The Limitations of Multiculturalism: Child's Play

September 15, 2015

By Tamar Breslauer

Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization that produces Sesame Street, proudly proclaims a mission to “help kids grow smarter, stronger, and kinder” through programs that reach across more than 150 countries. This mission, of course, is far from simple. In fact, through the work of Naomi Moland’s recent research on the Nigerian version of Sesame Street, it becomes clear that in the process of helping kids grow “smarter, stronger, and kinder,” the complexities of the world surface in both concrete and profound ways.

Naomi Moland’s article “Can Multiculturalism be Exported? Dilemmas of Diversity on Nigeria’s Sesame Square,” published in Comparative Education Review, discusses the production of a Nigerian version of Sesame Street called Sesame Square. Moland depicts how the producers, writers, and developers strive to create a balanced, educational program in the face of competing ethnic, religious, and cultural divisions within the country, and the varying ways they feel that divisions should be approached. Moland interviews Nigerian and American staff members of Sesame Square, and studies the transcripts of 78 episodes to examine the challenges of creating a program both relevant to, and respectful of, the tapestry of peoples in Nigeria. Along the way, she shows how elements of daily life become fraught with symbolism when these elements appear on television. For example, she shares the following vignette: “One Christian Nigerian creator described a film shoot wherein an Igbo girl in a tank top with thin straps was told to wear a jacket, because the clothing may be offensive to Muslims. This creator asked, ‘If it’s okay for another child to wear a hijab, then why can’t she wear [a tank top]?’ (Nigerian creator, October 28, 2011). Even though a hijab is a religious (and ethnic) symbol and a tank top is not, the tank top came to symbolize non-Muslims” (Moland 2015, 11). Every character’s dress, every reference to daily life, and every story line can present a challenge that can stall or prevent the release of an episode.

Moland shares other specific examples from the program to illuminate some of these challenges. She describes the decision not to include images of churches or mosques—although both church bells and the Muslim call to prayer are audible. She describes the compromise that was reached regarding the decision to encourage vaccinations by having a doctor smile at a child—an outcome settled upon after a lollipop, hug, and pat on the head are all rejected. In addition, she gives voice to the intricate perspectives of the producers, writers, and developers of the program who are self-reflective about their work and the significance of their decisions. They ask themselves, and each other, can (and should) they emphasize “neighborhood” when they want a “nation”? Is it possible to represent “reality” while ignoring some of the most divisive aspects of that reality? Is the goal to depict reality, or is the goal to depict the ideal of what reality could be? Finally, throughout the piece, Moland explores the question: if a harmonious reality is not the present, does the conceptualization of multiculturalism lead to a more, or less, divisive future? Her answers to this final point raise many questions regarding multiculturalism not only in the Nigerian context, but in other contexts as well.


Tamar Breslauer, NAFSA’s Senior Research Specialist, looks for interesting questions in the areas of global learning, internationalization and the contexts in which these exist and shares her findings through NAFSA Research Connections. To discuss the questions raised in this research and to share your reactions with others, please visit the NAFSA Research Connections discussion forum.


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