In the last couple of years, particularly since Black Lives Matter, the urgency for increased diversity, representation, and inclusion in kids’ media has become undeniable. We know through various scholarly studies that when kids see themselves represented in an overt or direct way, that promotes their self-esteem. Research suggests that seeing realistic, layered portrayals of kids and families can aid in identity development and help kids uncover who they are and who they want to be. We also know that all children can benefit from seeing diverse and inclusive content, whether they are from an under-represented group or not. Diverse examples enrich life, exposing kids to things they may not see in their everyday worlds—places to travel, songs to sing, foods to enjoy. And of course, seeing similarities and differences promotes understanding among people.

In 1969, Sesame Street was a pioneer in diversity on children's television. © Photo/Courtesy of Sesame Workshop

Yet in children’s media, racial and ethnic minorities are still under-represented. We would like to think that parents and teachers are teaching kids about diversity, but they are not. A recent study shows that 68% of parents think that a child’s race or ethnicity affects their ability to succeed, and 31% think it has a major impact. But even though this is true, only 10% of parents are talking to their kids often about race and ethnicity. Media can and should fill this knowledge gap left by parents and teachers. This is a huge opportunity, and even a responsibility, given how much time kids spend in front of screens.

Based on what we know about child development, children need to see themselves very directly. Kids, especially the little ones, are not known for picking up on subtle cues. When it comes to their learning, simple and direct statements and stories work best. And when it comes to diversity, kids need to see people who look like them on-screen. Despite what some might say, kids are not color blind. They learn visually, first and foremost, so seeing a character that looks, sounds, and acts like them will have a great impact on their sense of self-worth. For diversity representation purposes, that means that they need to see human characters, not animals, monsters, or robots.

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That said, a 2020 study shows only 42% of preschool characters are human, so less than half even have a chance at showing diversity. Of those human characters, only one third are diverse. The most explicit way to show diversity is through physical attributes including skin tone, eye shape, and hair. Besides these physical features, there is also the opportunity to include character names that indicate diverse cultures; linguistic competency, where characters consistently speak a language other than English; and cultural competencies which include themes, music, settings, and props.

Featuring multiple diverse characters is only the first step towards true diverse representation in media for kids. Equally as important is representing character perspectives that are layered and specific enough to portray authenticity in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, language, personality, etc., which is achieved by including the details to bring the culture to life like music, clothing, food, and celebrations. Shows ought to check enough boxes in terms of visual diversity and story elements to count as diverse, representative, and inclusive, particularly when it comes to looks, character names, language competency, and cultural competencies, language competency. Diverse portrayals must be direct via human characters, stories, and dialog about racial, ethnic, and cultural differences.

Diversity, representation, and inclusion on screen begins with teams that reflect the diversity of the U.S. population. Creative teams that aim for members of diverse backgrounds, especially those that match that of the characters, will foster more authentic content—which might, in turn, resonate with more diverse audiences. It’s important to uplift the voices of those who are already engaged in this work. When it comes to race and ethnicity, decisions need to be deliberate and thoughtful and put the perspectives of diverse human characters front and center as main characters that kids can connect with emotionally, learn from them, and be inspired by them.

The work we do in children’s media doesn’t stop when the TV shuts off, and the full package of the media experience is key to holistic education about race and inclusion. In tandem with on-screen and behind-the-scenes representation, there is an opportunity to build robust race education frameworks and curricula. The same way we have series that teach us the ABCs like Sesame Street and social-emotional learning like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood or Alma’s Way, it is important to create content and shows that teach and promote healthy racial learning and discourse. This can mean curricula supported both in shows and in long form, short form, and digital content supplementing them. This can include games, supporting materials and printables to be used in the classroom or at home, books and more.

Raising children who are thoughtful and informed about race requires an intention from parents, caregivers, and educators. As a community, we are responsible for promoting healthy racial learning across the different spheres of kids’ lives spanning from the home to school, their community, and the media content they consume. For media creators, it begins with the authentic and direct representation in the shows we create, ensuring this representation is reflected behind the screen, and is completed with follow-up from the families and educators at home and in our communities.

Together, we can help affirm children in their experiences and identities, teach children about those they have yet to be exposed to, and raise generations of young ones more comfortable and equipped in navigating race.

This essay was adapted from Reflections on Children’s Racial Learning 2023, published by EmbraceRace, an organization that aims to help parents and educators raise a generation that is thoughtful, brave, and informed about race.

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