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FIRST-PERSON: Sesame Street and your family’s heritage


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?

If you can’t, there are more than 7.5 million people aged 2 and older who can give you directions to this popular children’s program. In an average week, more than 5.6 million households tune into Sesame Street, which began its 30th season this month

Sesame Workshop, the organization that heads up the empire along with Big Bird, touts racial diversity as one of its core values. The show’s producers seek to create places where children can see themselves and learn to appreciate others.

And there is no lack of diversity on this fast-paced and colorful program brought to you each week by some letter of the alphabet. Each day children and adults of different races visit Bert and Ernie, Snuffleupagus and the rest of the characters at what may well be the world’s most famous address: Sesame Street.

While it is indisputable that some progress has been made in the past 40 years in the area of race relations, much remains undone. The push for inclusiveness and racial tolerance that youngsters see in Big Bird’s hometown often doesn’t square with the values these children are learning at home.

In his book, Beyond Black and White, George Yancey notes that children appear to begin grouping themselves by race by the age of three. Yancey says many children are segregating themselves as toddlers: “At that young age children have already learned the messages of stratification that we have embedded in our society. Because racism is not a natural phenomenon, we must be giving racist messages to our children.”

A June 2001 Gallup Poll provides even more disconcerting news on the state of race relations in the U.S. It revealed that 69 percent of white Americans polled say blacks are treated “the same as whites,” while just 41 percent of blacks agreed with the statement.

The gap between black and white opinion on this issue has shown “only a modest narrowing in the past 35 years,” Gallup researchers reported. Two-thirds of the blacks polled believe race relations will always be a problem in the U.S.

Although a family is comprised of distinct individuals, they affect each other “intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, physically, psychologically,” writes Edith Schaeffer, in her book, What is a Family? Her point is that families are very homogenous entities — while the children are not clones of the parents, they take on many of Mom and Dad’s values and attitudes.

“Good character doesn’t just happen, not even in children who are raised in Christian homes,” says Don S. Otis in Teach Your Children Well. “Instead, character must be nurtured and developed, beginning at a young age.” An important part of that character is regarding oneself as no more important than anyone else.

The hope for a day in which our racial and ethnic differences no longer serve as barriers but instead as bridges for partnership rests in Moms and Dads recognizing the subtle but very real ways they communicate their perceived value or lack of value of other people to younger generations.

Yancey writes that merely mouthing statements like “God created all of us equal” will not overcome the “social expectations of racism” that our children are internalizing. Deep-seated prejudices in our social institutions and our culture-at-large will not fade on their own.

Children are not born with contempt for people who have different skin color than they do; it is learned. It is incumbent upon God-fearing parents to break the heritage of tacit racism that is passed down in many families.

What can we do as parents?

Model a lifestyle in which people of all races and ethnicities are respected and valued. Stress the reality that God loves all people so much He sent His Son to the cross for the sake of all people no matter the color of their skin.

Be intentional in developing relationships with families who look different than your family does. Avoid thoughts and statements that pigeonhole or generalize the strengths and weaknesses of one race as compared to another. Our children need to know that different does not mean inferior.

Introduce your children to cultures that are different than your own. Break through walls of fear that years of distrust between races have created and build walkways of progress with your children.

Learn about the valuable contributions men and women of color have made in American history. Schedule family trips to places like the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, The King Center in Atlanta, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles and the National Hispanic Cultural Center of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

Don’t assume that your children will automatically grow up recognizing that discrimination is wrong and that racial and ethnic diversity is to be celebrated. Determine in your heart not to pass along a legacy of bigotry and prejudice to your children. Instead, help them recognize it is God’s desire for all His children to work together for His Kingdom’s sake.

My friend Clarence Shuler writes in his book, Winning the Race to Unity: “Just think of the incredible things the Christian community could do for Christ if were one! Think how we could impact our society if we were united in Christ! Think about evangelism, discipleship, marriage, and families. The world could be a different place!”

The walls between the races will not tumble until Christians fall to their knees in recognition that sin is the source of this enmity between races and ethnicities. The courts cannot rule and Congress cannot legislate that I love my brother. Neither governors nor presidents can force me to care for those whose culture and history is different than mine. Preachers and evangelists cannot shame me into reaching out to those who look different than me.

It is only when we open our hearts to the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit that we are moved to come together in Christ — red and yellow, black and white.

Sesame Street is a fictional address that ceases to exist when the cameras are turned off and puppeteers and actors leave the set. Yet our hometown streets remain alive with the hope that someday they might be known as places where boys and girls of every race and ethnicity are welcomed and appreciated.
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Hastings is the vice president for print and interactive communications at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Sunday, February 10 is Racial Reconciliation Sunday. Downloadable racial reconciliation emphasis photo available at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: RACIAL RECONCILIATION SUNDAY.

    About the Author

  • Dwayne Hastings