Family accusing Sesame Place of racism demands 'authentic' apology, firing of worker

·6 min read
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B'Ivory LaMarr, an attorney who represented the family of Jacob Blake, is now representing a mom who has issues with Sesame Place. (Morry Gash / Associated Press)

Jodi Brown, who filmed her daughter and her niece being rejected by a performer at a "Sesame Street" theme park on Saturday, has hired an attorney who is investigating practices at Sesame Place Philadelphia and is calling for the firing of the performer who allegedly rebuffed the girls.

Brown ignited a firestorm Sunday when she posted the clip on Instagram showing the park’s costumed Rosita character walking past the two 6-year-old girls, who are Black, during a daytime parade. Brown claimed that the performer “blatantly told our kids NO then proceeded to hug the little white girl” next to them.

Brown's daughter appeared with her mother Wednesday at a press conference near Sesame Workshop in New York with their lawyer, Houston-based trial attorney B'Ivory LaMarr, and social justice activist Tamika Mallory, co-founder of social-justice organization Until Freedom.

Brown said that she feels Sesame Place Philadelphia and Sesame Workshop's apologies "were not genuine." She said she wants the parties involved to "do the right thing" after making the family suffer "embarrassment and discriminatory behavior which we should not have to endure in these days and times."

"For little children, they should not have to experience such hurt and embarrassment from a character who's supposed to bring joy," Brown said, according to footage from Philadelphia news outlet Fox 29.

Brown, LaMarr and Mallory called on the SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment-owned park to issue a formal, "authentic" apology that accepts responsibility for the performer's actions. They also demanded that Sesame Place Philadelphia — one of two parks billed as the “live embodiment” of the “Sesame Street” program — terminate the employee and that the company pay for the mental health and healthcare expenses the family is incurring as a result of the incident.

"The last thing we wanna do is file a lawsuit," LaMarr said. "This is not about money, OK. But they do need to take responsibility."

The attorney, who also represents the family of police shooting victim Jacob Blake, said that they've come to learn that the Saturday incident "is not an anomaly."

"What we've seen is business as usual to deny and defend and delay accountability," he said. "An incident like this should not have to go viral for the harms to be properly addressed by corporations in this country."

LaMarr asserted that the performer's actions seen in Brown's video — apparently motioning "no" and walking past the children — were intentional. He also said they have evidence corroborating Brown's allegations and alluded to video footage taken from another perspective.

They gave SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment 12 hours to respond.

Representatives for the Orlando-based SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment did not immediately respond Wednesday to The Times' request for comment.

The girls' experience, which went viral on social media, prompted Sesame Place Philadelphia to issue a swift explanation Sunday, but the words landed with a thud, leading to a second statement from the park Monday and another from Sesame Workshop, which runs the inclusive children's program "Sesame Street."

The park's statement Sunday said that character costumes “sometimes make it difficult” for performers “to see at lower levels and sometimes our performers miss hug requests from guests.” It said that the “no” hand gesture the performer made “was not directed to any specific person” but was a response “to multiple requests from someone in the crowd who asked Rosita to hold their child for a photo which is not permitted.”

The performer did not intentionally ignore the girls and was “devastated about the misunderstanding,” the statement said.

In its statement Monday, Sesame Workshop said it had been assured that Sesame Place would “conduct bias training and a thorough review of the ways in which they engage with families and guests.” The nonprofit appeared to side with the two young girls who were apparently shunned by the costumed character.

But Mallory and commenters on the post said bias training was not enough, and many called for employees to be fired after more videos showing instances of similar and sometimes worse behavior have surfaced.

"I know our Black girls are magic but I didn't know that they were invisible," LaMarr said. "We are tired of your excuses."

During her remarks, Mallory cited a Smithsonian Magazine article about the history of "Sesame Street" that said the program's "hidden curriculum" was to boost Black children's self-worth and present images of an integrated, harmonious society, contrary to what they might see elsewhere on TV or in the world.

What happened to Brown, her daughter and her niece went against that philosophy, she explained, and Until Freedom issued a warning to Black families about visiting the Langhorne, Pa., park.

"We are not here today because we're just upset about something that happened at a park. We are here because the history of what this park is supposed to represent has been denigrated," Mallory said. "Our communities have been disrespected when the entire history of what this park is supposed to be about is the opposite of what we saw [in the videos]."

Mallory said she was upset that Sesame Place's initial statement was not an apology without equivocation, characterizing the statement as gaslighting that caused more harm.

"Our children will not be disrespected," she said. "We will not leave our children unaddressed and unprotected."

Brown also gave a series of interviews Tuesday that further expressed her disappointment over the incident, which has been blasted by singer Kelly Rowland and other celebrities and social-justice activists. Brown has vowed to keep sharing the video until the rebuff is "rectified."

"They were excited to meet these characters and a simple high-five or a wave would've been sufficient," Brown said Tuesday on TMZ Live.

LaMarr told TMZ that he's looking into discrimination at the park, which is owned and operated by SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment under an exclusive license from Sesame Workshop. The other Sesame Place is near San Diego.

"Of course the burden of proving discrimination is very high," he said, adding that he's been contacted by at least 10 families making similar claims. He said it "calls into question whether there's a pattern of this type of conduct being experienced at the Sesame Place theme park" in Pennsylvaniad.

While Brown's claim is at the forefront, LaMarr added that it is "very evident" that the park employee's conduct "unquestionably resulted in harm" for the girls, as well as a "troubling" amount of emotional distress.

"No one who has any type of disdain for African Americans should be employed by any theme park whatsoever," he said.

Rowland, the Destiny's Child veteran, was among those who rejected Sesame Place's initial remarks on the incident, writing in the comments section of the Sunday apology: "Those gorgeous girls will never forget that feeling! THEY ARE KIDS!!!!! You should be ASHAMED of yourselves for this pathetic statement."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.