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Warren Wilson College soccer player sparks a conversation on racism

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When Warren Wilson College senior Hanaa Butcher knelt during the national anthem at her soccer team’s homecoming match Oct. 1 she didn't hope to defeat racism.

Instead the midfielder for the Owls, who came to the school from Brooklyn, New York, hoped to initiate a conversation about racism in the United States.

“I don't think we practice equality,” Butcher said. “We’re not equal. We’re not equal at all.”

Butcher first joined a growing number of athletes around the country Sept. 26 when she chose not to stand for The Star Spangled Banner before the Owls' match with the University of South Carolina Lancaster.

“Prior to the game I didn't discuss it with any of my teammates,” she said. “I talked to my coaches because I wanted them to know what was going on.”

The trend of kneeling during the national anthem started Aug. 26 after a Twitter photo of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick on one knee went viral. A little over a week later, Megan Rapinoe, a midfielder for the Seattle Reign of the National Women's Soccer League, showed her support for Kaepernick by doing the same thing during the national anthem in Chicago.

Kaepernick, whose actions have contributed to the nationwide conversation about racism in the country, has been joined by several athletes at the professional and amateur levels. Butcher's actions were a topic of discussion among the soccer players on the Owls' ride back from South Carolina.

“I explained to them why I chose to do what I did and how I was frustrated with a lot of the racial injustice going on around our country, specifically police brutality towards black people,” she said. “I was prepared for those questions.”

Several of Butcher's teammates have family members in the armed forces. So does she.

"My stepdad is a veteran, and my stepbrother is currently serving," she said. "My stepbrother told me last night, 'I'm fighting for your right to kneel.' Hearing that from him was emotional for me."

Born in Arima, Trinidad and Tobago, Butcher moved with her family to Brooklyn when she was 13. Her first encounter with a police officer happened within a few years, she said.

“In high school, me and my friends were walking to catch a train. I'll never forget it,” she said. “A police officer stopped us and asked us what we were doing, and we told him we were going to the train. He told us he just received notice to look around for a group of kids matching our description.

“I was scared to death, I didn't know if I would go to jail or what,” she continued. “They ended up frisking us right there in front of everybody. Do you know how embarrassing that was?”

People of color throughout the country have similar stories, she said. Cameras on smart phones are capturing far worse.

“We see this stuff every day, but what are we doing about it?” she said. “How am I supposed to explain to my cousins and siblings that there's two sets of rules depending on the color of your skin?"

Butcher’s actions and the conversations they have engendered have brought the players closer together,  Owls head coach Lydia Vandenbergh said.

“It's eye-opening for a lot of our players,” she said. “And too many people being silent about it is part of the problem.”

Prior to the Warren Wilson women's soccer homecoming game, several teammates joined Butcher in protest, including J-Sav Savino and Sydney Grange. Like Butcher, Savino and Grange went to Charlotte earlier this month to participate in protests that followed the Sept. 20 shooting death of Keith Scott by a Charlotte police officer.

“It's time to stand up to the system of injustice that's impacting the lives of people of color,” Grange said. “The incident in Charlotte is not an isolated incident. But it's close to home, and that provided the opportunity to go and stand in solidarity with those facing these issues.”

The decision by some team members to kneel during the national anthem is a way to start the conversation, Savino said.  But “kneeling won't fix anything,” she said. Progress will come when the nation's majority seeks to learn more about the plight of people of color, she said.

"It's not the duty of people of color to educate white people," she said. "There are a million ways that white people can educate themselves on issues of social justice. Really, all you have to do is pay attention."

In a statement, the college said it "respects the rights of all students, including student athletes, to exercise their freedom of opinion and expression."

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