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Race in Reality 1

RUNNING HEAD: Race in Reality

Race in Reality:
Exploring the Use of Actual Skin Color on Sesame Street Puppets
Damion Frye
Teachers College, Columbia University
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Accurately representing race and racial characteristics of various groupings has eluded

most television programmers. Although sincere attempts, especially in children’s’ programming,

are frequently made to ameliorate such under or misrepresentations, characters either fit popular

stereotypes or the subject is surreptitiously avoided. Sesame Street, taking the latter route by

creating characters whose skin colors rage from green to purple to bright pink, uses ambiguity in

the race of their puppets and the celebration of all cultures by humans or cartoons to help

children identify themselves as being part of a world community rather than any specific race.

The downfall to such ambiguity however, is that the identity development of traditionally

marginalized groups remains largely unsupported; inherently making the formation of a world

community nearly impossible.

Critique of Program:
Yet even with the existence of this fundamental flaw in the program, Sesame Street

remains a viable and effective way of improving school readiness of its nearly 6.6 million

viewers per year (Turgilo ET all 2000). The intention of making the characters “raceless” allows

the program to bring forth issues of grouping and in turn, help to eliminate them. Turgilo ET all

(2000) in citing a study on how children viewed other races after watching a season of Sesame

Street states, “ Overall the children wanted to be friends with the children of other races. The

percentages ranged from 50% to 87% (for showing some desire to befriend another race)” (p.

71). Such a focus included specific attention to particular races in which the curriculum explored

“physical and cultural differences; modeling positive responses to differences (friendship, mutual

cultural appreciation, and inclusion)” (Lesser and Schneider, 2000, p. 33). Although no long

term effects, past the second grade, were determined, the children who watched Sesame Street
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were more able to work within diverse groups in pre-school through first grade contexts (Zill,


It, however, was not just watching Sesame Street that improved the ability of children to

interact and form relationships with children of other races. Rather it was the type of situations

and contexts created by the writers of the show, which created, introduced and played out

common experiences all children may have. The children then were able to relate some positive

experience with another race to the episode – validating their experience and helping to solidify

the children’s ability to accept another race as being viable for friendship. Trugilo ET all (2000)


For example, in direct response that was noted in the formative research, two segments
were created: “Visiting Ieshia” and “Play Date.” In “Visiting Ieshia,” a White girl visits
an African American girl in her home. “Play Date” shows a similar family visit, with an
African American boy in his home with his White friend…Almost all of the children
(97%) who viewed “Visiting Ieshia” and most of the children who viewed “Play Date”
(87%) recalled something that the children did together: ate slept, washed their hands,
listened to music played video games (p. 72).
Thus, creating situations in which a common experience unites races allows children to make

connections to their own lives and begin to formally see their interracial friendships as being

both acceptable and favorable within the larger society.

Both “Visiting Ieshia” and “Play Date” were cartoons/skits that depicted people with

actual skin colors. These shows were successful in their mission because children were able to

relate to the character’s situations and were also able to recognize the character’s race. Yet the

characters from this show do not show up as dolls in any store or are used to represent the cast of

the program. Rather it is the purple “Elmo” or the blue “Grover” or even the yellow and orange

“Burt and Ernie” that produce the highest sales for Fisher-Price, the makers of the Sesame Street

doll line. It is this void of characters that have actual skin colors that may inhibit the formation
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of a positive racial identity for some traditionally marginalized groups. Trugilo ET all (2000)

report that:

The majority of White (77%), Chinese- American (70%), light-skinned Puerto Rican
(70%), African – American (60%), and dark-skinned Puerto Rican (57%) were accurate
in identifying the color of their skin. The majority of African American (70%), White
(63%), Crow Indian (60%), felt good about the color of their skin. However, only 35 %
of the Puerto Rican children felt positive about the color of their skin (p. 71).
However, one has to question if the program were to include Puerto Rican characters (puppets)

that were dark, light and somewhere in between, would their relatively negative feelings towards

their skin color increase? Furthermore, crayons were used to find a match for the skin color of

the 4 year olds in the test, if they had a popular character to relate to, one that had a similar skin

color, would not the association at least provide the child with a means of creating the same type

connections the show used to hook them as viewers? Nearly all research in literacy practice

points to interest level and positive racial identity formation occurring once children read texts in

which they see characters similar to their own color. Would this same effect not occur if the

child were watching television?

Writers and producers for Sesame Street might have assumed that by including characters

that view their own colors positively might in some way impart the same messages unto the

children. Fisch and Truglio (2000) write:

For example, because (as noted previously) many preschool children failed to recognize
Kermit’s pride in his skin color in the song “Its not easy being green,” this segment
would be unlikely to be highly effective, in reinforcing other, more explicit segments
about race and ethnicity, simply because many children would miss the connection (p.
In returning to this idea of making connections, Sesame Street, to more effectively aid in the

racial identity formation and positive self-recognition for traditionally marginalized groups, must

make the connections between popular characters with human skin tones and feeling good about

one’s skin color, much more explicit.

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Redesigning Sesame Street Characters:

Even though young children are completely egocentric, they still construct racial identity

in terms of otherness – relating racial existence of someone to a reference rather than that

person’s actual self-actualized identity. This “othering” even occurs as the children develop their

own racial identity; causing the negative associations located within their reference to imprint

upon their newfound sense of their race. Thus, in attempting to promote the most positive racial

identity for children, it is the reference that must be positive if children are to maintain a likewise

racial identity.

Even though the child’s immediate family offers the first schema for the foundation of

this reference, television becomes equally important in affecting how positively the child will

view their own race. Harris (1999) writes:

‘Sometimes everything we know about some kinds of people (and ourselves) comes from
television. Some rural White North Americans have never met a real farmer. Most
people of the world have never met someone from the United States… Even in a study
done many years ago, children reported that most of their information about people from
different nationalities came from their parents and television, with TV becoming
increasingly important as children grew older (Lambert and Klineberg, 1967) (p.42).
By having characters that maintain similar skin colors to African Americans, Asians, Latinos,

Whites and mixed races, Sesame Street would begin influencing children to create this reference

from dolls and characters that have a positive racial identity. Moreover, using the schema

created by Sesame Street characters, children could also then modify their “othering” of other

actual races to be framed more within a positive context.

The creation of these characters would be supplemented with the creation of a new

curriculum that attempts to put these characters in recognizable and familiar situations to

children of all races. These situations would include going over another child’s house to play

video games, playing together on a playground in a new or unfamiliar place and engaging in

school like activities. Especially with the last situation, altering the skin color of the puppets
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would provide children who are not academically inclined a reference for their race and finding

success in school. This reference has been especially absent or misrepresented in popular media

for children of Native American and African decent. Harris (1999) writes:

Like others, African Americans are more likely to identify with an emulate characters
who exhibit personal warmth, high status and power. Often these models have been
White, yet African Americans will readily identify with media Blacks as role models,
especially with the more positive ones. This can boost children’s self-esteem, especially
with regular viewing and accompanied by appropriate parental communication (p. 54)

To immediately change the color of the puppets or to introduce 10 new characters (to

represent the most basic range in shade changes between human skin) however, would be far too

much for a four year old to handle at first. Such a change should occur with the addition of two

new characters every season for five seasons. At the end of each season, children whose skin

color resembles the new character should undergo the same tests as described in Trugilo et all

(2000) to determine the success rate of children recognizing their own skin color and how good

they felt about their skin color once they were able to identify it correctly. With the data results

the writers and producers could then adjust situations and contexts within the show to undertake

the addition of two new characters with different skin tones. Eventually the change will have

occurred for all ten puppets, allowing the pilot studies conducted after the previous five seasons

to be compared with the data conducted after the last season. Once all data is analyzed, the

writes and producers could then choose to include more characters with different skin tones or

maintain the current addition of the ten characters.

Research Design:
Overview and Goals:
This study will attempt to discern if changing the color of the puppets generally used on

Sesame Street to have skin color that reflects actual human colors, will in any way boost children

correctly identifying and feeling good about their own skin color. Although, no specific
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attention will be paid to any one particular race, the overall determinate effects will be monitored

more closely in traditionally marginalized groups. It is these groups that, in past studies

conducted by Loveland, Freund and Graves (1991), shown to be the most negatively affected by

the lack of representation of their race.

If the data collected in this study finds that the children are more positively affected by

seeing puppets with a their skin color, then recommendations could be made to Sesame Street

and other children’s programming which uses puppets to include these flesh colored puppets.

Furthermore, a curriculum could be developed in conjunction with these television programs to

effectively integrate these puppets and possible scenarios these puppets may face, concerning

race, racially based exclusion and bias.

Theoretical Frame:
This study is completed founded within the mass communication theories of cultivation

and socialization. While the theories may be interrelated, they integrate themselves in

specifically disparate manners. The first theory of cultivation helps to produce the rationale

behind changing the skin color of Sesame Street characters to represent actual skin tones.

However, the second theory of socialization provides the rationale of why the changing of the

skin tones to reflect actual human skin would be an effective means to help improve children’s’

view of their own racial identity.

By placing the characters with skin tones more like that of humans on Sesame Street, the

dissemination of a reference for children to view their own skin color more positively, would be

much eased due to the concept of mainstreaming. Harris (1999) writes:

One of the major constructs of cultivation theory is mainstreaming, the homogenization

of people’s divergent perceptions of social reality into a convergent “mainstream.” This
apparently happens through a process of construction, whereby viewers learn “facts”
about the real world from observing the world of television (p.21).
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Hence, the varying socially constructed ideas and racially preferenced notions surrounding

particular skin tones would be mostly replaced by the ideas and conceptions of skin tone brought

forth by the puppets. All children who are darker in shade and view the puppet show will be able

to form the same type of schema as to why their character sees their skin tone in a positive way.

Moreover, children who can relate falsified imagery – such as puppets – to their own selves

would take the message of the show and understand that message as possibly being factual.

Yet the goal of this study is to affect change in the major children’s programs that employ

the use of puppets. Although most children perceive a puppet show to be falsified imagery, they

do not perceive a television show, even one such as Sesame Street, to be made up. In fact, using

the socialization theory, it is this perception of television being reality that will only provide a

much stronger impetus for the children who see the puppets with a similar skin tone, in similar

situations – to truly undertake the goal of raising their own self awareness and feelings about

their skin tone. Harris (1999) states, “The media, particularly television, are extremely important

socializing agents for national and cultural socialization. Children’s perceived reality about the

culture they live in is, in part, a media creation” (p.23). It is this media creation that furthermore,

has the power, through shows like Sesame Street, to improve children’s perceptions of their own

skin color through the use of puppets with human skin tones.

The study will be conducted on 500 four year olds enrolled in both private day care and

public Head Start Programs. Respondents will be selected from at least 25 states, and controlled

for race, socioeconomic status, skin color and will be selected from day care centers or head Start

programs with at least five different shades of skin color represented at the site. A control group

of 20 students will be selected from a private day care in Montclair, N.J. and a Head Start center
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in East Orange, N.J. The students from the private day care in Montclair, N.J. have a variety of

ethnic backgrounds and class status. Ten four year olds from this day care will be selected with

control for race, socioeconomic status and skin color. The East Orange, N.J. site is less diverse,

catering primarily to children African American, Latino and Caribbean descent. However, the

range in skin colors of the three groups will help to control for variances in skin color throughout

the country.

Using the national database of Head Start programs, I will first contact the directors of

these programs by telephone and email to inform them of my intentions and ask them to

participate in the study. I will also use the Head Start directors to give me a reference for private

day care centers in the area. Once I have contacted and have willing participants of 50 day care

centers and Head Start programs, I will send a letter of confirmation, packet of information about

the study and participant forms for parents to sign and return to the centers.

Having all letters of conformation and parent permission, I will then begin to make trips

to the sites during the summer months when I am off from teaching. At the sites I will take

present a puppet show that includes puppets that have skin color (with features that resemble

some of the current cast of Sesame Street) similar to at least five of the children at the site and a

situation familiar to the students (i.e. sharing, going over a friends house, playing together). A

second puppet show will be presented using puppets that have skin colors such as purple, orange,

red and blue with a similar situation. Children will then be asked to draw a picture of themselves

playing with one their friends in a similar situation as earlier presented. Five children will then

be selected to participate in brief individual interviews. These interviews will ask the children

the following questions: “Which puppet did you like best?” “Which puppet reminded you of
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yourself?” “Which puppet had the same skin color as you?” (with the puppets displayed)

“Could you draw the puppet that has a skin color closest to yours?” “Did you like this puppet?”

“Was this puppet a good person?” “Was this puppet smart?” All responses will be transcribed

and recorded, and the answers will be detailed with descriptions of the how students responded.

Data Analysis:
Data will be analyzed using both quantitative and qualitative methodology. First,

percentage groupings of student responses will be created and analyzed for trends. Once trends

in responses were established, connections between these trends and race, socioeconomic status,

skin color and region will be made to meta-analyze the data over all of the respondents.

After the qualitative analysis is complete, each of the student’s responses and their

reactions during the interview process will be analyzed to surface any trends in the way the

children responded with their actual responses. These trends could then again be matched with

the children’s race, socioeconomic status, skin color and region to offer a second possible meta


Other Media:
The use of other media will be integral to the success of changing the puppets’ skin color

to reflect human skin tones. Creating a whole new set of popular characters with specific skin

tones, would be the first step in attenuating for the lack of positive racial identity some groups

experience. Hence, with the new line of puppets would come a new line of toys and a special

interactive area of the Sesame Street web site that specifically includes these new characters and

situations/ stories in which the characters are able to build a positive racial identity?
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By creating scenarios relating to the children’s lives, they could use the new line of dolls

to create pretend situations in which children could mimic positive experiences with the more

skin color specific dolls. Cohen (2002) posits:

The children sometimes showed they had an idea what others might think. Gabriel went
into the Wendy House where Caroline was cuddling a baby doll. At 4 Gabriel knew
babies might not like some things so he mimed a kiss. ‘I only pretend to kiss your baby
because he doesn’t like kissing,’ he announced. Caroline told him the baby wanted a
kiss. Gabriel shook his head and wandered off (p. 100).
If 4 year olds can pretend to understand or interpret what a baby wants, then they could certainly

create situations in which they understand or interpret how dolls with similar skin color to theirs

positively view themselves. Furthermore, due to the relative success of the Sesame Street line of

dolls and toys, these toys, by simply bearing the Sesame Street name will be bought by parents

who are conscious of the doll’s purpose and those who unconscientiously will purchase the doll

simply because their child wants a new toy. Thus, such a toy will find some success in the toy

market and hopefully allow children to begin creating pretend situations in which they place their

skin color in some positive situation or context.

For children under five years of age, the World Wide Web can be used as a very effective

tool to inculcate certain beliefs or values. Its ease of access and relative flexibility to change

allows children to repeatedly visit a particular web site, experience various things, but still have

the same meaning being imparted. Hence, by creating a special section for the new characters on

Sesame Street’s web site, the opportunity for children to once again see the faces and

experiences particular situations of the characters whose skin color most reflects their own.

Revellie, Medoff and Strommen (2000) write:

One of the strengths of online – and one that separates it from most of the other media
discussed in this book – is the fact that the research can continue to have an impact far
beyond the development period…Thanks to this additional level of flexibility, the
material can continue to evolve, to become as educationally effective, appealing, and
unusual as possible (p. 225-226).
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As the diversity and skin color of the children who watch Sesame Street increase, as so the web

site could easily add new characters and situations. Furthermore, if the site is visited in

conjunction with a parent and a region could be selected for where the child lives, the situations

and contexts could be more tailored towards that particular child’s area of local knowledge,

making the characters even more successful in positively altering the way in which the children

viewed their own skin color.

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Works Cited

Fisch, S.M. & Truglio, R.T. (Eds.) (2001) "G" is for Growing: Thirty Years of Research on
Children and Sesame Street. Erlbaum.
Harris, R. J. (1999) A Cognitive Psychology of Mass Communication. Erlbaum.