Yesterday I saw this LinkedIn post with the AP News article about Ji-Young, the first Asian American Sesame Street character.
I realize I’m going out on a limb here, but I feel deeply conflicted about the racial implications of adding an Asian American character to Sesame street. Wasn’t the entire group of muppets based on a premise of equality? Their skin colors range from blue to yellow and are ipso facto impossible to connect to a race or cultural background — except for The Count, who is obviously Romanian, but we only know because of his accent. If we are to base race off the color of Sesame Street muppets, Ernie, being orange, must be Dutch? Someone responded on LinkedIn that Oscar The Grouch then, being green and grumpy, must be Irish! It’s tempting to get lost in assigning heritage to Big Bird (must be some Pacific Island) and TV Monster (USA, duh), but it’s something that oddly never crossed my mind until an Asian-American muppet was introduced.
I’m 100% in favor of promoting racial inclusion, especially of marginalized minorities, in any media. It’s more important now than ever before. But since I first heard of this I’ve been ruminating on the question of whether creating a racial profile in an otherwise race-less group of characters doesn’t in fact defy the original (good) intentions? By calling out the uniqueness of the Asian American — or any other racial minority — you may affect children to recognize Asian Americans around themselves and singling them out in their eyes from the other persons of color they might otherwise not notice as being different. Ji-Young embraces all that a popular kid wants to be; she plays electrical guitar, skateboards, and is good at soccer. Does the trend of grouping Koreans (as Ji-Young’s heritage is told to be) into a clan of pop-culture-oriented bad-asses have anything to do with this? Again, I never wondered about any of these things when looking at Elmo or Grover.
Kids need to be exposed to a racially diverse world so they are open to building positive relationships with people of all backgrounds. But adding real-life racial distinctions to an otherwise race-less group of muppets may have the opposite effect.