When Dionne Ybarra was a young girl growing up in a Mexican farming community of East Salinas, she remembers the occasional trips her family would make to the beach 20 miles away from their home in Central California. While she enjoyed playing in the sand, the ocean itself was something to be feared. It was not a part of her Mexican family’s culture, and it never occurred to her then that it could become part of her own.
Even when she married a surfer, Ybarra herself didn’t take to the waves. After a divorce, Ybarra says she taught herself to swim and, eventually, at the age of 37, learned to surf. The experience encouraged Ybarra to start The Wahine Project, which teaches other Latina girls to discover the ocean and learn to surf.
The white face of surfing
“Surfing is glorified in mainstream culture, but it’s one identity,” says Ybarra of popular notions of the male, white, blond surfer. Ybarra says that changing perceptions for her surf students of what a surfer looks like “opens them up to a world that they didn’t know they could be a part of.”
The lack of broad representation out in the lineup — the place in the water where surfers congregate, jostling to catch the next incoming wave — is a well-known concern in the world of surfing.
“Surfing is a very white sport, especially in the US,” says Becky Mendoza, co-founder of the Changing Tides Foundation, in an email exchange with Matador. “It is extremely rare to see a person of color in the lineup. We really need this to change.”
Christopher Ragland says he was lucky to have learned to surf together with a Black friend when he was growing up in San Pedro, California. Now a resident of Santa Barbara, Ragland said that out on the water, “I’m kind of used to being the token Black guy.”
Ragland, who organized a “CommUnity Paddle-Out” in support of Black Lives Matter on Santa Barbara’s Leadbetter Beach in early June, says he feels he’s seen more Black surfers in recent months, but that it remains a sport Black kids don’t see they can be a part of.
“I’d like to see Black and Brown people at least somewhere in surf culture,” says Ragland, noting that brands like Billabong and Ripcurl don’t really speak to young people of color.
Changing the narrative
That lack of representation is what inspired Chelsea Woody, Danielle Black Lyons, Gigi Lucas, and Martina Duran to found Textured Waves, whose tagline is “Women of all shades, riding the waves.”
Since creating the group to “propagate the culture and sport of women’s surfing towards women of color and underrepresented demographics,” the founders of Textured Waves write via email that they’ve seen a growing interest in changing the narrative. “In the current state of the world, it appears that surfers are examining their surroundings and also want to play a part in the larger conversation globally to be more inclusive in their own communities.”
The surf world hasn’t always been that open. When Ybarra started her surf camp 10 years ago, she was met with pushback. “There was some resistance in the surf community, surprisingly… It seemed like it was the white good old boys club,” she says. Ybarra asked herself, “‘Do they not want us to be successful because I’m a woman, because I’m Mexican?’ So there was years of unkindness from a section of the community that really shocked me.”
Issues of access
Even where attitudes are beginning to change, the issue is exposing Black and Brown children, and even adults, to the ocean and surfing in the first place. Access is an issue that Mendoza of Changing Tides believes, “has everything to do with systemic racism in America.”
As Mendoza explains, “Black communities are not typically located near the ocean, where real estate value makes it unaffordable for most people to live, at least on the California Coastline. Then there’s equipment: wetsuits, surfboards, leashes, transport, which all carry a hefty price tag. It all makes it incredibly inaccessible to those who can’t afford these luxuries.”
Chris Ragland agrees that access is a “huge” issue, and believes that if more Black youth learned to surf, at least some of them would excel. He’d like more of them to spend time in the water and see that there are other sports open to them besides, say, skateboarding and basketball.
“I’m not saying the best surfer needs to be Black,” says Ragland. “But we’re not seeing the best surfers in the world. We’re seeing the best surfers with access to surfing.”
In addition to organizations like Ybarra’s Wahine Project, Mendoza says, “nonprofits like Stoked Mentoring, City Surf Project and Brown Girls Surf that are doing amazing things to create accessibility.”
Expanding the look of surf culture
Beyond introducing more kids to surf, these advocates say it’s important to have those kids see themselves reflected in surf culture. As the women at Textured Waves noted, “normalizing the imagery” is as much a part of the solution as creating “access to aquatic and leisure spaces” and “providing resources for folks to actively participate.”
Besides providing the resources, by offering her surf camp for free to the kids from East Salinas, funded by donations and the revenue of paying kids from wealthier coastal towns, Ybarra says that many of the surf instructors at her camp are Mexican-American, like herself.
But the image of surfing needs to be broader for the mainstream community, and it shouldn’t just be up to individual surfers to show up and be seen. “I think surf brands should be marketing more to people of color, diversifying their staff and team riders to be more representative of the general population. That will make everyone more welcomed into the sport,” says Mendoza.
For his part, Santa Barbara surfer Ragland, who’s a graphic designer, says he hopes to launch a surf brand with influences from hip-hop culture and which can speak more directly to the young Black people in his community.
Sharing the joy and stretching the horizon
Why does all of this matter? For one, the joy that surfing brings should not be reserved for a privileged few. For Ragland, the act of surfing is “poetry in motion,” and it’s an experience he wants more people who look like him to be able to appreciate.
“You can experience a form of meditation that is so active, but that still provides so much stillness after,” he says.
A connection to the ocean is also a gift that can benefit the wider community. Ybarra says that in introducing young kids from East Salinas to the ocean, whether they grow up to become surfers or not, they see dolphins or whales and develop an appreciation and concern for the ocean environment. This is important, says Ybarra, since disadvantaged communities “are more at risk for all the negative aspects of climate change.”
Moreover, by telling kids that a sport that, from the outside, can seem not only male and white but also downright intimidating is something that they too can do, she’s conveying a broader message. She wants the kids she’s teaching to paddle hard for an incoming wave to know that they can accomplish whatever they set their mind on.
“It’s opening them up to a world that they didn’t know they could be a part of,” says Ybarra. “When they see and they go, ‘Oh my gosh, I can do that kind of stuff. I can get over this fear. I can move through that fear,’ I think it shows them that’s just one barrier. Then they can see that, and they can move it over to the next thing in their life.”
Ragland feels much the same. “If you’re not raised by the ocean, chances are you’re going to be intimidated by the ocean,” he says. But when you do “get out on the water and travel, it broadens your perspective. You think so much bigger than your block.”
Everyone has a part to play
To make that possible, we all have a part to play. Certainly, surfers who come from more privileged backgrounds can work to introduce the sport we love to others and welcome the interest of those who have traditionally not been able to participate. Those who don’t surf, yet flock to the beachy fashions of big-name surf brands, can demand to see more representation from those brands.
“To make real change, it starts in your own backyard with your family and friends and in your immediate community. Everyone can’t do everything, but focusing on areas that you are already passionate about can create the biggest change. When we do this we can begin to see generational shifts and changes in behavior,” say the women at Textured Waves.
The ultimate goal will be seen in the water. “We want to see lineups that are more representative of our population here in the US, which is people of all races, shapes, sizes, colors, sexual preferences, and genders from all walks of life,” says Mendoza.
Ragland, who says this topic is one that keeps him up at night, acknowledges that it may take time. But he looks forward to the day when more Black and Brown surfers will see for themselves that, no matter what happens on land, “The ocean isn’t judgmental … It’s a place you can rely on.”