“Next time you want to say something to me, say it in English,” snarls the bloated longboarder as he paddles back out.
“Excuse me?” We are surfing Far Rockaway, New York, and I’ve just hooted all two hundred-plus pounds of him into a wave, in perfect American English.
“I said,” he slows down as if speaking to an idiot, “the next time you want to yell at me, try speaking English.”
The rage wants to take hold, but I wrestle it back. “Well then. That’s the last time I hoot you into a wave.”
The hunchback swings his considerable girth to look at me, as if for the first time. “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you were one of those Brazilian guys heckling me in Portuguese, but you’re American huh? My mistake.”
Then I explode.
“I’m half Japanese you fat fuck, and if you have a problem with that, I would love to go discuss it on the beach.” Flecks of spit jump out of my mouth. I paddle toward him and he can see the murder as I glare at him through darkly tunnelled vision. He shrinks back, stammering something.
“What?” I say, my voice breaking. “I can’t fucking hear you. I said: Do. You. Have. A. Problem with that?”
“N, n, no,” he whispers, and paddles away, around the jetty and away from this vicious, foreign-looking savage.
I’m left paddling in shaky circles, looking around at the other stunned surfers, daring anyone to return my stare. There must be others here who think I don’t belong. Let them put a name on it.
But the racism is gone as quickly as it came. There’s no one left to fight and I’m alone in the crowd – railing at a silent sea.
What if there was an error in surfing’s genetic code? Beneath the community and hedonism and carefree exterior, what if some old, deeply rooted corruption in a key strand of its cultural DNA had multiplied, through coding and replication, until it became an integral part of surfing?
After my little incident at Far Rockaway, I set out to answer that question and found, very quickly, that people weren’t overly eager to talk about it. Then I get a hold of Dedon Kamathi.
“Beaches tend to be the last white preserve in America, like hockey is to American sports,” says Kamathi. He is a sixty-one-year-old real estate appraiser, radio DJ and what many Americans would colloquially refer to as a ‘black radical’ – which is really just a general term for any educated black person with ideas that make white people uncomfortable. Hell, he makes me a little uncomfortable. As a member of both the Black Panthers and the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, he was one of the public figures who declared “no justice, no peace” during the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. Today he sits on the board of the Black Surfing Association, a fitting post for a lifelong surfer with politics on his mind. When I call him at his Southern California home, he speaks almost uninterrupted for an hour.
We spend a lot of time talking about beach segregation, which existed in the US in its most radical form during the first half of the twentieth century. Although police sometimes enforced these rules (including an incident on Manhattan beach in which a black UCLA student was arrested for surfing too close to a white area), widespread compliance to ‘social restriction’ practices and norms meant beaches were generally mono-coloured.
That little nugget of lexicographic drivel may not sound too intimidating, but in reality it justified everything from real estate policies that kept black people from buying property in coastal neighbourhoods (i.e. the use of ‘restrictive covenants’ which specified that only members of a certain race could occupy or own certain properties) to the throwing of rocks at swimmers, like some enterprising social restrictors did to a black swimmer in Lake Michigan who had inadvertently crossed into a white-only area in the summer of 1919. He drowned.
Despite the existence of black beaches like Chicken Bone Beach near Missouri Avenue in Atlantic City, and the various ‘Ink Wells’ in places like Martha’s Vineyard and Santa Monica, beach segregation ensured that modern American surf culture was born and raised behind signs that read ‘Whites Only’. In Australia, an absence of beachgoers from minority subsets means surf history has unfolded in much the same way, explains Dr Clifton Evers, writer, academic and lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China.
“The Anglo-Celtic hegemony [on Australian beaches] means this group very rarely has to question race/ethnicity at the beach, unless newcomers are different or ‘stand out’. Then the question will be about ‘them’ rather than ‘us’. The whiteness is seen as normal and thus becomes invisible as a racial or ethnic category.”
Most people prefer their race relations served hot, with generous helpings of swastikas, violence, lynchings and burnings of the cross. It’s compelling TV, but often misses the point. Like the larger societies of which it is a microcosm, surfing harbours only a small, marginal minority of snarling, made-for-primetime racists. But there are worse types of bigotry in the hearts of men. “In sociology, there are four different types of discrimination,” says Ted Woods, the director of Whitewash, a fascinating documentary on the history of black surfing in America. “What I found looking at surfing is that we are dealing with systemic discrimination. It’s not that as surfers we are racist, it’s that discrimination is inherent to the culture of surfing as we understand it.”
And it’s also highly marketable. Through media diffusion, the lily-white beach boy has come to define surfing all over the world. “The image of surfing is one of the dominant deterrents [for black people],” says Kamathi. “Images dealing with the ocean – I don’t care if it’s bikinis or volleyball – are always portrayed as a white [person] in America. The whole beach character has been Europeanised because they want to keep the beach-front property. Whatever white folks value, they seek to dominate and control those things. And anyone who is indigenous – fuck you. Ideological imperialism is what it is.”
Kamathi may have erred in lumping “white people” into a single coordinated, history-spanning gang of greedy schemers, but that doesn’t mean he’s completely wrong. As Evers points out, it may not be that surfing is dominated by white people, but rather that that we only think it is. “There has been no census. Hawaiians, Indonesians, Japanese, Taiwanese, Latin Americans, Mexicans, Africans, Chinese, Middle-Eastern… all are surfing now,” he says.
So why don’t we see the diversity of that mosaic in the industry? “I think it’s really important for the media to acknowledge that not everyone surfing is white,” says Tom Hewitt, founder of Umthombo, a South African NGO that, among other programmes, teaches street kids in Durban how to surf. “It’s a bit of an indictment to only put blond-haired surfers in magazines in order to sell something.”
But selling is what the voracious apparatus is designed to do, and if blond hair and blue eyes, or big breasts and tiny bikinis, or boat trips and Bintangs are what sells, then reality is just a footnote in the story of the almighty dollar. Take the well-worn tale of the birth of modern surfing: an enterprising group of cultural ambassadors bring a regal, yet mystical island sport to the mainland and the world rejoices. That’s only one side of it, though. For the other, I need to talk to Pohaku.
Tom ‘Pohaku’ Stone, is an ex-pro surfer, waterman, and scholar of Pacific Island Studies with a specialty in ancient Hawaiian sports. When I call him, he’s wary of speaking with reporters, but he agrees to discuss the sport’s creation story. The names and places are familiar, but you’ve never heard it like this before.
“Surfing [in the context of colonialism] becomes the focal point or foundation for tourism in Hawaii as the annexationists entice the wealthy to come to Hawaii and experience the sport of Kings. George Freeth [a part Hawaiian] introduces surf-riding to Southern California, while Alexander Hume Ford along with annexationist Sanford Dole, Lorrin Thurston [and other foreign individuals], using Jack London’s writing skills and publications in women’s magazines, takes the physical image of a native Hawaiian – Duke Kahanamoku – and transforms him into a Greek god for the purpose of promoting tourism… So it was and is; Hawaii through the Duke’s notoriety would establish the destination point for all those who truly would live the native waterman life in an island setting, and California through the image of George Freeth [part Caucasian, part Hawaiian] would become the image that Americans could relate to. California would have the memory and image of Freeth from which they would emulate the ‘beach boy’ way of life, living carefree just like a Hawaiian without having to abandon their American comforts and values.”
What about Aloha, shaka, and the rest of the Hawaiian spirit that the surf industry sells?
“From my point of view, I don’t believe the surfing world truly knows the depth of aloha and its many meanings except what the Hawaii tourism [establishment] wanted the world to know about, which was tainted by the missionaries’ perspective,” he says. “As for the ‘shaka’ sign, its origins are not Hawaiian, they are Filipino – though it was promoted to be a very Hawaiian thing… all of this is to appeal to Western culture’s thirst for the exotic.”
Annexation, greed, exoticism, tourist campaigns.
“We like to fit things neatly into these little boxes,” says Woods. “This goes here, that goes there, green means stop, red means go. The idea of a black surfer goes against our nice little surfing package, so it gets cut out, just like we cut out the complexities of the ancient Hawaiian surfing rituals when the old view of surfing didn’t fit the romanticised image of surfing when it became a more commercial entity.”
This social phenomenon is what Woods refers to as “whitewashing”. It’s a process that has mythologised the American and Australian surfer, relegated Polynesians to museums, turned black people into anomalies, women into bodies, and made everyone else mostly irrelevant. “You make it clean, sterile, easy for public consumption,” he explains. “People don’t want to know the complexities of [ancient] surfing culture, like what tribal leaders did and who could surf what wave, or how it related to religion. They don’t have time. They want to know that it was the ‘Sport of Kings’. It’s a brand. Just like Nike has its Zoom campaign and Gatorade has G.”
Discussions of race make poor advertising slogans. So, according to Kamathi, the issue is seldom raised: “Black surfers talk about these kinds of things, but I think a lot of surfers here [in Southern California] want to run away from anything controversial. They tend to be independent, small business Republican types and surfing for them is all about fun and love and spirituality. They want to keep politics out of it, until a surf spot is threatened.”
It’s tempting to paint surfers as unaware, or blissfully ignorant of racial issues, but that’s disingenuous. In The Encyclopedia of Surfing, Matt Warshaw postulates that surfers have never fully abandoned the idea of surfing as a Hawaiian, and therefore polynesian/mixed race sport, with heroes like Duke Kahanamoku, Eddie Aikau and Dane Kealoha still revered as pioneers. Over the years, Surfer magazine has sent various shots across the bows of racist idealogues (including a letter to the editors from black surfer Tony Corley in 1974 and a photo in 1967 of a black man on a segregated beach in South Africa, an implicit challenge to the notion of apartheid).
Board shaper Maurice Cole spearheaded a campaign among surfers to oust the leader of the anti-immigrant One Nation Party in Australia. Even Mick Fanning, who once called writer Charlie Smith a “fucking Jew”, often participates in programmes that teach underprivileged, non-white children how to surf.
In 1985, Tom Carroll, Martin Potter and Tom Curren all boycotted events in South Africa to protest apartheid. South African Shaun Tomson refused to take part in the boycott – an interesting fact given that his father, Ernie, took Eddie Aikau under his wing during a 1972 tour of the country when Aikau was refused service in a Durban hotel and barred from surfing segregated beaches due to his dark skin.
“That was a big moment for me,” says Tomson of his father’s actions, when I call him at his Santa Barbara home. “Seeing a legend refused admittance to a hotel really crystallised my thinking about discrimination and racial injustice.”
So why not boycott?
“I’ve never believed that sport should be used as a political weapon. Sport is a way for young people to come together and be exposed to culture on one playing field. I mean, the first time I realised apartheid was wrong was when I went to the US as a boy. The whole notion of surfing as an egalitarian playground is at the core of my being. I don’t think we [surfers] have ever had a racism problem, but we do have an attitudinal problem – localism. And I’ve always equated localism with racism and bigotry. I think surfers need to realise that if you tell someone to get out of the water just because they are from a different place, you are no better than a racist.”
Or, depending on who it is and how you say it, you are guilty of localism and racism. When Hewitt started taking street kids to surf at the New Pier in Durban, he found the lines between the two isms suddenly blurred.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m going to have to disagree with Shaun Tomson in this case,” he says. “Localism was an issue for us – people didn’t like the idea of more surfers of any colour at the New Pier. But racism was a problem. There were a minority few, mostly older guys, who were just plain racist. When the kids first started going out to the main peek, you would hear the ‘K’ word [a derogatory ethnic slur] being used.”
The guys who were too scared to say anything to the kids (because racism, is by nature, a cowardly parasite) would say things to Hewitt:
“They didn’t grow up here, they shouldn’t surf here.”
“They are going to take over the pier.”
“Of course they didn’t grow up here,” says Hewitt. “It would have been impossible for them to have done so. They weren’t even allowed here until recently [because of apartheid].”
But the fear of a metaphorical rising tide is not a rational thing, he says. It’s based on a flawed perception: “It’s surprise and intimidation. That’s the crux of it. The old surfers rule the roost at the New Pier and they rely on kids coming up and respecting them. When these new faces showed up, it caused a microcosm of the white fear of 1994, when Mandela was elected.”
White fear. Us versus them. They’re taking our surf spots. They’re taking our women. They’re taking our jobs. They’re dropping our property prices. Crowding our beaches. Degrading our moral fabric. Diluting our culture. Lord have mercy, grab the gun and circle the wagons!
The logic is the same for both localism and racism, according to Evers. He studied both with regards to the Cronulla race riots in Sydney, which famously involved members of the Australian surfing crew, the Bra Boys. “If localism is present,” he says, “some form of ethnic or racial discrimination can take place, as the basic logic is in place. What that localism logic ends up manifesting or escalating into depends on what issues come into play, the history of an area in terms of race/ethnic relations, or what people feel is needed to differentiate between ‘local’ and ‘non-local’. Racial and ethnic prejudice is continually used to stereotype ‘the Other’ and subsequently fits neatly with localism.”
They may not be the same, racism and localism, but they hang out together and if you’re the one caught on the outside – one of ‘them’, not one of ‘us’ – you must constantly, pathologically ask yourself which is which.
A guy who knows this better than most is Jamaican professional surfer Icah Wilmot, whose list of ‘is it localism, is it racism?’ incidents is as long as his passport is thick. “Travelling the world, you always end up in sticky situations every now and again,” he says, writing from his hotel room at the ISA World Games in Peru where, a few days later, a rock-throwing mob of Peruvians will chase Australian Drew Courtney off the beach, over an issue regarding heat tactics. “I’ve been harassed in the water, had guys tugging on my leash, things stolen off the beach, almost run over, and even just simple things, like not being given my right of way when I’m on the peak on a wave.”
Through its unique alchemy of lawlessness and competition over limited resources, surfing has a knack for producing confrontation. But being an outsider adds another element. Hewitt had to sit down with the kids at Umthombo and prepare them for it. “You’ve got to be cautious to not give them a reason to go off on you,” he told them. “You’ve got to maintain the moral high ground. If they do twenty things wrong and you do one thing wrong, you are going to be the bad guy because of the stereotypes.”
Wilmot says he takes a similar approach. “When these things come up, I use them to show these offenders how small-minded they are, and make the mature decision and avoid the confrontation – play my cards to make them look like the fools. Then people realise and stand up for me, as they can easily see my good nature and see that I’m the one being victimised.”
Wilmot, with his unfailing optimism, isn’t one to let you see him sweat. But I push him on what it feels like to experience racism, and he gives me a response that manages to be both oblique, and diamond sharp: “I will never let anyone belittle my efforts and influence my drive, for as a Jamaican I have grown with the persistence and motivation to achieve anything I set my mind to. I have my goals and know what it will take to achieve them. For me, it is harder than a lot of other surfers out there, but believing in myself and my abilities and knowing my potential will keep me pushing. The negativity people may swarm me with, I will use to build my strengths, because the reason they fight against something is because they are afraid.”
This is the conviction of the oppressed – the hardness of people who know well the sting of being told that they don’t belong.
It’s summed up more bluntly by the usually diplomatic Tomson, when he reminds me that he’s Jewish, another group that, according to ideological imperialism, ‘does not surf’: “I do see discrimination floating around in the lineup – there are guys with negative opinions about Brazilians, Hawaiians with negative opinions of Haoles [foreigners/Caucasians]… and without a doubt, being Jewish has made me sensitive to these things. With the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel, there was a real shift in our thinking: you’ve got to stand up and be counted. If a guy swings at you, you’ve got to swing back twice as hard.”
Some months after the incident at Far Rockaway, I’m at a party in Manhattan when I run into a group of surfing acquaintances. Before I know it, I’m being introduced to a familiar-looking fat longboarder.
This is my fucking chance.
“Have you two met?” someone asks.
I get ready to swing: This degenerate? Sure have. Allow me to tell you about our last conversation…
But he beats me to the punch with a big smile and a car salesman handshake. “Nah, I don’t think we’ve met. You look familiar though. You surf around here?”
Is he dissimulating to save face? Or does he really not recognise me – “can’t tell them apart” perhaps? I desperately scrutinise his face for any vestige of the slavering bigot that I met last time, but he’s nowhere to be found. In his place is just another friendly, middle-aged surfer with an easy laugh and a goofy grin.
Somewhere beneath all that, I know there is an error in the code that only requires a little bit of prodding to come tumbling back out. But for now, it remains hidden and the bitter riposte that I’ve spent my life preparing to spit at guys like this sticks in my throat.
The conversation moves on and I’m left alone in the crowd wondering, wondering.