With one tweet, Sharif El-Mekki exposed the racist stereotypes that people project onto Black children. The tweet in question, posted on Oct. 10, shows two Black male students standing with pride as they hold trophies with large golden chess pieces on them.
El-Mekki captioned it, “Folks see [Black] kids walking [with] trophies & automatically congratulate ’em for winning basketball game.” He then says the boys responded, “[Thanks]! This is for chess.”
Folks see Blk kids walking w trophies & automatically congratulate ’em for winning basketball game. They said,”THX! This is for chess.” 😎 pic.twitter.com/WL1zj00pL3
— Sharif El-Mekki (@selmekki) October 10, 2016
The snap judgement of seeing young successful Black males and assuming that they are succeeding in basketball is racist at its core.
“People want to put our children in a box,” said El-Mekki. “There are stereotypes set up about Black people and Black youth. Some are lethal, and all of them are impersonal. I want people to be curious about who our kids and all Black kids are as people, and not just make assumptions.”
El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School, Shoemaker Campus, in West Philadelphia. The school, whose students are 95 percent Black (90 percent African-American and 5 percent West African and Caribbean, according to El-Mekki), was previously an under-performing public school. In fact, it was called the second most violent school in Philadelphia, according to the school’s website, who references the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Learning about stereotypes and racism does not just happen in day-to-day interactions; it is part of the curriculum and coursework at Mastery Charter School, Shoemaker, which serves grades seven through 12. All eighth-grade students are required to take a social justice class, which keenly focuses on social justice movements, especially the movements involving children and young people. They work on concrete strategies for combating racism in their everyday lives, as well as the bigger picture of systemic oppression.
All ninth grade students are required to take African-American history, and all ninth and 11th-grade students are required to take a class on social-emotional learning.
“This is a class specifically focused on ‘How can I express myself as a Black child in a racist society?’” said El-Mekki. He added that it is a “hyper-conscious” learning experience, which promotes positive racial identity, aka, teaching the kids to love themselves and their Blackness.
El-Mekki said responses to his tweet made him feel that his message — that stereotypes are unnecessary and that he does not want to “put Black youth in a box” — was heard and taken to heart.
“I know it’s only on a small scale, but the likes and comments and retweets let me know it resonated,” El-Mekki said.
According to their principal, the boys in the tweeted photo were not mad or annoyed at being stereotyped. In fact they were polite, and “surprised that people could think that Black kids wouldn’t play chess,” said the principal.
With El-Mekki leading the charge, the school is also seeking to employ more Black men — who are only 2 percent of the teacher population in the United States — as teachers. Studies show that children respond well to and prefer Black and brown teachers. Mastery Charter’s Shoemaker Campus started a fellowship to make that happen.
“Help is not on the way,” El-Mekki said. “That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”