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Is surfing Racist?

Looking down the barrel at questions of diversity in surfing.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

by Sunny Fassler

The short answer is, maybe (a little?!). The long answer, however, goes something like,

“At first glance, not really, but if you look a little closer and beyond the Corona showers, wave ranch and the Brazilian storm, the surfing landscape looks kind of more on the white-ish side. Is it racist? Well, it’s not golf; a white ( plus Tiger), privileged, country club ambiance, but it’s not exactly the Asian Games either. But what do I know? I just lost my Apple Watch in 1ft ripple riding”.

Fast forward, post Find Me App downloads, I delve deeper into race in combination with H20 and board. 

When you look at the surfing landscape – especially on a professional level, melanin seems to be part of the WSL care package. No matter how you twist this, most surfers on the WSL World Tour, both men and women, are white. 

But that’s not entirely The World Surf League’s fault. In my opinion, surfing’s governing body is making great strides to diversify its pool of athletes – creating initiatives to broaden the horizon of professional surfing beyond the world’s most influential surfing nations like Australia, The USA, Brazil, South Africa, and Europe.

All that effort is a step toward a more diverse and integrated future of the sport, but it doesn’t change the fact that there’s still a lack of pigmentation in most lineups.

Is it racist? Not so fast. Before we play the race card and get those Colin Kapernick jerseys back out of the attic, we need to understand why there’s such an imbalance of ethnicities and cultures around our lineups.

Error in the code

Talking race problems and whether surfing is too white might sound crazy for a sport that was made famous by Hawaiian royalty, but that’s exactly where the maze filled with misconceptions and assumptions begins.

Duke Kahanamoku did not put surfing on the map for the rest of the world; he re-introduced it. Sure, he is the father of modern surfing, pioneering the sport beyond Polynesian waters, but somewhere between the European and American imperial expansion into the Pacific and Duke’s first-ever surfing exhibition was an error in the code. That error was the arrival of Calvinist missionaries.

The application of faith, in particular, the start of Calvinism in the Pacific Basin, resulted in the disappearance of Hawaiian (Polynesian) culture, and with it, the art of surfing.

In the 70s Larry Bertlemann briefly became one of the highest paid surfers in the world, but most of the top paid pros have historically been white males. Photo: Dick Hoole

To People of faith, surfing appeared to be pagan, and the sport’s mixing of the sexes was shocking to the European settlers. The late 1800s wasn’t a good time for Hawaiians or anyone who loved to put a board on a wave, as surfing largely vanished from the archipelago’s daily scene – substituted for crucifixes and white Anglo / European control.

It took almost two decades before surfing would make a global comeback at the hands of Duke Kahanamoku and his entourage. But by that time, beaches in the US, Australia, and South Africa were already predominantly white, segregated, and oppressed – the real culprits responsible for the mess surfing is in today.

Even though people from a minority ethnic group re-introduced the sport, they are also responsible by default for a modern surf culture that was born and raised on a narrative that says “Whites Only.”

Only for the Privileged

Again, I’m asking the question, “is surfing racist?” And again, the answer lies somewhere in between. It’s not that, as surfers, we are bigots, but it’s that discrimination is a by-product of what we understand as modern surf culture.

The lack of diversity in our sport directly correlates with access. Another dilemma surfing is still dealing with today. If in the early 1900s beaches were already predominantly white, then where do you put all the other people? Well, everywhere else, just far enough from all the privileges.

So if you can’t get to the beach in the first place because you are A, too poor, B, live too far away, and C, short of resources, how the hell are you going to surf? 

Still today, beach towns in the States and Australia are overwhelmingly white and upper-middle-class, and the same goes for most of our lineups.

Even though most people would never admit it, but our DNA is corrupted by ideological imperialism that tells us that some faces, some colors, some groups “just don’t surf.” 

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Up to this point, the surfing culture looks like a total screw-up with no hope, but it’s not all bad. Look at surfing as a recreational sport, for example. They all surf: Hawaiians, Indonesians, Africans, Chinese, Germans, and Japanese – even landlocked countries like Switzerland or Austria. Just the other day, I met a surfer from Iran. So, hell yes – now it’s just about time that the surf media acknowledges that not everyone who surfs needs to be white, wealthy, and living close to the beach.

Professional surfing might be taking the scenic route, but the likes of Mikey February, Jadson Andre, Amuro Tsuzuki, Cinta Hansel, or Rio Waida are all proof that change is happening.

So one last time? Is surfing racist? No. It just got off to a rocky start and lost between all the noise, politics, and unfortunate circumstances that led to this question in the first place.

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