Sesame Street's Big Bird participates in the ceremonial lighting of the Empire State Building in honor of Sesame Street's 50th anniversary on Friday, Nov. 8, 2019, in New York. Credit: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

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Jordan LaBouff is an associate professor of psychology and honors at the University of Maine in Orono. These are his views and do not express those of the University of Maine System or the University of Maine. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national   Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

“Sesame Street” has been criticized recently for Big Bird’s vaccination, even though it is just “Sesame Street” doing what it has always done. For more than 50 years, “Sesame Street” has supported our children’s educational needs. However, it has also addressed our social needs by giving us the chance to see and interact with people who are different from ourselves.

Even though the United States is a diverse society, many of us do not have many opportunities to interact with people who are very different from ourselves. When we don’t get to know people from different backgrounds, we can develop our ideas about them through the only contact we do have — media. Since media representations are often stereotypical, they can promote prejudice and discrimination.

For example, if the most of the Black people a child sees are in news reports where they are over represented as violent, then the child will be  more likely to automatically associate Black people with violence. This is particularly dangerous for Black children themselves. If these representations are the only place they see their reflection in the media, those harmful stereotypes can become internalized and limit their potential success.

But “Sesame Street,” and programming like it, has recognized the power of media representation to promote a healthier society. Designed in part by a black psychologist, “Sesame Street” had the most diverse cast in public TV history. And although its goal to depict a diverse and integrated, respectful, thriving community has been consistently challenged, it has continued to do so.

“Sesame Street” has consistently expanded its representation beyond race to show different kinds of families (e.g., gay and interracial couples), neurodiversity (e.g., a character on the autistic spectrum), and people who suffer the consequences of our limited social systems. For example, introducing characters experiencing homelessness ( more than 1 in 30 children in the U.S. are experiencing homelessness), food insecurity ( 1 in 5 Maine children are food insecure), and who have an incarcerated parent ( 1 in 28 children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent). These representations are important to normalize and destigmatize these common American experiences so that we can work together to prevent them.

The show’s  Coming Together initiative focuses on how to talk with children about race, ethnicity, and culture. This Thanksgiving, “Sesame Street” will introduce its newest resident, Ji-Young, a Korean American muppet. Not only will it be valuable for Korean Americans to see themselves reflected in the show, but it will also be an opportunity to talk with children about the kinds of racism Asian Americans experience and our collective responsibility to reject it and ensure everyone knows they belong.  

Even with these steps, representation lags for many marginalized members of our society, even on “Sesame Street”. This Transgender Awareness Week and Nov. 20’s Transgender Day of Rememberance are important reminders of the worst consequences of inadequate representation — overwhelming violence against trans people and high rates of suicide. Although good representation will not solve these problems, it is an important step. For example, Haley Solomon and Beth Kurtz-Costes, researchers at the University of North Carolina, found that people expressed more prejudice against trans people after viewing negative television clips about them. Preventing stereotyped misrepresentations and promoting good representations may help reduce this violence and promote a safer, healthier community for everyone.

Finally, representation is important both on Sesame Street and on Main Street — that is, in our local and national leaders. For example, Marwa Hassanien’s recent unanimous election to chair the Bangor School Committee and Dina Yacoubagha’s election to Bangor City Council help the leadership of our community more accurately represent people it serves.

When children and young adults see people like themselves in positions of power, it can reinforce their potential to achieve those positions, and more. We should all work together to make sure both our Sesame Streets and our Main Streets avoid entrenching harmful stereotypes, and instead represent the power of the rich diversity of humanity in our communities.