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,