Thumbnail Image

Space invaders in surfing's white tribe: Exploring surfing, race and identity

As has been well documented, surfing has a long history as a Polynesian cultural form that, through colonization, was appropriated by white North Americans and Australians in the mid-twentieth century. As part of this process of appropriation, the activity was redefined and reorganized,drawing “nostalgically on an imagined cultural authenticity from Hawaii's Pre-colonial surfing past.” Since the 1950s, the quintessential image of the surfing body has been “phenotypically White,” specifically, a young, white, male subject, slim, toned, tanned—but not dark skinned—with a mop of sun-bleached hair. Fuelled by the Hollywood beach movies, and the surf music craze epitomized by the Beach Boys,in the United States the white, blonde surfer became so iconic he—and increasingly she—became the face of California. As Walker details in Waves of 2 Resistance this Colonial appropriation has not been without resistance in Hawai’i . Yet this particular image of surfing has subsequently been perpetuated more globally in both the surfing niche media and through wider mass media surfing discourses. Thus, although surfing’s imagery as a white, male, youthful, privileged activity and space is a relatively recent and contextually specific social construction, globally it has been, and remains the hegemonic one. My focus in this chapter is the experiences of surfers who do not fit this hegemonic ideal—specifically, those racialized as nonwhite. Surfing participants often claim—indeed believe—that surfing culture is inclusive of all,and that race and gender don’t matter. However, despite a desire for an inclusive and cosmopolitan citizenship, as I illustrate, surf culture and the surfing media continue to perpetuate what Chivers-Yochim terms an “imagined community” of whiteness. This chapter draws on a research project that explored the formative and contemporary experiences of minority ethnic surfers, predominantly African Americans, who lived and surfed around Los Angeles, California. I explore how these black surfers negotiate space and identity in the surfing culture, and their experiences of belonging and exclusion. First, I situate the case study within a broader understanding of sport, whiteness, and exclusion, highlighting research that reveals surfing in the United States and beyond as a gendered and racialized space. I also consider the central and problematic roles that surfing media and industry play in developing our sporting imagination. I then turn to the contradictory experiences of belonging of the black surfers in my case study, identifying some of the difficulties and barriers experienced by these surfers carving a space in a white-dominated cultural practice. While some aspects of their experiences and identities were shared with white and other ethnic-minority surfers, what was most revealing was the range of difficulties or constraints that many of these surfers had faced and which they saw as barriers to other African Americans becoming surfers.
Chapter in Book
Type of thesis
Duke University Press
This is an author’s accepted version of a chapter published in the book: The Critical Surf Studies Reader, eds. Dexter Zavala Hough-Snee and Alexander Sotelo Eastman. © 2017, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Archived by permission of the publisher. www.dukeupress.edu