A friend of mine who owns a surf brand recently received an absolutely bonkers series of racist emails. The sender purchased my friend’s product online, then somehow figured out his ethnicity after the fact. Before the order arrived, the customer sent an email canceling his purchase, citing my friend’s ethnicity as the reason. This potential customer had researched their purchase and picked my friend’s product out of a pretty vast field of competitors, only to decide that the ethnic heritage of one of the company’s owners was a deal breaker. Not the quality of the product. Not the price. The ethnicity of the owner.
For my friend, this was shocking–these emails came from the very furthest fringes of left field; way beyond the outfield fence. They were made even weirder, somehow, by their polite and apologetic tone, filled with an “It’s not you, it’s me,” sentiment.
In retrospect, however, perhaps the existence of this kind of discrimination in the surf world shouldn’t be so shocking. It would be naive to expect that surfers would somehow be insulated from the petty prejudices that pervade landlubbing society. I’m not suggesting that this one example of a misguided would-be customer means that our beloved sport is crawling with racists–I don’t think that’s remotely true. But my friend’s run-in with at least one surfer’s ethnic phobias did force me to realize how much I, a white guy from a mostly-white Californian beach town, have overestimated the shared experience of all surfers. All part of the same tribe, right? Clearly, that’s also not remotely true.
It’s clear that surf culture does have a problem, and that problem stems from a lack of diversity within our ranks. “History of Surfing” author Matt Warshaw pointed out in a 2015 essay published on Surfer.com that, as a pastime developed largely by brown-skinned Polynesians (as well as Africans in some places and Peruvians in others), surfing has always been multi-cultural.
After all, it was whites who were forced to “break surfing’s glass ceiling in terms of race, a hundred-plus years ago, in Hawaii,” says Warshaw. For surfers, “Hawaii is always there in the back of our minds. Play the race card, in other words, and you answer to Duke Kahanamoku.”
That historical aspect may very well be true, but it doesn’t at all address the issue that surfing today, at least in the world’s two most globally influential surfing nations–the USA and Australia–is overwhelmingly white and upper middle class. This is true in countless lineups, where you’re likely to paddle out and find a mostly homogenous pack of white people surfing on expensive boards, wearing expensive gear in areas with a high cost of living. If you can’t afford it, you ain’t surfing.
I called Jeff Williams, co-president of the Black Surfer’s Collective (an organization that brings inner-city black kids in L.A. to the beach) to talk to him about diversity in surfing. “I’ve never really had problems with actual racism in surfing,” Williams said. “I’ve surfed all over the world, and everywhere I’ve ever been, most surfers are pretty cool.” But he does see the lack of minorities in the surf in the U.S. as problematic. “Look, anytime you try to talk about diversity in surfing, it all boils down to access,” he said. “Sure, there could be more welcoming attitudes at the beach itself, but also just getting to the beach is expensive. Surf equipment is expensive. Lunch at the beach is expensive. But once we get minority and inner-city kids to the beach and get them in the water they have fun. They’re hooked.”
Williams thinks the cost of access likely stands in the way of minorities becoming more involved in surfing, at least in California, and that it would take something like a “surfing Tiger Woods” to get inner-city kids to start paying attention to surf culture in a real way. But if we did gain more diverse surf stars bringing different voices and experiences to the table, the mainstream surf culture could only change for the better. Think about The Brazilian Storm: the South American vanguard brought fiery competitiveness and legions of exuberant fans to the World Tour, giving professional surfing a much-needed injection of passion.
But tease that out to include more people of color and more people coming from communities not typically associated with surfing. What styles would emerge and what influences would inform them? What might surf art look like with if it was inspired by a surf experience
that differed from the easygoing, middle-class beach life? How might board design evolve if more diverse voices were able to participate in the conversation?
I don’t have the answers, but you don’t have to look very far to find parallels in other sports. Skate culture is far more dynamic because of the cacophony of viewpoints, with universally-acclaimed skaters of diverse races and socioeconomic backgrounds adding to the melting pot. Surfing can only gain from more perspectives adding to our own understanding of what it means to be a surfer, and from embracing those who didn’t come to the beach easily, but made their way nonetheless.
Sal Masakela, one of the very few high-profile black surfers today, once said that he longs for the day when he doesn’t have to be asked what it’s like to be a black surfer because it will be commonplace. We should all long for that for every minority group. Not just for their sake, but for all of surfing culture.
This article appears in SURFER Magazine issue 59.3 on newsstands now, subscribe here.