Eliot Jackson on the Necessity of Speaking Out Now
The professional mountain biker has never made race a platform. But amid the protests against racial injustice, he opens up about being Black in a predominantly white sport, the challenges he's faced on and off the track, and what we can all do to address bias in the outdoor community.
Eliot Jackson rides for the Giant Factory Off-Road Team. On June 3, he posted a video sharing his experiences of being one of the few Black racers on the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup downhill circuit and his thoughts on the cycling community’s reaction to the George Floyd protests. The video has garnered nearly 97,000 views. Jackson expanded on his commentary for Outside.
A lot of activists and Black people have been speaking up about violence and racism against Black people for a long time, but they haven’t had a voice. They have a voice now. But it’s also difficult, because suddenly you have people saying, “Now I’m listening.” What do you do with that situation?
The only story I can tell is my own. I’m not an activist, I’m an athlete. And I’m a Black athlete. I’m not here to speak for all Black people. I’m not here to do anything other than tell you my experience, the emotions I’ve felt, and how I want to be treated, which is how I try to treat everyone in my life—with respect and empathy.
I grew up in Oklahoma and later California, racing motocross with my brother until I was 15. As a kid, I raced for Kawasaki and won five national championships. A few years after I stopped racing moto, one of my friends invited me to go mountain biking. We went up to Whistler, British Columbia, and I loved it. I was like, This is what I wanna do. It was 2008, and I was 18.
Upon returning from that trip, a friend showed me all these UCI Mountain Bike World Cup downhill videos. Watching them, I just wanted to go to these places and ride their amazing tracks. I decided I was going to become a World Cup racer.
I built a plan. I read the USA Cycling (USAC) rule book over and over, learning that I’d need to get my pro license, then accumulate a certain number of UCI points at pro races to qualify for a World Cup. In 2010, I scheduled my whole year around it. In my second downhill race, at the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, California, I won the category 1 event—the highest level of amateur racing—and earned my pro card. I went to a few more races to gain UCI points but either crashed or didn’t place high enough. My last chance for the year was national championships. It was my fourth or fifth race on a mountain bike, and no one knew who I was. I ended up qualifying fifth, but I crashed in the finals.
I knew that, based on my performance, I was still a candidate for a discretionary spot on the national team, which would qualify me to race a World Cup without the points. After the race, I went to the USAC official and said, “I didn’t get the points, but can you put me on the team? According to the rules, I should be eligible.”
“There’s a World Cup race in Italy, but it’s next week,” he said. “If you want to go, I’ll sign you up.” So my brother, my mom, and I flew to Italy. It was my first time being out of the country. I flew out there with a multitool and my bike, and that was pretty much it. I remember someone told me I needed to buy “spike tires” (downhill slang for wet-weather tires), because it rained during practice, and I thought they meant I needed to have tires with metal spikes in them. That’s how naive I was. But I raced that World Cup and qualified for the finals. The next year, 2011, I started riding for Yeti Cycles.
On the surface, being one of the only Black professional athletes in a white-dominated sport has helped my career, but it’s also been something I’ve struggled with. A lot of the reason I’m so recognizable is because I’m Black—people see me in a lift line and know who I am. For any athlete or entertainer, being unique can be a bonus.
On the flip side, it’s mentally draining and hard to deal with at times. I have a few close friends who are Black mountain bikers, and they’re constantly asked, “Are you Eliot Jackson?” This used to happen to me in moto, too: people would mistake me for three-time AMA (American Motorcyclist Association) Pro motocross champion James Stewart. As a Black person, for any person, being mistaken for someone else simply on the basis of race makes you feel invisible. It’s an obvious example of people only seeing color and not seeing you as a person.
Even on the mountain bike, people see me scrub and say, “He’s like James Stewart on a bike.” I love James Stewart, he’s one of the best riders of all time, so it’s a major compliment. But there are a lot of people who scrub the bike in motocross. As a Black person, you have to make the choice: How do I take this? Do I ignore the fact that people might not be seeing me for who I am and just focus on the good intention? Or do I dig in deeper and say, “I understand what you’re saying, but are you just comparing me because of the color of my skin?” I always think, What would it look like if people didn’t compare me to someone else and just saw me for who I am and what I’m doing?
I’ve had people ask me, “Do you think the only reason you’re sponsored by Giant is because you’re Black?” The difficult thing is that there’s no definite answer. So you have to have unbelievable confidence to say, “No. I know what I’ve done, I know that I’ve worked hard to be here, and I’m here because I’m good at what I do.” But in the moments I don’t have that confidence, those thoughts can creep in and add to the imposter syndrome we all feel at times.
Another thing I hear a lot is, “You’re not really Black.” What does that even mean, to be Black? It’s as if people think they’re doing me a service, saying, “I don’t want to put you into this group that’s normally seen as bad or as criminals.” They would never hesitate to recognize me as a cyclist, but they’re hesitating to recognize me as Black because of the way that they see Black people. The way I see Black people is, we’re smart and innovative and empathetic. So it’s confusing and diminishing to hear, “You’re not Black.” It’s like they’re saying, “I love you, but it’s conditional—conditional on you acting a certain way or not acting a certain way.”
One of the reasons I think people say “You’re not Black” is that they have an idea of what it means to be a Black person, and I don’t fit that. A few years back, a bike publication wrote an article about me that emphasized that I was bright, articulate, and that my family was self-made and well-off. On one hand, I am all those things, and I’m proud of those qualities and my family’s accomplishments. (I also program and do a lot of computer and data science, and that’s unusual for any pro mountain biker, period.) On the other hand, it’s like people feel the need to rationalize why I’m there. You hear that a lot in more traditional professions, like if you see a Black lawyer, people say, “Oh my God, she’s so articulate,” and it’s like, of course she is, she went to Harvard Law. When the article came out, I wasn’t mad. The person who wrote it has always been so supportive. I just want journalists to check their intentions and make sure they’re including details for the right reasons.
We all learn about race early on, and it’s usually from some secondary source—whether it’s a TV show, a movie, or our parents—and we can get ideas, like all Black people are rappers, or dress a certain way, or talk a certain way, or live in certain areas, or do or don’t do certain activities like mountain biking. So when you say, “You’re not really Black,” you’re saying, “You don’t fit my idea of what I’ve learned about Black people, and I’m not willing to update that idea to fit you into it.”
When discussions about George Floyd and the protests started to circulate on social media, I was stunned at what I saw from athletes, fans, and people in the cycling industry. Two comments I saw a lot were “I don’t see color” and “All lives matter.” When you respond in this way, you’re saying your experiences are the same as mine, and my different experience doesn’t matter. In an ideal world, we would all be treated the same, but we’re not there yet.
When I moved to California at 13, we lived right down the street from a Sports Authority, and my brother and I went there occasionally. One of our friends worked there, and one day he came up to us and said, “Don’t steal anything, ’cause my manager told me to watch you guys.”
If all people are the same, how do I reconcile that as a Black person? If you’re saying we’re all equal and all treated fairly, then I must be such a bad person that you can judge me just by looking at me and know that I’m going to steal something. I start to internalize the bias I experience. I start to think that I’m less of a person. Because what other conclusion can I come to?
So when you say, “You’re not really Black,” you’re saying, “You don’t fit my idea of what I’ve learned about Black people, and I’m not willing to update that idea to fit you into it.”
I haven’t made race a platform in my career. For a lot of us, it’s painful. It’s painful to live in the bad experiences that we have as Black people every day. I’ve always thought a lot like Black Formula One driver and six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton, who said in a recent Instagram post, “I was taught to keep it in, don’t show weakness, kill them with love and beat them on the track.”
If I make race a platform, I have to reexperience it, I have to retell these stories. These stories don’t define who I am. I’m extremely proud to be Black. Being Black is not defined by bad experiences.
That’s why the last few weeks have been hard—I’ve had to go back throughout my life and try to reconcile all these experiences I’ve had, that even I myself have dismissed. I’ve wondered, Do I have the right to even speak up or feel bad if I haven’t experienced the worst of racism? But I’ve seen it. My brother was a pro BMX rider, and there have been times police have pulled him off his bike, put him on the ground, and pointed guns at him, just because he looked “suspicious.” If I haven’t been through this, am I still worthy of the pain I feel?
Until now I’ve essentially assumed people know that bias still exists, and I’ve been relatively quiet on the topic, but it’s allowed the idea to perpetuate that I don’t experience racism. In the past few weeks, I’ve really had to find my voice, not only externally, but internally: the voice that plays in my head, how I feel inside—that I deserve to feel and speak about this even if I am lucky enough, because of privilege and class, to not fear for my life on a daily basis. I still feel biases against me, and I still have experiences that are unique to me.
Still, it’s complicated being outspoken on race as a Black person. For most white people in the bike or outdoors community, the protests might mean you have some arguments on social media right now. When this is all over, you can go back to normal. There can be lasting impacts for me, speaking out. As a Black athlete, you can get the reputation of being too noisy or too risky for sponsors. If I wanted a job, someone could say it’s too risky to hire me. On a long-term basis, what does it do to me when I get, say, pulled over? One of the experiences you have as a Black person growing up is that your parents teach you how to get pulled over by the police. They teach you to keep your hands on the wheel, to say “Yes, sir, no sir” when they ask for your wallet. They tell you to say, “My wallet is in my back pocket, is it OK if I get it?” For me, how does what’s happening now change those experiences, when the police are now angrier and more on edge? I think, What are the second- and third-order effects these protests have? And how do I prepare for that?
It’s been frustrating, because the cycling industry has built an image around being culturally inclusive. But as soon as something like this comes up, it becomes seemingly too difficult to manage. Brands seem to avoid making statements so as not to offend anyone. But all they need to do is acknowledge that something bad happened: a Black man got killed unjustly, and as a brand, they can put out a statement saying they don’t like that. Let me know that you care, just like you let me know you care when a local trail system gets closed down.
I still love everyone in the cycling industry. I’m not condemning the cycling industry at all. The sport has afforded me experiences and a life I’d never have otherwise, and I want to continue to be here. I think there’s room for growth. It’s like racing—after every race, my team manager used to say, “We did great, but here are some things we can do better.”
For brands, start with just thinking about where you stand as a company. What are your core values? Typically, these would be things like, We’re hardworking, we’re customer obsessed. You have to think about those same things for your diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Ask, How do I feel about people of color? Where do I want to support them? Is it at the grassroots level, or do I want to support elite athletes? Do I just want to increase the pie any way I can? Now you have a filter and framework to build an actionable plan.
These stories don’t define who I am. I’m extremely proud to be Black. Being Black is not defined by bad experiences.
Then consider what you have as a company that individuals don’t. It falls into three buckets: resources, audience and reach, and your internal corporate influence. Saxx Underwear did an amazing job responding to current events as a brand. It said, We’re going to use our resources by donating $50,000 to the NAACP. We’re going to use our audience and reach by not posting for a week on social media. And we’re going to use our internal influence and put our employees through diversity and anti-racism training.
For individuals, that work can look like calling out racism when Black people aren’t around. When you hear people slip up and say racist things, even in front of Black people, that’s because we’ve made it acceptable when Black people aren’t in the room. Let’s be less tolerant of those behaviors or statements, consistently. For Black people like myself, it can be making sure I’m available and vulnerable enough to have the conversation with you. It doesn’t have to be our job, but if we have the bandwidth to help others understand, in an empathetic way, the burden they are lifting, it goes a long way.
I’d also like people to think about the idea of a principle stack. Think about the difference between these two statements: “The killing of Black people is bad, but the looting and rioting has to stop.” “The looting and rioting is bad, but the killing of Black people has to stop.” All of these things can matter to you—it’s not an either-or choice—but the question is, which one of your principles is at the top of the stack? Which one is most important to you—property or human life?
One of the positive things about this whole movement is that these conversations are happening at dinner tables around the country. We’re having to confront what we believe and to explain ourselves to our family and loved ones and friends. I think it’s progress.
Ultimately, my number-one message is that I want people to have more empathy for one another. Just because you haven’t experienced something doesn’t mean it’s not happening to others. A lack of empathy and awareness allows us to believe that racism or bias doesn’t exist in cycling, or the outdoors, or any community we love. The best example I’ve found is that of grief: even though we can never experience someone else’s grief, we would never say that it doesn’t exist or that they should get over it. That would be the least empathetic thing we could do. But this is what we do all the time when we tell people of color that racism doesn’t exist or that it’s over. Being empathetic means doing the work to update our views on what people are experiencing. A more empathetic world is the world I look forward to living in.