race, racism and surfing


While sexism and homophobia have long been surf culture hallmarks, the sport for the most part has been ahead of the social curve on racism. San Diego-raised surf photographer Aaron Chang, for example, said he was treated "viciously" in the schoolyard during the early 1970s for being Asian, and said surfing became the most important thing in his life in large part because "there was no racism in the water, just ability." This is likely due to the fact that the sport was conceived and to a great degree developed in Hawaii, among a racially mixed population. Many of modern surfing's best-known figures are dark-skinned pure-blooded Hawaiians (Eddie Aikau, Dane Kealoha), Asian (Mark Foo), or a polyglot mix (Sunny Garcia, Gerry Lopez, Rell Sunn). With Duke Kahanamoku as the surfing's grand patriarch, it was all but guaranteed that racism wouldn't be a defining characteristic for the sport.

Surfing and race issues have nonetheless intersected at times. Imperialist-based racism was the root cause of surfing's near-collapse in the 19th century, as English-speaking missionaries in Hawaii, in an effort to "civilize," as Calvinist Hiram Bingham put it, the islands' "chattering savages," did everything they could short of legislation to discourage the sport. More objective newcomers to Hawaii, meanwhile, often put a twist on race as it applied to surfing. Just as Westerners granted themselves a race-based intellectual and cultural superiority, the natives were understood to have a huge congenital advantage in the water. The visitors knew their place when it came to surfing, and it was on the beach, fully dressed, in the shade, watching. "The [natives] boldness and address [in the surf] was altogether astonishing," as a British traveler noted, "and scarcely to be credited."

When Hawaii's civic leaders began to promote surfing in the early 20th century as a tourist-drawing symbol of romance and excitement, skin-color distinctions were still being sharply drawn—but to an entirely different purpose. "The white man and boy are doing much in Hawaii to develop the art of surf-riding," Hawaii booster Alexander Hume Ford wrote in 1909. "[Surfing] games and feats never dreamed of by the native are being tried." In 1908, when Waikiki's Outrigger Canoe Club became the world's first formally assembled surfing organization, it was by and large a whites-only group.

Racial dissonance between surfing and non-surfing cultures continued to echo during the years ahead: Kahanamoku was refused service in restaurants and hotels while traveling through America on his way to the 1912 Olympics in Sweden; Eddie Aikau, after flying to South Africa to compete in the 1972 Gunston 500 event, was turned away from the whites-only Malibu Hotel in Durban. In Sydney, tensions between white Australians and the local Lebanese community spilled into the surf world in 2005 when riots broke out in the beachside suburb of Cronulla.

Racism within the sport, while rare, is not unheard of. Former world champion Wayne Bartholomew, describing a hot and crowded summer day at Burleigh Heads, Queensland, in 1983, said that the beach was "crawling with ethnics," and complained that he was able to "walk from one end of the [Burleigh] park to the other without hearing a word of English." In 2014, indigenous Australian surfer Otis Carey filed a $200,000 defamation lawsuit against Surfing Life magazine, after being described in an article as "ape-ish."

The development of Brazil as a surfing superpower in the late 1990s and '00s, along with the rise of the internet, brought forth some ugly online rants directly against Brazilians, along with accusations that the dominate surf industry powers—all located in America and Australia—weren't especially interested in promoting or backing Brazilian pros. Gabriel Medina's world title charge in 2014 at first seemed to amplify the trend. "The times are a-changing," Alex Workman of Tracks magazine noted at the beginning of the season. "Gabriel Medina is the man most likely to win this year’s world title, and that scares some people. It scares xenophobic surfers out there who can’t comprehend that suddenly the king of the castle won’t be from their home country." By the end of the year, however, when Medina indeed won the championship with a stirring performance at Pipeline, the rhetoric had cooled down slightly.

Race will slowly come to matter less and less—in surfing as in the world at large. But as of 2015, the sport remains white-dominated. With few exceptions, owners and executives of major surf companies are white, and while Asia and South America alone are home to millions of surfers, the sport reflects not just the blond-haired/blue-eyed physiognomy of Southern California and the Australian east coast, but the culture and aesthetic that goes with it. (The number of black surfers worldwide was microscopic in 1979 when H2O magazine published "Why Blacks Don't Surf"—primarily due to lack of surfing tradition, access, and role models, the article concludes—and just slightly less so in 1998, when San Diego County black surfer Sal Masekela, son of jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela, was stopped while leaving the water by a family of tourists who asked him to pose for a photograph. When Masekela asked why, the father said, "We just want to show the folks back home that there's Negroes who surf.")

But a racially unbalanced sport is a long way removed from a racist sport. Surfers have dependably set themselves against racism. Eddie Aikau, after being turned away from the hotel in Durban, was taken in by Ernie Tomson, respected Durban businessman and father of 1978 world champion Shaun Tomson. World champions Tom Carroll, Martin Potter, and Tom Curren boycotted the pro circuit events in South Africa in 1985 as a protest against apartheid. In 1998, Australian surfer and boardmaker Maurice Cole led a spirited surf world campaign to help unseat right-wing politician Pauline Hanson, leader of the anti-immigrant One Nation party. If surfing isn't quite poised to become a multiracial promised land, it's nonetheless ahead of the general sociological curve. "In its essence," Sal Masekela noted, "surfing blends cultures as well as music or art or anything like that."

Whitewash, a documentary exploring the history of black surfing and of race relations within the sport, was released to favorable reviews in 2009.