The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I’m proud to be an American fencing champion. Here’s why I knelt for our anthem.

It’s time that athletes like me — white, male, privileged — start speaking out for justice.

American fencer and Olympic gold medalist Race Imboden knelt during the national anthem at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, on Aug. 9. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

Four days ago 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 millions of 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 believe it is 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 each 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, Ohio, 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 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, whether we’re athletes or not, 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 past 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 the world’s biggest stages. I’m a world champion like Rapinoe and an Olympic medalist like Ali, Carlos and Smith. 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.

Taking a knee has always been a sign of reverence, not disrespect

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. My Twitter timeline and my inbox have been flooded with messages of support and love from people who were thankful that I spoke up. 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. And it’s pretty much the same message sent by my Pan-Am Games teammate, Gwen Berry, when she raised her fist after winning the hammer throw competition.

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 overprivileged snowflake. Suddenly, some people saw me in the light that they see women, people of color and LGBT Americans in. Suddenly, some people felt entitled to label me and strip me of my individuality. 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.

Correction: This article originally stated that the author’s medal ceremony was three days ago. It was four days ago.