The Mis-education of the Elmo




For some strange reason, the only two channels that work on the treadmill televisions in my gym are the Public Broadcasting Station and one with twenty-four hour infomercials. Now, I don't get to watch as much Sesame Street as I used to, so when a show that I mistook for Sesame Street came on, I considered it a treat. But then I quickly realized how much the "neighborhood" had changed since the eighties and nineties. Instead of a harmonica playing in the background to Can You Tell Me How To Get To Sesame Street, I listened to Elmo sing "la" for thirty seconds as the intro to Elmo's World. "Wow, Elmo has a solo gig?!" I said to myself. "Good for him!"

Now personally, I find some comfort in routine and predictability, so I enjoy watching the throwback episodes paying homage to "Classic Sesame Street."  I'm talking about the young Savion Glover, Maria and Louis in their fix-it shop, the attack on Lionel Ritchie brought to us by the letter U, and Cab Calloway scatting with Muppets to Hi De Ho Man. But the more things change, the more they stay the same, and the more they go unexplained like Oscar the Grouch's mood swings, Elmo's atrocious grammar, Cookie Monster's sugar addiction, and the ambiguous relationship between Bert and Earnie.

But this particular morning, I watched the first episode in the trilogy Elmo's Summer Vacation, entitled Skin. "Ooooooh, Elmo's talking about skin? I thought to myself. This ought to be good and controversial!" The show actually began very innocently for about the first ten minutes, and then Elmo's (black) friend Elaine talked about what she learned in school about skin:
Elmo: "Boy! Elmo loves finding out about skin! Elmo's friend Elaine learned ALL about skin in school, and she told Elmo all about it!"

Elaine: "Ms. Michaelson asked our class what we could learn by looking at our skin. So we started to investigate. We could see that everybody's skin looked different. There was dark skin, light skin, and all different shades in between. My skin was dark, and Cassie had light skin with rosy cheeks. Then we looked at our skin through a magnifying glass. It makes things look bigger. We could see all sorts of things we never noticed before. There was hair growing out of our skin, and the fronts of our arms had more hair than the back of our arms, but the palms of our hands didn't have any hair at all, but they had lots of lines. So did the tips of our fingers. Some parts of our skin were smooth like our cheeks. Some parts were real wrinkly like our knuckles and elbows. Then we ran some water on our arms to see what our skin looked like when it was wet. The water didn't soak in. It just rolled right off. We could see how our skin protects our bodies. So even though everybody's skin looked different up close, our skin wasn't really very different at all."

Now, Elaine had me all the way up until that last sentence. Thankfully I was still the only person in the gym, so I could get away with talking to myself at length out loud:   "Wow...see...why is Elmo lying to these children? Because the reality is that if Elaine's brother and Cassie's brother get into a fight at school, it's more likely that Elaine's brother would be sent home in a police car with a long-term suspension for the remainder of the school year. He would get little (if any) access to alternative education opportunities, fall behind on his work, miss his end-of-year exams, and would have to repeat the whole year. And if he has no parental/adult supervision while he's out of school, he's likely to have pre-mature contact with the criminal justice system or head down a path that could lead to dropping out of school all together. Yeah, I’d like to hear how Elaine and Cassie feel over the next six to twelve years when they are competing against each other for admission into same exclusive high schools and colleges!"

When it comes to broaching the topic of racial and ethnic identity with young children, I can understand a kinder, gentler approach, but sometimes I wonder whether that approach is really for the benefit of children or for parents who feel uncomfortable or ill-equipped. Early in our marriage I was taken aback while speaking with an interracial couple about their approach to affirming their young child's racial and ethnic identity. In essence, they felt like this wasn't a topic they needed to discuss with their child, and by not bringing it up, believed it would just work itself out someday by going along with whatever their child wanted.

But the idea of children being oblivious to race and ethnicity--even at an early age--is a tad foreign to me (no pun intended). I can actually think of few (if any) times in my childhood when I didn't know I was different, and not just from the non-black kids at school, but everybody.  For my earliest years of schooling, my world was pretty homogenous in that the vast majority of my teachers and classmates were black. Even then I knew that my parents and their friends spoke this other language at home that I never heard in school and the food my mom made us for dinner didn't smell, look, or taste anything like what I ate in school. By second grade I tested into a public school system operating under a federal court ordered desegregation school busing plan. So my school bus, classmates, teachers, and world became much more racially and ethnically diverse, and thus began a first-day-of-school tradition that followed me all the way through law school: the butchered mispronunciation of my name (my teachers butchered the names of many students, but since my name fell towards the beginning of the alphabet, I was usually the first victim).

Thirty minutes later Elmo's World and my run were over, but a question still lingered in the back of my mind: "If children are so keenly aware of differences (racial or otherwise) what is the harm in telling them the truth about race in America, even at a young age?" And as critical as I was towards the "Elmo approach," I also had a feeling that if my five-year-old child were to ask me a simple question about skin colors, that going off into a ten minute monologue on why education is the civil rights issue of our time wouldn't be any more effective. I still ruminate on this issue and in doing so found the following excerpt from Stickin' To, Watchin' Over, and Gettin' With to be somewhat helpful in correcting some of my own miseducation:  "Sometimes young children struggle with skin color issues at the level of color differences, not at the level of racial and social injustice or inequality. They should be allowed to explore those differences free of parental fear that their child is racially illiterate."

And yes, I'm still an Elmo fan.


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