Psychiatry, Racism, and the Birth of ‘Sesame Street’


From Undark: “Chester Pierce — the founding president of the Black Psychiatrists of America — was most concerned about the pernicious influence of one institution in particular: television. By 1969, virtually every American family home had at least one set. As one commentator at the time observed: ‘American homes have more television sets than bathtubs, refrigerators or telephones; 95 percent of American homes have television sets.’

Small children of all ethnicities were growing up glued to TV screens. This worried Pierce, because he was not just a psychiatrist but also a professor of early childhood education. And from a public health standpoint, he believed, television was a prime ‘carrier’ of demeaning messages that undermined the mental health of vulnerable young black children in particular. In fact, it was Pierce who first coined the now widely used term microaggression, in the course of a study in the 1970s that exposed the persistent presence of stigmatizing representations of black people in television commercials.

It seemed to Pierce, though, that the same technology that risked creating another generation of psychically damaged black children could also be used as a radical therapeutic intervention. As he told his colleagues within the Black Psychiatrists of America in 1970: ‘Many of you know that for years I have been convinced that our ultimate enemies and deliverers are the education system and the mass media.’ ‘We must,’ he continued, ‘without theoretical squeamishness over correctness of our expertise, offer what fractions of truth we can to make education and mass media serve rather than to oppress the black people of this country.’

Knowing how Pierce saw the matter explains why, shortly after the founding of the Black Psychiatrists of America, he became personally involved in helping to design a new kind of television show targeted at preschool children.”

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  1. What a nice story about a good psychiatrist who utilized his training to help children. That is for what psychiatry should be used. What a shame the majority of psychiatrists have chosen to turn against our children, and now we have a completely iatrogenic “childhood bipolar epidemic.”

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  2. Actually how very sad that racism and othering were not stopped but continued to grow almost exponentially.
    I remember volunteering at a special needs classroom and the teachers were in awe that Semase Street had visuals of at least one Down Syndrome child. They also were truthful about Mr. Hooper’s death. And Maria’s pregnancy and her daughter’s birth.
    This was on the cusp of the debate on victim blaming and white men making correct and non correct assessments on African American culture and other cultures. The voices of so called others in the MH system became under attack and incarceration became the norm.
    The strains of colonialism, racism, sexism that were seeded from the start of the European movement over the ocean and First Nation folks had their own weaknesses but thrived until they and our immigrant ancestors arrived.
    It could have been the start of something evolutionary.
    Now Sessme Street is involved with cable and PBS stations are the second act.

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