I'm proud to be an American fencing champion; here's why I knelt for the anthem

Published on Wednesday, 14 August 2019 14:13
Written by

Race Imboden

Special To The Washington Post

On Friday, in Lima, Peru, I stood at the top of an awards podium with my teammates and received a gold medal for fencing in the 2019 Pan-American Games. The room wasn’t crowded, there weren’t all that many cameras flashing, and there certainly weren’t million fans tuned in to watch us from back home - I love my sport, but we fencers know we don’t draw the same audience as football, soccer, boxing, or track and field.

But at the podium, my palms wet from nerves, when the Star Spangled Banner began to play, I took a knee - following in the footsteps of Colin Kaepernick, Megan Rapinoe, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith: black, LGBT, female and Muslim athletes who chose to take a stand. I’m not a household name like those heroes, but as an athlete representing my country and, yes, as a privileged white man, I believed it was time to speak up for American values that my country seems to be losing sight of.

I’ve been honored to represent my country in international competition, and every time I hear our national anthem played, it’s a moment of personal pride. I love my country, full stop. When I look around, though, I see racial injustice, sexism, hate-inspired violence and scapegoating of immigrants. This isn’t new, but it feels like it’s getting worse, and after the mass killings in El Paso and Dayton, I knew I wanted to use that moment on the podium to send a message that things have to change.

And I believe that speaking up and demanding this change this isn’t just the responsibility of women and minorities. It’s time that those of us privileged enough not to be personally targeted by this kind of hate start speaking out.

Carlos and Smith were suspended from competition; Ali was stripped of his titles and almost sent to prison; Kaepernick was blacklisted from the NFL; Rapinoe was singled out for criticism by the president. They used their platforms to demand that their country do better, sometimes at great personal sacrifice. So, before I took a knee, I asked myself the same question that a lot of people have tweeted and emailed me in the last few days: Who is this white guy and why does he think he’s earned the right to talk about sacrifice?

Good question.

I’m a privileged, white male athlete. I’ve worked hard to succeed in my sport and represent the United States on world’s biggest stages. But I’m not a sports icon. Even as I risk my life’s work and the thing that brings me true joy - Pan-Am Games rules prohibit political demonstrations - I recognize that to many, my sacrifice doesn’t compare to others who’ve spoken out before. And I understand why. Before I knelt, though, I thought about the responsibility I have.

I hoped to speak to my small group of followers on social media and maybe change a few minds. I hoped that if a few of those who respect me as a competitor thought about the risk I was taking by bending the rules a year before the Olympics, they might reflect on the urgent need to begin healing some of the division in our world.

I’ve received a lot of criticism, and a lot of support, as well. And I’m thankful that my message was heard: “Racism, Gun Control, mistreatment of immigrants, and a president who spreads hate are at the top of a long list” of problems that need to be addressed. It’s my version of the message sent by Kaepernick. In my case, though, you didn’t see a superstar. You didn’t see a woman or minority athlete speaking up. Instead, you saw a white man you never heard of before, in a sport you may not know anything about.

For some Americans, this time, maybe you saw yourself. Someone who looks like you, kneeling there on a podium, calling for change. A lot of people have expressed disgust and hatred, confused that someone like me, of all people, would take a knee during the anthem: You must want attention. You’re an over-privileged snowflake. Suddenly, some people saw me in the light that they see women, people of color and LGBT Americans. Suddenly, some people felt entitled to label me. But I didn’t speak up to promote myself. I spoke up, I hope, for the same reasons that athletes who’ve come before me did. I want my country to change. And I want people who look like me to start coming to terms with this reality: Even if we can’t fully identify with the challenges that minorities sometimes face, or haven’t experienced the kind of attacks that they’ve faced, we owe it to our country to use the privilege we have to fight for what is right.

Posted in New Britain Herald, Editorials on Wednesday, 14 August 2019 14:13. Updated: Wednesday, 14 August 2019 14:16.