A series of now-viral videos continue to circulate on social media showing real incidents of character performers at Sesame Place Philadelphia seemingly ignoring Black children who are visibly excited to meet their favorite television stars. In the first of the videos, two Black girls reach out to a performer dressed as Rosita when the character appears to reject the interaction. Immediately following the viral post, the park made a statement contrary to what social media commenters considered an act of racism, as Blavity previously reported.

However, soon after the release of that statement, more videos of other character performers appearing to ignore Black children began to appear. Sesame Place has since released an updated statement that speaks to an inherent need for performer training. But, for the impacted families whose excited children were not shown the proper attention from these characters, the damage is already done.

To explore the potential long-term effects of such incidents, Blavity sat down with Jaime Hilton, LCSW, a domestic adoption social worker who focuses on attachment concerns with children and families.

The incident presents children with a message of unworthiness

While Hilton is a licensed clinical social worker, she saw the video through a similar lens as many viewers, noting the obvious looks of disappointment the two girls showed. However, as a trained professional, Hilton also noticed the potential for residual mental harm.

“When you’re that age, in that developmental stage, you’re very impressionable. The way that people respond to you or don’t is really important,” Hilton told Blavity. “So obviously, the number one thing that I felt even watching them as I look at their facial expressions is disappointment.”

She said that such an interaction could present to young children that they are unwanted.

“Some of the messages are definitely that you are unwanted, that you are unworthy of someone’s attention, whether it’s a character. And of course, you know, as a social worker, I’m thinking about situations in which I have worked with children where perhaps they’ve had adults in their life who were their caretakers or people beyond parents, who maybe were emotionally negligent or just overall absent in their lives. A lot of the time as they grow up, the message is ‘I’m not wanted’ or ‘I’m not worthy of attention and love.’ And so when you feel like you are not worth the attention of a simple character that’s dressed up in costume, it does send that message that you’re not valuable. And so as you grow up, it affects your self-esteem. It impacts the way that you view yourself in the world. So, it has long-lasting effects.”

Children who can't trust their favorite character might also distrust adults

Young children have little to no understanding that characters like Rosita aren’t real. Rosita first appeared on Sesame Street in 1991 as the second bilingual character in the show’s English-language version history. Her role on the long-running children’s show is to teach Spanish.

She also has a love for history, music and geography. She is revered as a role model for some children. Other examples of role models for young people are usually adults, thus making their relationship with the character equivalent to their relationships with trusted adults. This is where one of the biggest problems with the character actor at Sesame Place lies, Hilton said.

“It sends the message that you cannot trust the adults around you or that you cannot trust people that you have trusted because I’m sure when they’re reading a book and they see a character, the number one thing that you think to yourself as a child is that this character is approachable,” she said. “And so when you learn that indeed, an adult or someone that you considered safe is not approachable, that also sends a message to you. It sends a message that I have to take care of things by myself because I’m not heard, my voice is not valued. As they grow up, they will learn or internalize that their voice doesn’t matter. And so they don’t stand up for themselves. They don’t learn how to assert themselves or be assertive in certain situations.”

The long-lasting effects can be combated through consistent family love

The first video of the two girls that surfaced is only about 10 seconds long, but Hilton said that’s enough time to present long-lasting emotional side effects.

“Even though this is just a 10-second clip, it has long-lasting effects on their lives if this is a continuous situation for them,” she said. “Now, if they are in a family where they have loving adults that are constantly showing them that they are valued, how they’re valued, then a situation like this may just be one of those things that we just go home and talk it out.”

Hilton said that Black families likely have a harder time speaking life into their children as the world around them often presents such challenges on a more regular basis. 

“Our job as parents gets a little harder because we have to constantly explain to our children that the messages that they’re receiving from the world that they’re in on a daily basis is not the truth,” she said. “And so it does become one of those situations where again, a load is placed on our shoulders to be able to ensure that these situations are not something that they internalize over time.”

It's still a conversation that needs to happen

The key to all of this is that you will have to discuss the situation with your affected children, but deciding what points to make is your choice. Some social media commenters on the video are convinced that the character performer is racist, while others have different views on why the performer skipped over the Black children during the parade.

“With these characters, I have no idea what’s going on inside,” Hilton said. “I don’t know if they’re hot. I don’t know how much they can see and how much they can’t see. Of course, you know, from the outside looking in, you’re going to assume that it was racially motivated, especially because prior to denying them a simple greeting, he or she had greeted multiple other children. So, I don’t know if it was just a mistake if it was just an overlooking of sorts, but I mean, the reality is even if it was a simple mistake, our children are not treated the same way that their counterparts are treated. And that’s a reality across the board. Even when you look at the way that schools discipline white children versus Black children in an elementary setting, which has been documented over and over that our children are treated much, much differently just based on race alone.”

Given the well-documented and historic context of how Black children face higher levels of racial harm, Hilton said that parents might consider exploring race relations when discussing such incidents with their children.

“The reality is that we do have a fight on our hands that just based on what they look like, our children are going to experience things that other children will not,” she said. “Though we can’t be inside of that person’s motives and actions and we can only go by what we already know to be logical. And so I don’t fault people for thinking that that could have perhaps been some level of motivation, but even if it wasn’t motivation, it’s still a conversation that needs to be had around that.”

What to say to your children in such situations

Hilton is a mother of four whose children’s ages range from 8 to 15. As a mother, she inherently understands the outrage other parents feel when seeing the slew of recent videos. But as a social worker, she also sees the deeper need to have important conversations.

“Had those been my daughters, of course, I would be livid. I would be angry, right? That they were ignored by this character that they probably were super excited to see who didn’t even turn or pay the attention to them that they so deserved,” she said. “But I would definitely have had a conversation with them to explain to them that that was just a moment. I’d say, ‘Even though you encountered those 10 seconds today, and I cannot guarantee you that you won’t encounter that again, you will know that I’m a safe space for you.’ And so, I think as parents that is gonna be our ongoing fight is to let our children know that we are safe spaces for them. And that we constantly deter them from the messages that the outside world is sending them.”