New programs say differences are A-OK

'SESAME STREET' TAKES FRANK LOOK AT RACE

November 23, 1990|By Drew Jubera | Drew Jubera,Cox News Service

Race relations, 1990, "Sesame Street" division:

Mary has this little lamb. Its fleece is white as snow. But then Mary gets another lamb. This one's black, and the color blows Mary's whole rhyme scheme -- until an idea hits her and her hip companion, Hoots the Owl: "Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was black as night, and everywhere that Mary went, it followed with delight."

Now the black lamb isn't a problem. Instead of turning it white, Mary simply found something good associated with black and made up a new rhyme.

Then there's Elmo, a wagon-red Muppet, sitting with Whoopi Goldberg, a dreadlocked black comedian. Elmo tells Whoopi he likes her brown skin; Whoopi tells Elmo she likes his red fur. Elmo says that Whoopi has fur, too -- on her head. Whoopi smiles and says that it's not fur, it's hair, and after Elmo feels it, he says he likes all the curlicues and the way it bounces. Then Elmo decides that since they both like each other's skin and fur and hair, they ought to trade.

"It doesn't come off," Whoopi says, pulling her skin. "And even if I could trade, I wouldn't want to. I like my skin and hair and want to keep them both. Don't you like your fur?"

Colorblind is out this season on "Sesame Street," TV's rainbow boulevard for the 2- to 6-year-old set. Racial and ethnic differences are in.

"We're more explicit about these things than in the past," says Dulcy Singer, the show's executive producer. "We're recognizing and celebrating cultural differences -- talking about color of skin, hair texture, situations where a child might be left out from a group because of his color."

She adds, "It seemed like the right time to do this."

Given the charged racial atmosphere the past few years in cities such as New York, where the program is produced, the producers of "Sesame Street" decided the 22-year-old show's vision of racial harmony might need an overhaul. Widely praised as innovators in children's programming, the show's staff did what it has always done well: picked up on America's cultural currents.

"A year and a half ago, I was reading the paper and wasn't seeing a heckuva lot of racial harmony," says head writer Norman Stiles, who proposed the new programming. "It led me to think we should take a look at what we had been doing. We've always dealt with it [race], but we've been doing this for 20 years and it was time to see what changes in thinking had gone on."

"Sesame Street" "is updating a concept that was unreal," says Charles King, head of the Urban Crisis Center in Atlanta and a consultant on race relations. "It's one of the reasons we have problems; we were wearing blinders and pretending everything was the same."

"It was a reactive, defensive way of thinking that came about because we as adults could not deal with our own racism," adds Dr. Margaret Beale Spencer, a developmental psychologist with Emory University's division of educational studies, who was a "Sesame Street" consultant on the new programming. "It was just basically silly."

The staff at the Children's Television Workshop, producers of "Sesame Street," prepared for the programming by conducting six studies among 420 children, ages 3 to 5.

Among the findings:

Children noticed differences among each other more than similarities.

Past race-based skits, such as Kermit's singing "It Isn't Easy Being Green," sent ambiguous messages to kids, with half thinking Kermit was happy being green, and half thinking his color made him sad.

Kids were aware of tensions race could cause, such as a child of one race being excluded by a group that is another race.

As a result, segments were developed that more aggressively acknowledged differences such as skin color and hair texture, and then showed how those differences could be appreciated. The less explicit way this is done is by showing more positive images for the word "black," or with films like one of a white boy visiting the Harlem home of a black boy and noticing the different things around him, while the two still play as friends.

More practical application is made by showing a child being excluded from a group because of race, and then showing what that child could say to join in. There are also segments that show what someone in the group can do to make everyone else welcome the excluded child.

"When we brought up these situations in the studies, it was not likely a rejected child could come up with something to say to become a part of the group," says Valeria Lovelace, who headed the research team. "Most kids didn't think the things that they would do in those situations would work. We can provide them with options."

This season deals mainly with black and white relations. But the show plans to expand the programming to focus on Latinos, Asians and American Indians during the next three years.

No one expects "Sesame Street" to cure the country's race problems by itself. For its messages to work, they have to be reinforced beyond the TV screen. "That's what will give them depth," Ms. Singer says. "We're just a drop in the ocean."

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