Race Imboden will never forget the first time he competed following the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Imboden was in Egypt, representing the United States, when he ran into a French competitor – a Black fencer he had known for years – who asked him: “Why did you guys vote for Trump?”
Imboden remembers that meeting even now. “I think there was a quick moment after the election where we like, ‘we have to give [Trump] a chance. We have to give him an opportunity to show us.’ But he has let us down at every turn,” says the fencer over Zoom from his Manhattan apartment. “The country is at the worst place I’ve ever seen it. It’s in a terrible, terrible state.”
The 27-year-old is currently ranked No8 in the world, having won five gold medals at World Cup competitions and an Olympic bronze medal at the 2016 Games. Still, Imboden is a relatively unknown figure in American sports, or at least he was until the 2019 Pan American Games in Peru. It was there that, after winning team gold and individual bronze, Imboden made headlines for kneeling atop the podium during the Star-Spangled Banner (he had actually kneeled in 2017, but received less attention on that occasion).
“The reason that I knelt at an international competition is because the country that I represent doesn’t reflect me anymore. It doesn’t reflect the people within it,” he says.
Imboden received a 12-month probation from the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) – an act he calls a “cowardly flex” by the USOPC – but neither the probation nor the outpouring of hatred from individuals who disagree with his protest have slowed down Imboden from using his platform to advocate for change.
If it’s surprising to see a white, male fencer who was, as Imboden admits, “born with a head start” advocate for political upheaval in a country that favors people who look like him, that’s exactly the point.
“The attention is not about me,” Imboden says. “While I’m very blessed to feel like I had a place and I had a moment to speak and to hopefully positively change some peoples’ minds, especially those that follow me, look up to me, that’s really important… [But] I did it because of the things that I see that are horrible for other people.”
At the time of the Pan Am Games, Imboden referenced the two mass shootings that occurred in the United States during the first weekend of August 2019. Now, his focus is on racial inequality and the police brutality against African Americans like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and, most recently, Jacob Blake. These tragic events are connected by two themes: racism and gun violence.
“There is no reason for a man who can easily be restrained to be shot seven times in the back,” Imboden says in reference to Blake’s shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
“A lot of the violence that you’ve seen is [due to] guns falling into the hands of the wrong people,” Imdoden adds, referencing Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old white teenager who has been charged with killing two protestors in Kenosha.
“On top of it, we saw the reaction of the police who allowed him to just walk by and wave while you have [Black] people like Tamir Rice playing with a toy gun who are shot and killed.”
It’s one of the reasons that Imboden is working with Everytown, the largest anti-gun violence organization in the world, hoping to fix a country where there are more guns than people and where a Black man is 14 times more likely than a white one to be shot to death.
Imboden has also been doing groundwork in his home state of New York, going to protests and registering people to vote with the help of his partner, Olympic fencer Ysaora Thibus.
“The first improvement that everyone can make is to vote into office a new president,” Imboden says. “That is the next crucial thing. We can’t have a bigoted, racist president anymore.”
Imboden is political and an athlete, and those two things have historically come into conflict, especially in the United States. However, Imboden believes that his generation is well-equipped to handle multiple priorities simultaneously.
“The world has shrunk down – it’s too easy to travel, it’s too easy to get information – nobody is one thing anymore. We’re all able to dabble in many things.” Imboden says. “The second we break those boundaries down it will allow all of us to be more creative and to bring more change.”
It’s no wonder that Imboden supports the NBA boycotts last week, a collective effort from the players to sit out playoff games – with sports teams in other leagues including the MLB, MLS and NHL following suit – in order to protest racial inequality and to demand more action from team owners and leagues.
“Sports is the best example we have of the people that actually don’t [seem to] have the power, that don’t run the organizations, having complete control,” Imboden says. “It’s a living example of society … Imagine if they were essential workers: the second that they stop, that system shuts down … And so I think that sports as a platform is teaching people that they have the power.
“If anything, this platform for change hopefully is the catalyst and example people take to see that the power still remains with the people of promise and the people that are doing work, not the people that are running the system.”
The 2021 Olympics in Tokyo are also on his mind. If Imboden’s prediction is correct, they will be the most political Games in history in spite of the fact that the International Olympic Committee recently released new guidelines reinforcing a ban on protests.
“At this point, I think it’s a pretty BS rule,” Imboden says. “It’s our Olympic Games. The athletes are there to perform. The system and the help that comes from the USOPC is fantastic and allows us to push the sports forward, but it doesn’t take away who we are as people.
“[Plus,] I find it funny to silence the people who are upset instead of fixing the system that is upsetting them.”
For Imboden, social justice means empathy. And, most of all, it means love.
“One of the things you hear all the time is that racist people are uneducated – they’re uneducated on other races or other cultures. And this is far and away not true. You are educated to be a racist. You were brought up that way… In order to teach people to not be racist, to be anti-racist, it’s the same thing: it’s an education, it’s a process, it’s a teaching, it’s developed,” he says.
“I think that our education and our systems have to be altered, have to be changed, and have to be truthful to the culture of Black people,” Imboden adds, emphasizing that people need to speak with those directly affected by these issues in order to empathize with them. “Sitting down and speaking with somebody and facing the biases that you have, making the mistakes, reforming yourself, reflecting upon yourself, and bridging the gap that we all need to bridge.”
The final step involves putting ourselves in other peoples’ shoes.
“Empathy is one thing, I say ‘love’,” Imboden says. “I’m dating a Black, Caribbean woman. So for me, my child won’t look like me. It’s going to be a mix of the two of us. So if my child walks out on the street, or has an issue with a cop … does that mean that my child’s life is at risk? Absolutely, now it is.
“And that’s a reflection that we should all be making.”
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