Surfing and Black Lives Matter

Words: Jack Copeland

Photos: Nique Miller and Yoshi Tanaka

Over the course of the past two months, I held the opinion that, as a white male, my voice didn’t need to be heard right now. As race issues were brought to the forefront of newspapers, television screens, and social media, I believed that my role was to pause, listen, and show support without giving any form of lecture or speech.

I was conscious of the distinction between joining the effort to extinguish racial prejudice and performative solidarity, and nothing made me more aware of this than the scrutiny faced by the surfing community.

Of course, people’s opinions of the surfing community at this time were not front-page news, and nor should they have been, as there were much bigger things going on in the world. But, as I have a vested interest in the community, I quickly became aware of the criticism which came its way.

Essentially, various professional surfing organisations and surfing communities from across the world had organised ‘paddle-outs’ in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. However, afterwards the events were heavily criticised on social media, with the comment section of the World Surfing League’s (WSL) Instagram page littered with accusations of racial bias.

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One of the Black Lives Matter paddle-outs held in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Photo by Yoshi Tanaka)
Another angle of the BLM paddle-out at Honolulu. (Photo by Yoshi Tanaka)

Scrolling through the comment section of one post, about a paddle-out which took place in Honolulu on the 11th June, I read comments which said, “Seems like a lot of White Guilt”; “Oh the hypocrisy of it all”; and “One of the whitest sports.”

To provide some context, a paddle-out is a cultural Hawaiian ceremony which is a lot like a funeral procession, but was adopted by the surfing community because surfing also has Hawaiian roots. Typically, participants gather on surfboards just beyond a point break, arranging themselves in a circle before they toss Hawaiian leis into the middle.

Knowing this, after watching previous paddle-outs in memory of surfers like Jack O’Neil and Duke Kahanamoku, I understood that these events are a symbol of great respect and mourning. So, naturally, I just assumed that the more critical comments came from people who had confused a ‘paddle-out’ with ‘paddling out’, and who must have thought that surfers were using the BLM movement as an excuse to go out and catch some waves.

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A perfect example of a paddle-out, viewed from above. (Photo by Yoshi Tanaka)

It seemed to me that some people were aiming their criticism with the right intentions, but just hadn’t sought any context first. And so I continued to scroll, ignoring these comments, until I came upon a particular one that caught my eye.

It read: “Surfers proving their not racists… hmm I don’t see and Black surfers in the WSL… get outta here,” and was accompanied by the image of a bearded white man in sunglasses.

I then did something which I never do on social media and replied to the comment, not only because the spelling and grammar was appalling but because the statement itself was actually just wrong.

I said: “Firstly, ‘they’re’ is the correct grammar for this sentence, not ‘their’ (which, I admit, was unnecessarily snarky on part). And secondly, you’re forgetting about Mickey February, a talented South African surfer who has made a huge impact on the QS and CT Tours. Your argument kind of backfires when you forget about the existence of a skilled black surfer while trying to argue that surfers are racists. Not saying your heart isn’t in the right place, but a bit of research first wouldn’t have gone amiss.”

Genuinely, I don’t know why I wrote it. It doesn’t read as though it’s overtly offensive, rather passive aggressive, but nevertheless it wasn’t entirely necessary and, on reflection, was merely a product of my surfing fandom jumping to the WSL’s defence.

The argument itself stands. There are black surfers in the WSL, as well as in the much wider surfing community, so it would simply be incorrect to accuse both of being racist on the grounds of black surfers’ complete absence. At the time of my responding to the comment, I used this argument to mentally justify my unnecessary involvement, reasoning with myself that I was directing criticism away from an undeserving target.

Twenty minutes later, I received a notification that someone had replied to my own comment. It read: “I’m sorry but just because you know one black surfer does not omit you from being a racist #facts.” A pit formed in my stomach. My mind started to race. Was I a racist? Was something in the comment racist? What had I written again?

My immediate reaction was to think that I had done something wrong and, because the topic at hand was a deeply moral one, I immediately began to assume that I was a horrible person.

But, after a brief moment, I began to analyse the response. It wasn’t from the author of the initial comment but was instead from an entirely different person, who had clearly taken offence to what I had said. I reread my own comment, reread the response from the new person, and then sat back in confusion. They seemed almost unrelated.

Thinking that this new person had misunderstood my comment, I continued the conversation: “Quite right. I was just stating one popular example. But my argument was in no way to exonerate myself. In fact this post, nor my argument, was even remotely about me. But was instead arguing that the surfing sport and subculture is in support of Black Lives Matter and many other great causes. Let’s direct criticism and educate institutions that genuinely show racial bias and not be counterproductive by criticising sports and subcultures that are one of the most inclusive in the sporting world.”

Thinking that maybe this cleared things up, and showed that I wasn’t championing racism in an Instagram comment section, I set down my phone and continued about my business. Mere seconds later, another notification came through.

This time, the person (whose name is Arby) had responded with: “Ok but what does paddling-out do to HELP our BIPOC communities that are out there protesting? Unless you’re using your surfboards to protect black people against cops then I see this all as performative allyship. I don’t care about people surfing. I care about people dying.

“We don’t just need your ‘support’ we need action.”

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Another amazing shot of a BLM paddle-out in Hawaii. (Photo by Yoshi Tanaka)

Reading this new development then sparked a train of thought that made me question whether I was doing enough to consider myself a morally good person. Her suggestion was quite an intriguing one, surfers standing in front of protestors and using their boards as shields would, indeed, be a powerful image. But then doing it for symbolic purposes was, again, purely performative.

Though I continued to grapple with her suggestion, I decided that I still needed to draw focus to context of my initial comment, again fearing that I would come across as a social media racist.

So, I simply replied with: “My response to the original comment was just arguing that the WSL shouldn’t be considered as racist on the grounds that there are no black surfers. Apologies if that got lost in translation but I am completely on board with you.”

After this, Arby then privately messaged me and continued to vent her outrage, leading me to wonder whether she just wanted to feel like a contributor in the wave of social change. Thanking her for educating me on the matter, and telling her that I would go ahead with her suggestions, was ultimately enough to pacify her.

However, for the remainder of the day, I continued to think about Arby’s comments and began to wonder whether a paddle-out was as supportive as I had initially thought. Was the surfing community doing enough not to warrant criticism? And was I, as a fan of surfing, complicit in any displays of support that were merely performative?

Wondering how many people were experiencing the same mental dilemma as myself, I returned to the post that I had written my comment on. To my horror, my screen was awash with comments accusing Black Lives Matter of being a “racist terrorist group” and labelling activists as “commies”.

The sheer volume of users telling the WSL to “stick to surfing” made me feel really uncomfortable. For the first time, I began to question whether the sport that I loved was as kind and inclusive as I had convinced myself it to be.

Currently, surfing has a reputation for being quite an enlightened sport, after the WSL became the first American-based global sports league to offer equal pay between male and female athletes. But, despite this, the sport has a dark past of aggressive localism as well as sexism towards female surfers. In fact, women weren’t allowed to compete at the Titans of Mavericks tournament (a big wave surfing competition) until as recently as 2017.

Knowing surfing’s darker history, and reading the anti-BLM comments from various fans of surfing, I began to question whether it was right of me to be a fan of the sport. Does the surfing community show subliminal signs of racial bias? If it does, am I complicit because I love surfing?

Wandering further into this moral quagmire, the egotist in me then shone a light on my own approach to recent events. Was quietly listening and trying to educate myself entirely the right approach? Would being louder and being a stronger champion for the cause have been the more moral thing to do? Or would choosing to speak up and make a show of support, now that the issue is in the public eye, be nothing more than ‘performative allyship’?

Just as Arby had described the paddle-out.

In search of some clarity on the subject, I got in touch with Dominique (Nique) Miller. Nique is currently ranked as joint fifty-third in the WSL Women’s Longboard Championship and is ranked as the tenth best in the world on the Association of Paddlesurf Professionals (APP) World Tour. She has also been openly supportive of Black Lives Matter on her social media profiles and has even attended three BLM paddle-outs on O’ahu.

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How many surfboards can you see in this other photo of a BLM paddle-out on Oahu? (Photo by Yoshi Tanaka)
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A photo of a Black Lives Matter paddle-out with a view of some Hawaiian valleys in the background. (Photo by Yoshi Tanaka)

Though she lives in Hawaii, Nique is originally from Weslaco, in southern Texas, and has mixed-race Black Mexican American heritage, with her black heritage coming from her paternal side and her Mexican heritage from her mother.

Nique earned a scholarship to study photography at the University of Hawaii and from there she took up surfing, now working as a professional surfer and surfing photographer.

Not only is Nique very vocal about her support for Black Lives Matter, she also offers a first-hand perspective of race relations within the surfing world, so I considered her the perfect person to turn to for enlightenment.

Talking about her own experiences, she said: “I think that the surf industry is sadly lacking in diversity and inclusion, especially in ‘big-name’ surf brands like Rip Curl, Roxy, and O’Neil. It is pretty evident, when you look at brands and competitors on tour, that there aren’t many other POC.

“Many ‘big-name’ brands didn’t want to fully sponsor an athlete that looked like me. I’m not your stereotypical surfer girl. I don’t have that ‘Barbie doll’ image. I’m an Afro-Latina surfer with darker skin, an athletic build, and crazy hair. I am not exactly the norm.

“It’s been such a struggle, for years, to have enough money to follow the tour to each of its stops around the world. I have had to work two jobs and had my mom and boyfriend give me money to help me travel.

“It was super frustrating when I saw girls that were ranked lower than me and had full sponsorship while I had none.”

Thankfully, Nique is now sponsored by Billabong Womens, one of the largest brands in surfing, and has assistance with travelling to competitions. She went on: “I will be one of the first black female athletes sponsored by Billabong Womens.

“This will only inspire more young girls that look like me and encourage more people to buy their products because they can see themselves represented within the brand.”

Although she noticed this lack of diversity amidst brands, Nique revealed that the actual atmosphere surrounding the sport and competitors in surfing was a lot closer to the laid-back and inclusive atmosphere that I associated with it.

She recalled: “When I started competing on tour, I was treated pretty fairly amongst the other athletes. No one treated me badly for being a minority or having dark skin. I was very well accepted amongst the other competitors. If anything, I was cheered on more because they wanted to see me excel.”

After hearing this, I asked Nique what the paddle-outs at Waimea Bay and Ala Moana Beach were like. She shared that: “It was such an amazing experience. So many people came together to celebrate the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the many other African Americans hurt by police brutality. It was a peaceful but powerful protest in the ocean.

“It was the first time I’ve seen the surf industry really acknowledge and put black lives first. It was also great to see how many non-POC came to show their support and that they want change.”

Nique attending a paddle-out at Ala Moana Beach on Oahu, Hawaii. (Photo by Nique Miller)

I then revealed my recent experiences with Arby, and that I was worried I’d gone about supporting BLM in the wrong way. Nique replied: “I met and talked to people who didn’t understand the paddle-out and thought that we were simply out there surfing and having fun. This is far from the case.

“There was no surfing or performance being done. We gathered, mourned, talked openly, and learned from one another, all while standing for BLM.

“Right now is a very trying time, with the coronavirus pandemic still going on and many people losing jobs and family members to COVID-19. So it’s hard to focus on protesting while the infection numbers keep rising.

“I think that the best ways allies to BLM can show their support is by listening to POC and really hearing what they have to say. I think it’s important that we find out what issues POC are facing in certain industries and help them on to an equal playing field with their white counterparts.

“In the surf industry, it’s time that we start pushing for more representation in surf brands, with the team athletes and the models on websites wearing the clothes.

“I also think that having more contests in countries that are predominantly a different ethnicity to white would help greatly. More contests in Latin and South America, Africa, and Asia.”

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A paddle-out for Black Lives Matter at Ala Moana Beach. (Photo by Nique Miller)

I really loved learning more about surfing and Black Lives Matter from Nique, she’s such a friendly and forthcoming person that it felt easy to ask her the difficult questions. After speaking to her, I learned that when I started off on this subject, commenting on an Instagram post and replying to Arby, I was quite ignorant and naïve on the subject of diversity in surfing.

I’d gotten it into my head that surfing was so inclusive, and almost exempt from criticism, but there are still corners of the industry that need plenty of work, namely within brands and on the corporate side of sponsorship.

And yet, I took some solace in knowing that the majority of surfers, like those whom Nique met at Waimea and Ala Moana, are the same open-minded people who I thought I’d be joining when I got involved with the surfing community.

But ultimately, I now feel more confident in knowing the best ways to show my support for Black Lives Matter, and feel more comfortable as a supporter who is also a fan of surfing.

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