly merge academic development with social initiatives, bringing to light the lesson the world needs to learn the most now. The magic was not lost with Coming Together: Standing Up To Racism, a nearly hour-long initiative with CNN, a town hall-like program that was built to help kids and families understand protests and racial injustice. Together with Van Jones and Erica Hill of CNN, as well as of Big Bird, Abby Cadabby, Gabrielle, and even well-loved humans Gordon and Maria, what was believed to be impossible was attempted: to untangle the intricacies of systemic racism and explain them in the best way possible for everyone to hopefully finally understand.
Jumping from Elmo and Louie’s tender exchange of the roots of protest for the Black Lives Matter movement, the main trajectory of the discourse was how to put an end to the issue of racism. “That’s right. Count me in. We all need to stand up. There we go. That’s me standing up to racism. Now, how do we stop it?” asks a wide-eyed Big Bird, literally standing up to cover most of the viewer’s frame. “When we say standing up, we mean actually coming together to make changes happen. We’ve all got to just do a better job to ensure that all this unfairness stops. Racism has been happening in our country for a very long time,” says Van Jones, to which Erica Hill agrees. “And that’s why we’re coming together today. So we can learn and talk about it and take action against racism.”
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With the help of friends from all over the United States, the discussion was fully fleshed out and realized in the most easy to comprehend and well-meaning questions that were above everything earnest and pure. Asking things such as “What can we do as kids to help racism get better in our country,” “How do you respond to a classmate who questions why is Black Lives Matter necessary,” Why do people have different skin colors,” “Should we take to our black or brown friends about racism,” “Will a police officer harm me because of the color of my skin,” “Do you think George Floyd’s death can change the way that people behave when they encounter black men like my dad,” and “After the cameras are gone, will the revolution keep going? I know that I can do more, but how do I do more,” we as an audience, who have either been living with the history of pain born to their name or are unknowingly complicit to the plight of the oppressed because of our inherent privilege, are confronted with the realities that are so deeply rooted that it becomes almost uncomfortable to take all in. But this is exactly what we need to learn and unlearn in order to fully understand and enact a love that eventually dulls the viciously sharp edges of hate and prejudice that have sliced and cut through the cloth of compassion that the world is supposed to be cloaked by.
“The hard conversations, and we know we need to start early. We know that young children, even in infancy, start to recognize the different between race and identity. So this is an opportunity to talk about those similarities and differences in your everyday moments, to take advantage of the diversity that surrounds you, but to have these conversations early on in a way that sets a foundation, but it lasts for a lifetime of awareness,” explains Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, Senior Vice President for U.S. Social Impact at Sesame Workshop. “It’s difficult,” concurs Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. “And sometimes for me, my inclination is to talk, but what I found with my children, sometimes I just simply need to listen and let them feel and let them express their emotions, because I don’t have all of the answer. And I’m searching for the answers in the same way that they are. But sometimes it’s just important just to listen, but I just constantly remind them of who they are and who they were created to be, and that we’ve come through so much more.”
These are the discussions that packed Coming Together: Standing up To Racism to the brim. With points raised that are often just thoughts that run through our minds non-stop, especially as of late, they have stood front and center, becoming a healthy exchange between the young and the not-so young. Charging through the hurts and history of racism seems like a lot to go through, but guided by the compass of lived experiences, every salient facet was brought to the light, including white privilege and allyship that was best articulated by the fairy-hug-loving Abby Cadabby in defense of her dear friend, Big Bird. “Yes, well, I stood up for Big Bird, and I will stand up for all of my family and friends across the country, because everyone should be treated fairly and with respect.”
As great strides have been taken and are continuing to break ground each and every day that growing concern and clamor for change colors the streets and hearts of the world over, there is still admittedly a very long way to go in completely erasing the reprehensible damage that racism has done to the lives lost along the way such as those Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. “Unfortunately, this change has taken a very long time. It’s frustrating and unbelievable to me that we’re still fighting the very same fight and dealing with the very same issues that we dealt with on Sesame Street in 1969. It breaks my heart. No child or grown up should have to deal with being treated unfairly. We’ve got to change the course of history now,” affirms Maria, still bubbly and bright as before. Gordon from the other end of the virtual line furthers, “That’s why people are again protesting and marching and speaking up, so that your nana, you, and everyone else, never has to experience racism again. I’ve been so inspired by seeing the protests and heartfelt messages that people, young and old, have been sharing. It gives me hope that this time change will happen.”
A lot of time has been lost over the years, yes, and even a well-intended and well-meaning as we attempt to essay this, we will never so much as even scratch the surface of such an injustice that has for so long dictated the way the seemingly superior have lorded over the black community, forcing them and their manufactured power to get away with so much sans accountability and retribution. But the day of reckoning is upon us as more and more are standing up and saying, we can do much better, insisting that no one should be treated lesser than anyone else, because we are all human beings who will no longer be dictated and divided by race. Starting from the children who are asking the necessary questions and families looking for the right answers, we are all coming together to tackle and topple down racism once and for all, marching towards the light to see the end of days upon days of darkness. We can and we will do better, because that is what each and everyone deserves as a human being or well, as a Muppet in the case of our fine friends from the sunny side of things.
All hope is not lost. With the way things are shaping up, we won’t have to sweep the clouds away to where the air is sweet and ask how to get to Sesame Street, because if these kids will have anything to do with it, everything will be a-okay.