Wax On, Wax Off: MLK Weekend

With the weekend of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday fast approaching, it seems fitting to give some attention to a serious weak spot in surfing's usually laid back, tolerant facade. Good waves and winter sunshine have been hitting Orange County's beaches for the last few days, reminding us once again why Southern California is one of the great surfing capitals of the world.

But where are all the black folks out in the water? Any surfer knows it's a gross understatement to say that Southern California's millions-strong black population is underrepresented in the sport. Ask a local surfer if they know any black fellow surfers. You'll likely get a response to the effect of “well, there's that one guy down at 50th,” or worse, “I think I've heard of that before.” In many cases, a simple “no” suffices.

Surfers and organizations have attempted some speculation as to why this might be the case. In November, Wax On, Wax Off attended the California Surf Film Festival in Oceanside. Among many others, we screened a great short film called Verve. Filmmaker Suyen Mosley got high marks for the subject matter he explores. The film does a great job of touching an armor-chink in surf culture's notoriously free-thinking, liberal attitude.

Here's an excerpt from an earlier blog posting:

“In Verve's 10 minutes or so of home video quality footage, Mosley manages to interview a surprising number of surfers about their thoughts on surfing's racial disparity. Most white interviewees confessed to knowing only a few black surfers. Some knew none. A few said they'd heard of that before, but never seen it in person. Several black surfers made the point that participation in surfing is based on access to the coast and to equipment, transportation and time necessary to discover surfing.

Inner city kids, regardless of race, lack the means and access to surfing that kids in Malibu or Orange County might experience on a daily basis. But the film also exposes the growing interest in surfing within the black community, a phenomenon that in fact dates back to the 1960s and the founding of the Black Surfing Association.

Also sponsored by Fysh Out of Water and Surf Noir, Inc., Verve points out up and coming black surfers and looks forward to a day when people living in the inner city have the opportunity to explore surfing. As one black surfer said, “I think everyone should try [surfing] once.” Despite an obviously low budget and cinematography that was shaky at best, check out Verve for a thoughtful look at race issues in the world of surfing.

In a discussion earlier in 2009 about violence in surfing, we explored the idea that “locals” often deprive people of access to public property and natural space out in the water, in some cases going so far as to abuse the constitutional rights of fellow citizens. Think about it–you're a black kid from the inner city. Somehow, against all kinds of adversity, you gain the means to borrow a board and hop a bus down to Malibu or Newport Point or Laguna for a surf. When you get there, you encounter a bunch of trust-fund tough-guys trying to tell you the waves belong to them because their parents bought a house there.

The problem doesn't stop with the black community, either. Recently, a local skimboarder reported that in Laguna Beach, a group of local rich kids cursed and threatened a group of Japanese tourists, chasing them off the beach for trying their hand at the sport. The reason? “We don't need those Asians down here.” Actually, for the record, you do need them, in order to preserve the tax and revenue base for your luxury- and tourism-driven economy. Maybe it's a lack of education or intellect for some. As one of our readers suggested, “it seems to me that anyone who has the time to develop 'local' status might be neglecting the workplace.” Another reader wrote, “do all surfers have trouble with basic writing skills and the English language?…been skipping school, fellas?”

So, surfers of Orange County, think about your closet classism and racism this weekend. Think about the idea that your sport and your culture might need a hefty dose of humanity and equality. Let's do what we can to light a fire under this backward, apartheidist mentality that roams our shores. It's not good…Not good at all…

To help you out (in case you're one of these surfers who spent all your time in the water instead of in the classroom) here's a link to MLK's “I Have a Dream” speech, one of the greatest pieces of civil rights rhetoric ever produced.

And here's his chilling and tear-jerking “I've Been to the Mountaintop” speech, given shortly before his assassination.

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