Opening the Waves for Everyone: Surfing, Race, and Political Awareness


In recent months the sight of NFL, NBA, and NCAA athletes donning t-shirts protesting the deaths of Ferguson’s Michael Brown, Staten Island’s Eric Garner and other black Americans by law enforcement officers has become commonplace, as have critical reactions to such symbolic acts. The St. Louis Police Department and the Rams’ now famous passive aggressive Twitter battle serves as only one example of the friction that arises when athletes voice a political position. Still, recent protests like those described here seem a far cry from the 1980s. Michael Jordan never did tell kids to stop shooting each other over his sneakers, and when pressed about his politics or rather the lack thereof, he turned to market economics. To paraphrase the hall of fame guard, “Republicans buy shoes too.” In contrast, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose and others quickly adopted “I can’t breathe shirts” in warm ups this past December rather than express concern over potential lost revenue from alienated consumers.

Sport as a conduit for political protest has a fairly long history. During imperialism, the use of sport by occupying governments and their appropriation by indigenous peoples embodied contradictory political implications. For example, when the U.S. embarked on its expansion into the Pacific and Asia, baseball and basketball operated as a means to inculcate American values and democracy while displacing sports or activities officials as saw immoral or problematic. Cockfighting in the Philippines deeply bothered American occupiers. Baseball, they believed, would instill teamwork, personal initiative, and a grasp of meritocratic democracy while cockfighting did little but lead to diminished morals and thinner wallets. While to some extent this facilitated U.S. control, Filipinos, Hawaiians, and others also adopted the sport to suture their own communities and express their own sense of identity, equality and nationalism in the face of U.S. occupation.

As elsewhere, in Hawaii, American missionaries and later the larger agricultural industry also used baseball to instill these values in the archipelago’s non-white residents. Surfing, however, shocked missionaries who sought to eradicate it from the eventual U.S. territory and later state. The sport’s lack of clothing and its mixing of genders unsettled the new religious arrivals. Though some Native Hawaiians would clandestinely continue to practice the sport, whites would later appropriate surfing in the early 1900s.


Alexander Hume Ford, circa 1921
Alexander Hume Ford, circa 1921


Alexander Hume Ford established the famous Outrigger Canoe club in 1908. Writers like Jack London extolled surfing’s virtues as the sport of kings and reveled in a sort of noble savage depiction of Hawaiian surfers. From the outset, notes historian Scott Laderman, Ford portrayed the club’s water sports as “favorably linked to military power,” even writing the U.S. Secretary of the Interior that such activities inculcated in men the necessary attributes for warfare. Though surfing may have been derived from Native Hawaiian culture, Ford believed its future should remain in white hands who would serve as better “caretaker[s]” than any “Oriental group.” Indeed, as Ford would point out, “The Outrigger Canoe Club is practically an organization for the haole (white person).”[1] When the sport reached the shores of California a few decades later in the glow of postwar American expansion, it took off with the blond blue eyed Californian as a sort of archetype. Later, Gidget would further popularize surfing, though even in these early years few women engaged in the activity.

More recently, the movie White Wash (2011) examined the sport’s serpentine history, focusing on its appropriation by whites, efforts by African Americans and other persons of color to reclaim surfing for its originators, and the meaning that such efforts have in the context of decades of racially discriminatory practices and laws that prevented equal participation. In regard to gender, Krista Comer tracks the growing participation of women in surfing and the ways in which they have impacted its image and practices in her 2010 work Surfer Girls in the New World Order. If its association with whiteness obscures the sport’s origins among Native Hawaiians, similarly, the tendency to think of Point Break like masculinity in relation to its practitioners and culture also ignores the sport’s foundations. “Before the arrival of missionaries, ancient Hawaiians had surfed for pleasure, religious ritual, competitive sport, and (in the case of the royals) to court one another,” writes Comer. “Queens as much as kings were renowned for their surfing prowess – and the subculture thrived on such lore.”[2]

Undoubtedly, women and minorities have begun to exert their presence in surfing, one could argue bringing a sense of the political to the waves. With that in mind, when did its predominantly white athletes begin to develop understandings of the sport’s political potential and its relationship to race? Though the sport touts a sort of transnational identity, for decades its politics ignored the complexities of surfing vacations in authoritarian nations like 1970s Indonesia, a country that openly courted Western surfers despite the then-government’s undemocratic nature and genocidal practices.

While some might argue that the bohemianism at the heart of the sport offers a sort of political protest against capitalism and conformity, the reality, surfing historian Scott Laderman argues in his 2014 book Empire in Waves: A Political History of Surfing, is that any sort of political awareness took decades to develop and only really emerged in any coherent way in the 1980s. Issues ranging from race to environmentalism to international politics slowly worked their way into surfing’s collective consciousness in the late 1960s and 1970s, emerging in the 1980s, largely in response to South African apartheid and that country’s place in the surfing universe. With this in mind, 2015 represents the thirtieth anniversary of what Laderman depicts as a sea change in surfing: the 1985 South African leg of the world surfing tour when four prominent athletes refused to compete, forever altering surfing’s collective consciousness.

Before Politics

“It was not something you did, it was something you became,” noted one surfer in Stacy Peralta’s documentary Riding Giants (2004). “It was a statement.” In the immediate postwar years and before Gidget popularized the sport for millions, surfers fancied themselves rebels. Amidst the archetype of the “the man in the grey flannel suit,” a symbol of mid-century corporate conformity, the decision by surfers to eschew traditional work for a life among the waves registered as downright revolutionary. “’[A]ll of a sudden a bunch of guys come along and they go, ‘Screw the money. You know, I’m having all the fun I could possibly have …. [And] the more fun we were having the more it would piss off society,” native Californian and surfing pioneer Greg Noll told documentarians. However, as Laderman points out, this identity failed to align with reality. “Life was about unrestrained hedonism, not social transformation,” argues Laderman. “The desire to surf may have been laced with an implicit critique of 1950s conformity culture, but the critique remained implicit.”[3]

For Laderman, such viewpoints amounted to “rebellion without politics. Gluttony is not particularly rebellious,” he noted in a recent interview.[4] Fellow surfing historian H. Gelfand concurs. “A lot of it depends on how your feel about why you’re doing what you’re doing,” Gelfand told ToM in an 2014 interview. Noll, for example Gelfand noted, used to put a Swastika on his board as way to say “f*&^ you, you can’t control me” to broader society, despite the fact the symbol obviously raises issues of anti-Semitism. Was it meant to be racist? Probably not, though obviously one could misinterpret the use of such a culturally charged symbol. Noll wasn’t really “anti-Semitic,” noted Gelfand, but like the punks of the 1970s who appropriated similar disgraced iconography for shock value he was “full of testosterone .. and trying to be a rebel … clearly surf culture … for some people [was about] getting in your face .”

Surf Nazis?
Surf Nazis?


People of color or women might make stronger claims in this regard since the sport developed as “hegemonically white” and masculine by the early 1960s. For women and individuals of color, “it took guts to head out and assert your right to ride waves,” the University of Minnesota at Duluth professor pointed out.[5] Certainly the aforementioned White Wash, about the erasure of brown and black surfers in the sport’s history, and Comer’s Surfer Girls in the New World Order, which focuses on how women have impacted the surfing, advocate similar viewpoints.

Still, with the explosion of surfing and the formation of a surfing identity, the first sense of surfing’s small “p” politics developed in Orange County through the unlikely duo of Surfer Magazine and Juvenile Court Judge Robert Gardner. Perhaps the driving force behind the movement to improve public relations, Surfer magazine expressed worries about surfing’s image. According to the magazine, the sport faced crisis as “hooligans and school aged trouble makers” undermined its position in American society, notes Laderman. “[T]he surfer has become the UGLY SURFER,” announced founding Surfer magazine editor John Severson. “The real surfers are disgusted and have reached the end of their patience.” Failure to address this surfing delinquency would mean the “end of surfing,” he insisted. In an effort to court more support for the movement, Surfer commissioned Gardner to discuss the issue in an editorial.

A surfer and father of a surfer, Gardner looked askance at counterparts like the anti-social Noll. Describing surfers like Noll as “nature’s inadequates … physically, mentally, morally, and personality wise,” the judge argued that the sport must unite around “legitimate surfers” to eliminate “these long haired ‘freaks” from local beaches. An Orange County native, Gardner seemed to project the region’s conservative ethos, as Laderman points out, presenting the problem in almost eugenic terms. The efforts of Surfer magazine and individuals like Gardner led to the creation of the United States Surfing Association (USSA) in 1961, which though initially focusing on public relations would later become the professional arm of the sport. To think that conservative Orange County played a role in policing a sport known for its anti-authoritarian ethos appears more than a touch ironic.[6]

The efforts at PR relations seemed to have an effect. Anecdotal evidence suggests surfers, especially the adolescent variety understood the need to recast their image. Surfers appeared in local news stories “rescuing boaters,” “saving swimmers,” and “organizing charity drives.” When Costa Mesa native Genevive Hunter found herself stuck with a flat tire on an empty stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, two teenage boys in “’soggy beach attire’” appeared to repair the wheel.   The two boys refused payment, telling Hunter, “Just remember, we’re surfers.”[7]

The sport soon spread out regionally, implanting itself into California culture and elsewhere through small-scale entrepreneurial surf shops that, as Laderman and Comer note, operated as nodes of community. From San Diego to Sydney, surf shops established “social anchors” in communities across the world. “As businesses owned by surfers,” Laderman points out, “they were seen as organic outgrowths of an exploding surf culture that increasingly viewed itself in national or international terms.”

Admittedly, some level of environmental awareness crept into the sport by the late 1960s. Perhaps influenced by Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking Silent Spring (1962) and the increasing presence of the oil industry along California shores, surfers began to display a consciousness in regard to conservation. The horrific 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, which resulted in over 200,000 gallons of petrol spilling into the ocean, briefly galvanized local surfers. John McKinley, a popular nature writer, credited surfers among others for responding quickly and diligently to the disaster: “I had been impressed by the way energetic college students, shopkeepers, surfers, parents with their kids, all joined the beach clean-up.”[8]

Gelfand also points out that the organization Get Oil Out (GOO) attracted a number of surfers to the cause, many of whom played a key role in environmental reforms of California oil extraction.  Eventually, a moratorium on new drilling platforms within “state” waters was established. That said, no real coherent movement emerged. Surfing historians Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul argue that with the exception of leaders like John Kelly, the Hawaiian founder of Save Our Surf, most surfers remained largely ambivalent about the issue.[9]

The 1970s: Corporate Surfing and Globalization

If 1960s represented a “diffusion of spatially grounded surf entrepreneurs,” surfers witnessed the “industry’s concentration, professionalization, and globalization.” For example, in 1976 American surfers Jeff Hakman and Bob McKnight licensed a brand of surfing gear from a group of Australian surfers – Alan Green, Carol McDonald, and Tim Davis – who had developed boardshorts featuring snaps and velcro that proliferated among local surf shops like those mentioned previously. Hakman and McKnight formed the U.S.-based Quiksilver, which by the twenty first century had become the “largest and most influential” of all surfing companies.

At the same time, California surfers began exploring the world for better surf breaks, absconding to places like Indonesia and South Africa to find the best waves possible. Unfortunately, surfers displayed an almost purposeful ignorance regarding the political conditions of their surroundings. They actively promoted Bali and more remote parts of Indonesia while President Suharto presided over genocidal massacres and violated various other human rights standards. Indonesian officials promoted surfing as a lucrative tourist industry. Surfers, magazines like Tracks and Surfer suggested, served as “economic missionaries delivering village level modernization across the Indonesian archipelago.”[10] As Gelfand pointed out in our interview, these developments had real consequences. “Where was the money going “ that surfers spent on these trips? Good chance ,“in Indonesia, surfing contest profits paid for genocide.”[11]


Surfers sojourning to South Africa also turned a blind eye, at least initially, to apartheid. To be fair, Surfer magazine waded into the controversy in 1966 with an article on South African surfing and segregated beaches. The column sparked the greatest reader response in the periodical’s history and Southern Californians weighed in on both sides of the issue. One Orange County surfer confessed that the article impacted the reader like none other before it. “Waves are for everyone to enjoy … not just a chosen few.” A fellow Californian surfer agreed. “When I saw a picture of the native standing on the beach as three surfers made their way toward the waters from which he was banned,” she wrote, “it really got to me.”[12]

Numerous fellow Golden State surfers dissented from their more race conscious counterparts. “I think SURFER, has really taken a giant step – downward,” one L.A. resident responded. “Why can’t politics be kept out of surfing. I never thought you would sink to discussing racial discrimination as a topic in your magazine. Why can’t SURFER stick to stories about surfing and surfing places that surfers actually surf.” Another Californian who claimed to have surfed South Africa on three separate occasions advised Surfer and others to “focus on our own racial problems before we start knocking Africa’s.” Considering the history of U.S. segregation in housing and sites of leisure, notably pools and beaches, the writer might have had a point. Only he went on to parrot arguments of white segregationists, arguing that black South Africans had no interest in surfing in places reserved for whites only.[13]

Of course, arguments that black South Africans expressed little interest in surfing required a certain amount of willful ignorance. In Bali, white surfers provided tepid excuses as to the apparent absence of a indigenous surfing scene. Though some surfers argued the Balinese “feared the ocean,” the fact was a “vibrant surf culture” emerged at the same time whites “discovered” Indonesian surf spots. White surfers just chose to ignore it or never encountered it.[14] In South Africa, blacks faced greater opposition in this regard. As anti-apartheid activists like Douglass Booth noted, “Sports did not transcend politics.” If blacks experienced discrimination in housing, education and elsewhere, why would access to surf breaks differ?[15]

Eddie Aikau


Non-whites in general could attest to the kind of difficulties black South Africans encountered. In 1972, highly regarded dark-skinned Hawaiian surfer Eddie Aikau made the trek to Durban to compete in the famous Gunston 500, where he found more than a little resistance. The Malibu Hotel at the Bay of Plenty denied him accommodations and contest organizers had “to make special arrangements for [Aikau] to compete at the whites only beach where the contest was held.” Aikau made no secret of his discomfort. “I fear to walk the streets … I get scared to … think that someone is going to scream at me because I am walking on the wrong side of the street because it is for Whites only . . . I fear and am really frightened that someone is going to pick me out. I am looking forward to go[ing] home.”[16]

His white Hawaiian counterparts expressed little empathy for Aikau’s predicament. Billy Hamilton, who also competed that year in the Gunston contest, dismissed his fellow Hawaiian’s concerns as more or less overblown, and told Surfer: “Generally the situation among the dark skinned people is accepted … [T]hey are content with their working positions and the role that they play in the structure of society along with their European counterparts.”[17]   The International Professional Surfers Association (IPSA) added salt to the wound. President Ron Sorrell argued it was not the role of surfing to “thrust our ideas upon other people … We do not believe that politics should be entangled in sports.” Other incidents followed in 1976 when a restaurant barred Dane Keloha from eating and Louie Ferreira received a physical beating for talking to a white girl at a Durban disco.

To be fair, Durban existed as a pocket of relative racial liberalism in South Africa, so not all non-white surfers experienced prejudice. Rene Abellira admitted his experience had been largely devoid of conflict. “People, on the whole, here were curious, kind [,] and courteous.” However, Abellira also noted that Durban, “a liberal, beach resort city,” hardly resembled tougher spots like Soweto. Hawaiian surfers, many argued, on average were given the benefit of the doubt regarding white privilege. This helped to mute objections and blunt the formation of any boycott.[18]

Even when openly confronted with examples of discrimination, many surfers simply shrugged their shoulders and talked about how “awesome” surfing in South Africa had been. 1970s surf champion Peter Townsend admitted he didn’t like how the South African government treated black citizens but in the end he had had “more fun their last year than … anywhere for a long time.” Brian Cregan put it even more simply, “Mixing sport with politics is absolute crap.”[19] Hardly the stuff of outside the box thinkers or “rebels.”


The 1980s: Surfing, Politics, and Apartheid


While the 1966 South African debate in Surfer magazine elicited both hope and despair in regard to the future of racial equality in surfing, nearly two decades later in 1985, three surfers would draw a line in the sand, fittingly enough in South Africa. Australia’s Tom Carroll and Cheyne Horan, Durban-raised Martin Potter, and Santa Barbara phenom Tom Curren refused to compete in the South African leg of the surfing world tour. While such a move might seem obvious today, the decision caused widespread controversy among surfers. Many fellow surfers argued that the purity of surfing’s spiritual core could only be compromised by introducing politics, while others, like Curren, asserted that no way existed to separate the sport from the social injustices surrounding the activity. Between them the Curren, Martin, and Carroll men would win six ASP world titles, and Curren won three of the six: 1985, 1986, and 1990. Horan finished runner up four times in the world championship standings in 1978, 1979, 1981, and 1982. Their boycott inspired other athletes to consider the same. Pro Golfer Greg Norman, footballer Glen Ella, and numerous Australian cricketers would follow suit, citing the three surfers as their inspiration. In 1988, Surfer condemned the ASP South African leg: “World tour victories are cheap,” both morally and competitively, the latter because so many leading surfers had begun to boycott that leg of the competition. Certainly, surfers did not end apartheid, but the boycott, particularly the roles of Carroll, Martin, Horan, and Curren, forced them to acknowledge that whether they liked it or not, they too were political actors.

Tom Carroll announced his boycott at Australia’s Bells Beach in April. Curren had surfed South Africa in the early 1980s as part of the U.S. national team. However, by 1985, the Californian could no longer ignore the reality of the apartheid state. When the African National Congress (ANC) called for foreign athletes to boycott events, Curren followed Carroll’s lead. “I really enjoyed going to South Africa and surfing the waves there [but] there was a bigger moral issue … I felt good about my decision … regardless of how it would affect my ratings,” he told Laderman in an interview years later. Horan boycotted in 1985, but returned the next year with “Free Mandela” written on his board.

Martin Potter also decided to forgo the 1985 event. As he gained prominence as a surfer and travelled the world, he realized that while racism existed everywhere, the South African example proved particularly pernicious. “[T]he more I grew up and the more I got a bit older … and thought about things, I knew it wasn’t right,” he remembered, “competing in the events in South Africa was almost supporting the way all that stuff was happening.

Though obviously very little in comparison to black South Africans who lived under apartheid, all four men suffered to some degree for their decisions. All lost points on the professional tour and raised the ire of surfers who wanted nothing to do with “politics.” Carroll resigned from his sponsorship from a South Africa-based surfing company but Potter lost friends and heard from other South African professionals that his life would be in danger should he choose to return to country.[20]

By 1989, the boycott had gained traction as 25 of 30 of the top ranked surfers avoided South African competitions. While much of this might have been derived from fewer and less lucrative contests, that too stemmed in part from the negative publicity drawn from the protest. Though Brazil acted first in 1978, several nations began banning South African surfers from entry into their nations, forcing several to use foreign travel documents to secure passage. In the late 1980s, some Caribbean and West Indian competitions established policies that required all surfers to boycott South African events.   Virginia Beach local Wes Laine experienced the ramifications of such policies first hand. Laine cared little about South African apartheid, claiming “he loved South Africa [and] couldn’t not go there because the waves were just too good.” In 1990, Barbados promptly banned him from entering the country, preventing Laine from competing.

The Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) had long proven spineless on the South Africa issue, but with Barbados and others banning competitors, events seemed to suggest the ASP must finally stake a position. “Let your surfers know, they have a choice,” Surfer wrote. “They can compete in South Africa or they can compete here. They can’t do both.” However, when D.W. de Clerk ended apartheid and released Nelson Mandela, it more or less let the ASP off the hook. Boycotting professionals began returning to South African competitions, though Carroll persisted in his refusal to surf South Africa until voting rights had also been extended fully to black South Africans. In 1996, two years after South African voting rights were fully accorded to its black population and 11 since his last visit to the nation, Carroll received a “wild card” invite to compete in the inaugural CSI/Billabong Pro at Jeffrey’s Bay.

Since 1985, the numbers of minorities and women participating in surfing has increased, which in turn has brought greater political awareness. As Comer documents in her book, women have proven especially sensitive to political issues and have been central actors in surfing’s increasing attention to environmentalism. Moreover, Comer suggests that greater numbers of women of color—like the Latina-influenced North Shore Surf Club in Houston, Texas and microbiologist and observant Muslim Shereen Sabet, inventor of the “burkini” (a wholebody swimsuit that allows for full mobility but accords with religious beliefs regarding clothing)—are surfing.[21] The documentary White Wash demonstrates that slowly greater numbers of African American men and women are venturing into the breaks, even in the face of skepticism among their own communities, who see the sport as a reflection of whiteness.


Still, as Gelfand notes, many of beaches with the best surf breaks tend to be located in affluent white neighborhoods. Difficult to reach by public transportation, minority water enthusiasts will still find picking up surfing difficult.[22] The cost of boards and other equipment necessary to surf does not come cheaply. “Surfing is neither inexpensive or easy,” notes Laderman. “Its learning curve is slow and it requires equipment that, relative to a more popular sport such as soccer, is both bulky (and thus not easily transportable, especially via public transit) … and expensive.”[23] America’s history of housing segregation means that most communities located near beaches remain largely segregated or predominantly white. Yet, it’s hard not to see that progress has been made over the last 30 years and one can only hope that more women and people of color will devote themselves to the sport in the coming years. Then maybe, surf will be up for everyone.




[1] Scott Laderman, Empire in Waves: A Political History of Surfing, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2014), 24 – 25.

[2] Krista Comer, Surfer Girls in the New World Order, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 35.

[3] Scott Laderman, Empire in Waves: A Political History of Surfing, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2014), 136.

[4] Scott Laderman, interview with author, August 28, 2014.

[5] Scott Laderman, interview with author, August 28, 2014.

[6] Laderman, Empire in Waves, 137 – 138.

[7] Laderman, Empire in Waves, 138.

[8] H. Gelfand, interview with author, September 6, 2014.

[9] Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul, The World in a Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing, (New York: Crown, 2013).

[10] Laderman, Empire in Waves, 77- 79.

[11] H. Gelfand, interview with author, September 6, 2014.

[12] Laderman, Empire in Waves, 99.

[13] Laderman, Empire of Waves, 97-100.

[14] Laderman, Empire of Waves, 107; Comer, Surfing Girls in the New World Order, 223.

[15] Laderman, Empire of Waves, 107.

[16] Laderman, Empire of Waves, 109.

[17] Laderman, Empire of Waves, 110.

[18] Laderman, Empire of Waves, 111.

[19] Laderman, Empire of Waves, 113.

[20] Laderman, Empire of Waves, 119- 120.

[21] Comer, Surfer Girls in the New World Order, 226-230.

[22] H. Gelfand, interview with author, September 6, 2014.

[23] Laderman, Empire in Waves, 107.