Civil Rights

Central Falls High School volleyball team met with racist comments in Burrillville

“…our girls, I’m not saying we’re better, but they’re held to a higher accountability,” said Central Falls parent Maria Pedraza. “For our girls, it was mind-boggling that nobody was addressing the boys’ behavior. That they were not being reprimanded or at least told to stop it…” Central Falls High School sports teams are used to not having a large amount

Published on October 1, 2019
By Steve Ahlquist

“…our girls, I’m not saying we’re better, but they’re held to a higher accountability,” said Central Falls parent Maria Pedraza. “For our girls, it was mind-boggling that nobody was addressing the boys’ behavior. That they were not being reprimanded or at least told to stop it…”

Central Falls High School sports teams are used to not having a large amount of support when they do away games, because many parents don’t have a car, said Maria Pedraza, a Central Falls mother and a school secretary. That’s why she was one of the three adults accompanying the Varsity and Junior Varisty Lady Warriors volleyball teams on a trip to play Burillville High School last Monday. The other two adults from Central Falls were team coaches.

The Central Falls Junior Varsity team won the first match, and Pedraza considered leaving. “Normally I leave after JV because I can’t drive at night, but I don’t know why, this night I decided to hang on a little bit,” said Pedraza. “About 15 minutes before the game started a group of boys came in, and were dressed in red, white and blue. We didn’t think much of it. We’re used to the crowds.”

At first the boys were simply rowdy and loud, said Pedraza, cheering on the home team, “but then, as two of the girls that are Cape Verdean started peppering, one of the boys yelled, ‘Let’s get dark in here!'” [Note: peppering is a popular volleyball warm-up drill.]

“Then the boys started laughing.”

Pedraza continued:

“When the second period started, one the the Burrillville girls scored a point and one of the boys in the bleachers stood up and said, ‘That’s how you do it in America!’ The rest of the boys started laughing and waving their flags.

“At this point the girls from the Junior Varsity team are coming up to me and saying, ‘Miss are you listening to what they’re saying?’ I said, ‘I’m listening. We’re all listening, but we’re remaining calm. They can say whatever they want.’

“The girls were starting to get visibly affected. My daughter was at the table, she was keeping the books, so she was recording some of the comments that they’re making to the girls.

A boy yelled at two of the Central Falls players, one Jamaican and one Cape Verdean, “Go back to your country, you can’t even speak!

“They started mocking her accent. The girls were trying to stay focused.

“The game ended,” said Pedraza. “We waited, we held back, waiting for everybody to leave the gym so that we could exit with our girls.”

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As the team entered the parking lot and began to get on their bus, Pedraza saw an adult woman high fiving the boys, saying, “Good job boys, see you next game.”

“As the girls were starting to go into the bus, two pickups full of the boys – the boys were riding in the back of the pickups – they started singing ‘God Bless America,’ they started ululating, they started saying, ‘Go home!'” said Pedraza.

“They were mocking our players, yelling at them…” The boys began to sing ‘God Bless the USA’ by Lee Greenwood. According to Pedraza, the boys yelled, “We belong here!” and “This is our country!”

After the Central Falls bus left, Pedraza waited in her car, texting her husband. As she sat there, parents were joining their kids in the parking lot, taking pictures and celebrating what had happened inside.

“What was more upsetting is that none of the adults that were there were addressing the issue,” Pedraza told me. “I had a couple sitting in the bleachers right beside me who were just laughing and taking video and one said, ‘Oh my God these kids are hilarious.’

“When the Central Falls coach asked the referee ‘What are you going to do about this?’ The referee said, ‘I have it handled. Everything is under control.’ The only time the antics of the boys was addressed was when they took out an airhorn every time the Central Falls team was going to start. The referee grabbed the coaches attention and the coaches told the boys ‘No more airhorns.’

“But nothing about their behavior, and I think that’s so appalling because our girls, I’m not saying we’re better, but they’re held to a higher accountability,” said Pedraza. “For our girls, it was mind-boggling that nobody was addressing the boys’ behavior. That they were not being reprimanded or at least told to stop it.

“Our girls were there to play ball. They were there to have a healthy competition. And it didn’t need to get into racial stuff. One of the parents in Burillville were saying, ‘It’s just school spirit and they were wearing red, white and blue.’ I said, ‘We do it too, but we celebrate our diversity. We don’t separate. We don’t make personal comments. Anybody who’s been to Central Falls knows that we have all shapes and colors.

“To me it was eye opening, as to how adult behavior can influence kids,” continued Pedraza. “I don’t see this as being a teenager thing or kids being kids. A group of boys can be intimidating to a group of girls. So when you have such a big group of boys, which was maybe 20, yelling things to them, demeaning them, putting them down, stuff that might not be directly racial, but insinuated, stuff like, ‘Let’s get dark in here,’ – those things have a hold. Those things do hurt them.

When talking to my daughter and her teammates, Pedraza relates that, “they felt like, ‘We’re so pissed, but we need to keep quiet.’ I think that took a lot. It’s a little chipping that gets taken away from them, from their soul and their self worth. It was not okay.

“And for adults to just stand by and not to say anything, is even worse.

“I can tell you that if that were to have happened from our kids, they would have been escorted out of the gym,” said Pedraza. “We don’t tolerate it. Maybe because we’re a rich, diverse population, but we really don’t tolerate racial innuendos, or slurs, or any type of discrimination. Not just with ethnicity or color, with everything, gender and everything. It’s just not appropriate.

“Our girls are held to a high standard, and I think that’s where this frustration comes from. This wouldn’t happen in our court. If this had been in our schools there would have been consequences, probably to the point of social suspension, social restriction. But when it happens somewhere else, it’s just kids being kids. I wish we’d stop saying ‘just kids being kids’ because it’s actually not kids. We’re talking about high schoolers, we’re talking about young adults that are capable of knowing what is wrong and what is right, regardless of your upbringing. When you chose deliberately to do wrong, you need to be held accountable.”

Counting the two coaches and herself as a parent, there were only three adults from Central Falls present. “We wanted to avoid confrontation as much as possible, and we wanted to remain professional in saying, ‘This is not who we are. We’re not going to succumb to this. If I were a teenager, thinking back, being 15, 16-years-old, it was very scary. Especially with everything going on in the news. You can’t help but feel scared for your safety, like ‘Holy shit. This is real. This is happening.'”

Central Falls lost the Varsity match. “Not to take credit from Burrillville, but it’s very hard to focus when you’re being bombarded by all this. Seeing how Central Falls has played against Portsmouth, which is a great team, and East Greenwich, I think our team was not playing to their maximum. They were visibly affected by what was going on.

“They were visibly shaken. They were trying to battle, like, ‘How do I feel about what’s happening?’ and being in the game.”

Jonathan Acosta is an educator and City Councilor in Central Falls. I asked him what he thought about the behavior of the Burrillville students during and after the game.

“It’s moments like these that force us to consider the power and evil inherent in racism,” said Acosta. “A power that plants itself in the psyches of white kids like these and emboldens them to dehumanize and disrespect other kids simply because of their ethnic or national backgrounds. How is it that a person so young has the capacity for such evil? You’re not born this way. You’re socialized into being a monster. This shit is our fault, our problem, our country. As Tupac said, ‘America eats its babies… no matter what you think of [us], I’m still your child.’ Central Falls kids are American and to suggest anything else is simple minded racist xenophobia. This is as clear a sign as any that racism is alive and well, even in this small ‘liberal’ state.”

Central Falls City Councilor Jessica Vega agrees. “The adults in the room should’ve been acting like adults instead of laughing at racists antics. The Lady Warrior Volleyball Team deserves an apology and actions should be taken against the students and administration.”

Calls to the Rhode Island Interscholastic League, Burrillville Principal Michael Whaley and the coaches of the Burrillville High School volleyball teams were not returned.

[All the video and pictures on this page are (c)2019 Maria Pedraza]

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