‘Sesame Street’ tackles racism with new Korean American muppet

By Janean Sorrell, Dec. 7, 2021

On Thanksgiving, “Sesame Street” welcomed its newest muppet, Ji-Young, a 7-year-old Korean American who rocks out on her electric guitar and cruises the neighborhood on a skateboard. The compelling episode addressed issues about belonging and the repercussions of abuse amid a rise of anti-Asian racism in America.

Over the years “Sesame Street” has not only educated children on numbers and letters, but it has also taught children all over the world to respect diversity and promote inclusion. The iconic TV program has also worked hard to expand its representation beyond race to show different types of families, neurodiversity and people who suffer from limited social systems.

“‘Sesame Street’ is doing a good job, not only helping children with basic concepts, academic or cognitive development, but also they’re actually helping them with social and emotional development through stories,” said Soon Young Jang, assistant professor in the Early Childhood Studies department.

For children, media representations may even be more substantial since they look for cues in their social environment to develop and shape their understanding for ethnic-racial groups.

According to Jang, it is important for children to see themselves in the books they read and shows they watch.

“Representation in the media is absolutely important because it shapes not only the way the world sees a certain group of people, but the way we see ourselves,” said Robert Chan, president of Media Action Network for Asian Americans.

Over the last few years representation in the media is a topic that has sparked much needed attention. According to a study by ViacomCBS, 79% of people globally think more diversity is needed on and behind the camera.

“It’s clearly a moment when it comes to popular culture where we are considering the lack of quality representation that has been available on television,” said Rosanne Welch, Interdisciplinary General Education lecturer and executive director at the Stephens College of MFA and screenwriting.

With a lack of unbiased representation of minority and women groups in media, those racial and gendered inequalities are pivotal in defining the social dynamics and hierarchies that exist in society.

Chan expressed that a lack of exposure to a particular group of people gives society a skewed view of the world and that is why good representation is crucial.

Ji-Young’s puppeteer, Kathleen Kim, told the AP, “My one hope, obviously, is to actually help teach what racism is, help teach kids to be able to recognize it and then speak out against it, but then my other hope for Ji-Young is that she just normalizes seeing different kinds of looking kids on TV.”

In the Thanksgiving special titled, “See Us Coming Together,” Ji-Young, is told to “go home,” during a neighbor day celebration and Ji-Young expresses this made her feel like she did not belong. With the help from the “Sesame Street” gang and guest stars such as Simu Liu from Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” tennis superstar Naomi Osaka and comic book legend Jim Lee, Ji-Young learns that everyone can learn from each other, share one another’s culture and have a sense of belonging.

(Graphic by Justin Oo)

The newest muppet will not only be beneficial for Korean American children to see themselves on television it will also provide an opportunity for adults to talk to children about the kinds of racism Asian Americans experience.

The onset of COVID-19 brought increased violence towards the Asian and Pacific Islander community. According to the FBI, anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 73% in 2020.

Although Asian American hate has been around for centuries, Chan believes the difference between now and then is social media. He believes that there is now more mainstream awareness of it.

Retired psychology professor Jeffery Mio highlighted the importance that “Sesame Street” made Ji-Young Korean American and not just Pan Asian, making her identifiable with children who are watching.

“Asians are always seen as what’s called the perpetual foreigner,” said Mio. “People are always saying, ‘Go back to where you came from.’ I was born in Los Angeles, so I am where I came from.”

Throughout its history, “Sesame Street” has tackled difficult topics such as bullying, divorce, homelessness, disabilities, same-sex couples, HIV, COVID-19, refugees, addiction and incarceration.

“I’m glad there’s a character on ‘Sesame Street’ that is teaching kids about the realities of the world,” said Chan. “By sanitizing things you’re robbing kids of an educational opportunity.”

Graphic by Justin Oo.

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