When Mira Manickam-Shirley got a job as a naturalist in the Marin headlands, she found herself living by the beach for the first time in her life, and she wanted to learn how to surf. She remembers a running bit she had with one of her first surf buddies there. “He was always like, ‘Yeah, just look for me, the blonde dude in the water.’ The joke was like, everyone’s a blonde dude.”
But in Manickham-Shirley’s experience, it is a joke that rings true. She’s always been one of the only women and people of color in the lineup — where surfers wait for breaking waves. The stereotype is somewhat ironic, considering the non-white roots of the sport.
In its current form, surfing was pioneered by indigenous Pacific Islanders and may have also been independently practiced by indigenous South Americans. The pre-Incan Mochica people in Peru likely used their reed boats for surfing as well as fishing. In Hawaii, he’e nalu, or wave sliding, dates back to at least the 15th Century. Three Hawaiian princes introduced surfing to California — and North America — when they first paddled out in Santa Cruz in 1885.
America’s history of systemic racism plays a major role in discouraging people of color from taking up water sports, according to Chelsea Woody, co-founder of Textured Waves, a surf collective for women of color.
“Segregation laws of this country really restricted who could participate in leisure activities and zoning laws with who could buy land in certain areas and coastal towns,” Woody explains. The California Land Act of 1851 pulled sprawling ranchos away from Mexican owners and handed them over to white settlers. Pools and beaches were segregated during Jim Crow, effectively prohibiting Black people from public access.
A 2014 CDC study found that Black American children were up to 10 times more likely to drown than white children. “I think the lineup is really just an extension of colonialism,” says Kyla Langen, co-founder of San Francisco based Queer Surf. Manickham-Shirley notes that racial disparities in wealth, as well as the history of housing discrimination and access to loans, all play into who lives by the beach now. Real estate there is typically more expensive and sought after.
Growing up, Dionne Ybarra would have had a hard time seeing surfing as anything other than a white sport. From The Beach Boys to Endless Summer to Point Break, popular culture paints a starkly white picture of American beach life — and people who look like her can’t help but internalize that.
Even though Ybarra grew up just a 20-minute drive from the beaches of the Monterey peninsula, she says her Mexican-American family would only venture out to the water once a year, on July 4th.
“There’s this fear set up from birth that we’re not ocean people, we don’t go in the ocean,” she says, referring to people of color in America.
Ybarra’s mom had her take swimming lessons as a kid, but still made her wear a life jacket anytime they were by the water. Ybarra laughs as she remembers the life jacket, describing how it completely undermined the lessons she took.
It wasn’t until Ybarra was an adult — well into her 20s — that she took up surfing, and now she runs an organization that aims to get more young girls of color out in the water.
She started The Wahine Surf Project in 2010 in Monterey. Through working with parents at surf lessons, Ybarra has come to realize that the fear of water her mother exhibited — and a culture of not going to the beach — is common in communities of color.