On a cloudy, June gloom afternoon in Los Angeles, hundreds of surfers congregated at Inkwell Beach – a small stretch of sand south of the Santa Monica Pier, which was segregated until the 1920s, and later frequented by black beachgoers during the 1960s.
“A place of celebration and pain,” reads a commemorative plaque on the beach.
A sea of racially diverse surfers and surfboards – some spray-painted with swastikas crossed out in red, others emblazoned by the names of those who have died at the hands of police in recent days – gathered on the sand for a paddleout honoring George Floyd, the African American man who was unjustly murdered by a Minneapolis police officer. But the call to action resonated deeper than justice for Floyd’s murder; it was a rallying cry, advocating for racial equity across the board, and specifically within the surf world.
Sharon Schaffer – who is considered to be the first African American female pro surfer, along with being a stunt double in films like The Blues Brothers (1980), Kindergarten Cop (1990), and Pineapple Express (2008) – told the crowd about her experiences as a young black female surfer coming up in Los Angeles.
“I learned to be loud,” Schaffer said. “If I wasn’t, I’d never get any waves. I’d yell, ‘this is my wave!’ Because the general attitude was, ‘she couldn’t possibly get this wave. She’s black. She’s a girl. So we’re just going to take it.’ But I used that as my fuel to really progress, and to get recognized as a professional surfer. I went on to use that at Puerto Escondido – yelling and calling guys off my waves. I was notorious for calling guys off waves in Puerto. But my screams weren’t just about waves; they were about my rights, my rights as a black woman, a human, my rights to equal opportunity, to jobs, to be successful, to be in the water, to exist.”
Another speaker on the sand at Inkwell Beach was Giovanni Douresseau, an African American surfer from South Central, LA, who was nearly arrested the first time he went surfing after being mistaken as a criminal. Douresseau went on to use surfing as a vehicle to escape the gang-ridden neighborhood he grew up in, to lose 120 pounds, and to advocate for more people who look like him to abandon the stereotypes and pick up a surfboard.
“When I saw the video of George Floyd on the ground,” said Douresseau, “I was reminded of myself at 11 years old. It was the first day I went surfing and I was put in handcuffs by four police officers, who were pointing their guns at me for a crime I didn’t commit. George Floyd’s death represents the systemic racism that all black people face in this country – whether it’s a black man going for a run in a white neighborhood, like Ahmaud Arbery, or it’s an 11-year-old black boy going surfing, like myself.”
But the paddleout at Inkwell Beach in Santa Monica was just one of many that happened across the country and the world within recent days. A few days before, thousands flocked to Moonlight Beach in Encinitas, CA. And Sal Masakela, surfer and action sports commentator, was on hand for that one, representing his hometown. Sal spoke to the crowd in an emotionally charged elegy, which left few eyes in the large crowd dry.
A couple days after the paddleout, we called Sal to hear his thoughts on the current swell of protests and activism and how the color of his skin affected his ascendance in a predominantly white world of action sports.
“When I moved to Carlsbad from the East Coast,” said Sal, “surfing was literally my lifesaver. I moved into a place where nobody looked like me. Everyone had really cool, interesting haircuts and spoke in a weird language, saying ‘dude’ and ‘bro.’ The colors were loud, people wore Oakley Blades. It was like moving to another planet. Surfing, to me, was like dancing on water. I fortunately met some kids that took me under their wing and gave me an opportunity to go to the beach and learn. And the first day I stood up on a wave, my life was changed. But every day that I went to the beach, I was in dread of being called names. People did not hesitate to make fun of me for the color of my skin, and to call me a ‘n****r.’
“After a while, they saw that I wasn’t going anywhere and people relaxed. Certain people looked out for me and defended me – Taylor Knox being one of them, because we were the same grade. I was able to earn my place in the community, and my surfing started to do the talking. Even though I started at like two months before I was 17, within a year, I was holding my own.”
Outside of the water, one racist instance from Sal’s adolescence has stuck with him until today. In fact, it’s become the driving force for him to assert himself as a rightful member of the whitewashed action sports world. It happened when he was fired from his dream job at a local surf shop. They told him it was because business was slow; but really, it was because the owner’s thought he didn’t fit the shop’s image, particularly with regards to his skin color.
“I cried a lot and then I finally made the decision to let it go,” Sal recalled. “Every time I walked into that shop, I got scared. I would see the owners. They knew that I knew. And I never said anything to them. But it was really the catalyst that gave me the drive to be like, ‘no one is ever going to take this away from me.’ I still had surfing. And in that moment, I realized that surfing is mine and no one is going to take it away from me. That story, what happened to me with the surf shop, is just one of countless stories. But it’s the one that continues to drive me forward in this industry today. It was them telling me that I didn’t belong, but me saying, ‘f*ck you. I do belong. I’m going to be a surfer whether you like it or not.’”
And Sal’s hopeful for a racially-diverse future of surfing – not just in America, but worldwide. The seeds of which have already sprouted with the Brazilian Storm.
“Mainstream, or American, surfing wasn’t accepting of them [the Brazilians],” said Sal. “People made fun of them for their style, their language, the color of their skin, everything. But how did that work out? Adriano [de Souza] was just like, ‘watch me overcome all this sh*t-talking and win a f*cking World Championship.’ And now look where the Brazilians are at on the CT and the QS. That’s something to be celebrated.”
In a way, Brazil’s rise to dominance on the CT has paved the way for other nationalities and races to make their mark on the world stage — aside from the historical preeminence of Aussies, Hawaiians, and mainland Americans. But there’s still a ways to go. Take a look at the CT — there’s only been one black surfer, on the men’s side, in its history with South Africa’s Michael February. Now take a look at your local lineup — see many people of color? Probably not.
For historical context, at Inkwell Beach in the 1940s and 50s, Nick Gabaldon cut his teeth to become the first African American surfer. Even though he was accepted in the lineup at Malibu — where he tragically died in 1951 — he was largely relegated to that one sliver of beach to learn to surf. Meanwhile, white surfers of the time had free range.
But today, with groups popping up like Textured Waves, Black Girls Surf, and countless others that seek to bring inner-city kids into the world of surfing, a sea change is starting to take hold.
“People are starting to acknowledge or finally recognize that there’s been this huge gap in diversity for so long,” Textured Waves’ Chelsea Woody told us in our conversation. “But we still have a long way to go. When you’re not exposed to surfing when you’re young, your chances of being on that world stage are so slim. If it’s not passed down to you, if your parents didn’t have access, it’s gonna take generations to fix. It doesn’t exist at a high performance level here in the states and that won’t change overnight.”
And with the spotlight now poised on exposing the racial inequity in America — and the opportunities out of reach for the black community — the gears are turning. In the years to come, Sal expects a boom in black surfing.
“If you look at what’s happening in Senegal and in Ghana and in Mozambique and Nigeria and in and around South Africa, as indigenous surfing is taking hold, it’s incredible,” Sal said. “The African wave is coming. Michael February was that was just the appetizer for what the future – the main course of African surfing – is going to look like.”