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Black High School Athletes Speak Out About Racism in Vermont Sports 



Black High School Athletes Speak Out About Racism

Racist incidents in Vermont school sports involving both players and spectators have been in the headlines frequently over the past year and a half. But often, media coverage of these events doesn’t include the voices of students of color, who are most affected by the behavior.

In January, a TikTok video that included the N-word was posted by a Champlain Valley Union High School girls’ basketball player, leading players at four schools, including Rice Memorial and Burlington high schools, to opt out of scheduled games with the CVU team. After Seven Days reported on the video, Rice sophomore Atika Haji, one of just three Black players on the Catholic school’s basketball team, emailed the newspaper, asking that the voices of Black student athletes be heard. Last week, Seven Days sat down with Atika and four girls’ basketball players from Burlington High School — junior Anyier Manyok, senior Gamana Haji, sophomore Sienna Pitts and junior Hawa Awayle — to hear their perspectives on the CVU situation and racism in school sports. The issue made the Vermont news in 2021, when Enosburg Falls High School soccer players and spectators were alleged to have directed racial slurs at Black Winooski High School players. At the time, Winooski superintendent Sean McMannon said the incident was part of a pattern of “racial violence” against student athletes in Winooski, the only majority-minority school district in the state. Later that fall, a South Burlington-Burlington volleyball game was called off after racial harassment from the stands; during a football game between Mill River Union and Otter Valley Union high schools, athletes reportedly hurled racial slurs. In the aftermath, the state’s governing body for interscholastic sports rolled out new protocols to discourage bias, name-calling and other bad behavior. The Vermont Principals’ Association now requires the pregame reading of a statement that condemns hazing, harassment and bullying. Coaches and referees are required to learn about implicit bias. And the VPA created an online form through which people can report complaints about behavior at sports competitions. About a third of the 48 complaints lodged through the form this school year involve racism, according to VPA assistant executive director Lauren Thomas. Problems persist, though. In January, Bellows Free Academy Fairfax decided to ban spectators from its games while it investigated allegations that fans used a racial slur toward one or several Milton High School basketball players. And Middlebury Union High School athletes chose to cancel a girls’ basketball game with Enosburg, citing three incidents of “racist attacks” from Enosburg fans over several years. After Rice and BHS postponed their CVU games in response to the TikTok video, CVU principal Adam Bunting penned an open letter to Vermont students, explaining the consequences the player who posted the video faced and urging other teams to play CVU as scheduled. He characterized the video as “a TikTok trend” and “racially insensitive — at best.” School administrators took away the student’s position as team captain, suspended her from gameplay, removed her from school leadership clubs and had her begin a restorative justice process, Bunting wrote, although he didn’t say how long the suspension lasted. Students have also acted on their own. The predominantly white Mount Mansfield Union High School and Essex High School girls’ basketball teams both canceled their January games with CVU, following the lead of Rice and BHS.
 Jerseys given to BHS from MMU - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Jerseys given to BHS from MMU
At the January 23 girls’ basketball game between Mount Mansfield and Burlington, MMU players presented BHS players with shirts that said “Be the Change” to show solidarity in standing up against racism. Despite those expressions of support, the Black players who spoke with Seven Days said they more commonly feel a lack of understanding from white players and coaches, as well as what they perceive as bias from referees. The teens also feel that schools have failed to act decisively enough against offenders. Below are excerpts from the conversation with the five students.

On seeing the TikTok video

The video showed a white CVU player pulling the hair of a Black member of her family as a voice-over says, “Got your [N-word] — but you can get ’em back at your local Chevrolet dealership.” It was posted for less than an hour, but a recording circulated widely among students.

Gamana Haji: I wasn’t really surprised, more disgusted and confused. Like, Why would you even post this? — if there even was a thought process. Hawa Awayle: I didn’t think it was funny at all. I was also confused, and I would like to make note that it wasn’t a trend on TikTok. There wasn’t more than one video posted like that. Anyier Manyok: My first thought was … how CVU would deal with it. How would our division or league deal with it? Is she just going to get a slap on the wrist for this? — which we felt she did. Sienna Pitts: We, as a team, after practice, we had a little discussion about what we wanted to do going forward before our game against CVU. And our athletic director was asking us if [we] wanted to play them, and it was a group decision. We were like, “I think it’s just best if we don’t play them.” Anyier: We actually had a conversation as a team, and we said that we think she should be suspended for five games, minimum, and then she should be allowed to play. I think if other teams saw that she was suspended for five games — that specific player — then everyone would be like, “OK, fine, we’ll play them [because] she was punished.” But now, nobody’s playing.

On CVU’s reaction to the situation

After BHS postponed the CVU game, CVU principal Bunting and activities director Ricky McCollum met with Burlington players and administrators.

Sienna: [They] wanted to hear our perspectives, and they wanted to be there to answer any questions and concerns. The conversation didn’t really go anywhere. [Bunting] was asking us to trust him and to know that this situation is [being] dealt with. I was kind of thinking, How can I trust someone that I’ve never met? And I asked him, “How can I trust you?” and he kind of redirected the question back to me in a way that just didn’t make any sense, and he didn’t answer my question. So, I guess that kind of made me feel a little disrespected in a way, and it made me feel frustrated. Gamana: I feel like CVU came into this playing defense instead of open to actually listening to the feedback the students — more importantly, students of color — were trying to give to them. I don’t think that they came wanting to receive anything. Imagine the Black people that saw that video, like imagine what we’ve been going through for all these years. I think they want us to give empathy, but we’re not getting empathy, so why would we be giving empathy back? Anyier: They gave us a list of some of the discipline that [the offending student] was receiving, and one of them was that she’s learning about racism. I’m in an English class right now that’s dedicated to learning about African American history. That’s not a punishment. So, we were just asking for more, and our feelings were minimized. Atika Haji: Within the [CVU] administration, there were just a whole bunch of people taking responsibility for her. The principal wrote that email basically apologizing for her. The CVU girls’ team had posted on their Instagram account taking responsibility for her, but we have not gotten a personal apology from her — from the person who actually made the video.
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Other experiences of racism in school sports

Anyier: I think the reason we’re so firm about this … is that so many other racist things have happened in our basketball community. We were playing in summer league in July, and Gamana had beads in her hair and she was told by a referee she wasn’t allowed to play unless she covered her beads up. I remember when I was in sixth grade — I was only 12 years old — I had two braids in, and this referee came, and he pulled my hair, and he said, “If this is not real, you have to take it out or else you can’t play.” And I’m like, “OK, we’re gonna sit here for two hours while I undo my braids.” And that’s never happened to a white girl and their hair, you know? Atika: [Last season], there was one incident where our [Rice] boys’ basketball team had played at St. Albans, and in their student section … during a free throw, they had screamed the N-word. I think it was by a younger student who wasn’t even in the high school. Gamana: It’s like a thing: Burlington, we need to be on our best behavior on the court or on the field. The refs don’t like us because we’re mostly Black. We have these thoughts going into our games, but … why do we have these refs reffing our games? How is that fair to us? Where is our protection? And schools … like Enosburg, who are notorious for their racism, how are they still allowed to play in these sports games? Being an athlete is a privilege. It’s not something that everybody should be allowed to do, and if you can’t respect the game, if you can’t respect the people you’re playing against, you just shouldn’t play.

On the effectiveness of measures the VPA has taken to curb racism

Hawa: I think that statement that gets read before every game is not going to stop all these problems that are happening — whether it’s racism or homophobia. They could do something different, and I’m not exactly sure what that could be. But that statement isn’t going to solve the problems. Gamana: I also think, just as a whole state, Vermont claims to be very progressive and … before the games, there’s a lot of “zero tolerance for this” and “zero tolerance for that.” And then they go and tolerate this. I feel like there should just be this line that if you cross it, you’re done. Anyier: I was talking to a friend of mine’s mom, and she said that there should be … a group of student athletes where these situations [are] brought to them, and then they decide what the punishment should be or what should happen. I think that would do a lot of good, just because we’re the people that are being harmed, and we have all these adults that are making decisions for us when they’re not going through the things that we’re going through.

On the community’s response to the incident

Gamana: At least from BHS, we’ve got a lot of support, and we’re very appreciative of it. From other schools, they’ve also been supportive, but since they don’t have a heavy Black population at any of the other schools, they’re all coming from this point of view [of] “You guys should be empathetic, and you guys should lean toward the way of forgiveness.” And it’s not that we’re not empathetic or forgiving people. It’s just that, what is there to be forgiving toward? We haven’t been properly apologized to. And I just don’t like how many white people are telling us to basically just get over it. Atika: I know that people within the [CVU] community have just been like, “Oh, you guys are being dramatic. You guys just don’t want to play [CVU] because you know you’re going to lose.” I mean, win or lose, it’s more than just basketball. They just don’t see it how we see it. Anyier: I felt like they saw this as a stupid video a teenage girl made rather than racism, which is why everyone thinks we’re being dramatic. Gamana: At what point does it just become unacceptable to do certain things? At our big ages, we know right from wrong, and we know that our actions have consequences. We don’t want to not play CVU. I feel like that’s something that people are misinterpreting. But it’s bigger than basketball.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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