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They see color: Two new Black ‘Sesame Street’ characters explain racial difference to children

It’s not unusual in American conversations on race for somebody to proclaim, “I don’t see color,” as his or her own personal credo on the matter.

It sounds, on its surface, like an admirable quality. But it’s one that doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny or deeper interrogation.

In “not seeing color” in others, what that person may be saying is that they’d rather not deal with the issue of race at all. Or worse, that skin color should be undervalued or even disqualified as part of who someone is.

Following this logic, how is such negation different from the kind of explicit racism that it purports to fight?

It’s this kind of thinking that “Sesame Street” confronts head-on in its “Coming Together” initiative, including the “The ABCs of Racial Literacy,” which openly discusses the kinds of things saying “I don’t see color” avoids.

Those matters arise with the show’s two new Muppet characters: Wesley Walker and his father, Elijah. Both are African American human, or humanoid, Muppets. They are conceived to answer any and all questions about what racial difference means; in other words, what makes a Black person a Black person.

Depending on one’s point-of-view, such inquiries may seem too complex to explore, especially on a children’s show.

But throughout its 52-year history, “Sesame Street” has handled issues like hunger, addiction and grief with insight — and when necessary, delicacy. It has also broken ground in introducing recurring characters with autism and characters of different ethnicities. A previous “Sesame Street” resident was Roosevelt Franklin, a Muppet “monster” who was African American in speech and attitude but was purple in color.

The Walkers are, as noted, more realistic in depiction, and they are both willing and able to answer queries from established non-humanoid beings like the irrepressible Elmo, who at one point asks Wesley and his dad why their skin is brown in the guileless, openly curious way a small child might pose the question.

With enthusiasm, Wesley replies: “I know why, Elmo. My mom and dad told me it’s because of melanin. Right, Dad?”

Elijah, with clarity, openness and without a trace of either discomfort or condescension, backs up his son’s reply with more details on how melanin not only determines skin color, but also the hue of one’s eyes and hair.

“The color of one’s skin,” Elijah adds, “is an important part of who we are, but we should all know that it’s OK that we all look different in so very many ways.”

If only grownups in real life could learn how to be as straightforward and matter-of-fact when discussing these things. And that’s been the whole point of “Sesame Street” from its origins: to make accessible what seems difficult or mystifying to everyone who needs to know how the world works.

It may be too much or, at least, too soon to expect public affairs shows on TV to be this smart about bringing such otherwise discomforting matters into adults’ living rooms.

Wesley and Elijah, however, could help make it easier for children to bring them up instead, so that parents can no longer insist on “not seeing color,” and instead must acknowledge, then accept, that color is an open door into who — and not what — a person is.

Or so we can hope.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the name of Roosevelt Franklin, a previous “Sesame Street” Muppet.

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