BLACK GIRLS SURF!
Updated: Jul 28, 2020
Written by Emily Newsome
In order to showcase and support the diversity of surfing, WMNSurfMag has been working on a portrait series, where we will introduce to you not only fierce females who fight for their rights to surf but also surfers around the world, who portray what we also stand for:
SURFING IS FOR EVERYONE!
Racism has no boundaries and it affects every sector of the societies and institutions we have created in this life. The surfing community is no exception. WMNsurfmag is committed to fighting for equality and using its platform to create a safe and welcoming environment for everyone. We stand with those fighting for justice and encourage our readers to educate themselves on what they can do to support Black activists and speak out against racism in every capacity.
We also strongly call on the surfing community as a whole to come to fruition with the lack of representation, lack of accessibility, lack of support, and lack of encouragement that befalls on Black surfers in the industry. Realize these issues and think about how you can be an ally for the Black surfing community and other minority surfers as well. Promote diversity in surfing and more importantly, promote diversity in life itself.
Let’s come together with love and lift each other up through the sport we all love.
- Personal Note of the WMNSurfMag Team.
Our new portrait series kicks off with someone who has made it their life mission to promote female and diverse surfing in all aspects. She has worked tirelessly to advance Black females in surfing and advocate for their deserved spotlight in the surfing industry in both developed and underdeveloped countries.
Growing up surfing on the coast of North Carolina, USA, the most prominent encounter I have had with a Black female surfer was 'Pushy' from Blue Crush 2 in my friend’s TV room when I was in grade school. This is not to discount the Black surfers that do chase after the rolling waves of the North Carolina coast, but this is to say that I simply grew up thinking that Black people didn’t surf. And that is undeniably upsetting to me now as a young adult. I collected many surf and skate magazines when I was little and I never once saw anyone other than a blonde-haired white girl grace the covers. I never watched film, both Hollywood and independent, that exhibited much diversity in the surfing industry. Surf news media was no better. So, interviewing Rhonda Harper for the new portrait series was important to me personally. I felt like I had a duty to fulfil, especially on the east coast, to be a part of the change to get the spotlight onto non-white surfers in media.
It is embarrassing to know that as a young child I thought that skin color had boundaries. To all the young surfer girls out there, it doesn’t! Educate yourself about diversity in board sports and read along about my interview with Rhonda Harper, founder of BlackGirlsSurf, and the importance of representation in surf media.
Meet Rhonda Harper, founder of BlackGirlsSurf.
Rhonda Harper found her love for surfing all by herself on the North Shore of Oahu when she was 15 years old. She enjoyed having the waves to herself in between the influx of tourists wanting to try the sport for the first time. Eventually, she found herself in California where she encountered many more surfers, eager to take any wave even if it was yours, and this was also the first time Rhonda discovered the challenging waters of being both a female and an African American surfer. She told us in our interview “I was affected by indifference and not only was I a girl, but I was a Black girl in San Diego surfing and so it had a whole different meaning. And so I would always try to wait out and sometimes I had the worst waves in the world because I would wait until all the others were gone and everybody was gone and then I'd go out.”
From Rhonda’s personal experiences combined with the general experiences of the Black surfing community, she founded Black Girls Surf to raise awareness and support for the Black, female surfing population. She became a leader and a coach for young girls in and out of the water.
Rhonda Harper became the mentor for girls everywhere that she didn’t have when she was younger. “I didn’t have that in California” Rhonda said, talking about the sense of community the girls have who participate in BlackGirlsSurf.
The organization builds connectivity and support between the young surfers who train together under Rhonda. It builds excitement and motivation about surfing. That was all Rhonda hoped for when creating the organization. She explained that she founded BGS out of a lack of participation for a surf contest she and a colleague were hosting in Sierra Leone.
Rhonda detailed that in order to increase participation and representation of Black female surfers in contests like this one, she needed to create a space for female and also male minority adolescents or adolescents from underdeveloped countries to get introduced to the sport of surfing and eventually train to become professional.
“We decided that we were going to start organizing into real groups and really start working towards a future for women...but specifically, afro surfers because those were the most underrepresented of all of the groups” - Rhonda Harper, BGS.
As I continued talking to Rhonda, I became more intrigued with the development of BGS over the last couple years and the growth of the organization. She described to me that they first started with only two female surfers, Kadiatu Kamara and Khadjou Sambe. Rhonda started training them first to be professional and then developed a goal to get to Tokyo 2020 Olympics. She picked up a few more girls and made the decision to move all training efforts to California after the Ebola crisis struck in the 2010’s. Rhonda joyfully remarked that BGS gained momentum in a very short amount of time. It grew a following on social media because it advertised content of Sambe and Kamara to show the world that you do not have to be white to surf, let alone be white and good at surfing. This social media boom made her realize that since her social media content was resonating with people all over the world, she should culminate it into something concrete and valuable. Boldly, she says "And so then, I decided that we were going to start training more girls and women."
Rhonda made it clear though that all of the efforts to push BGS and other organized groups like it forward do not come without challenge.
“So the original mission was just awareness and black participation per contest. The ultimate mission now is to get as many girls who want to compete trained, sponsored, and in the water with ease because this is not an easy business. Anybody that knows it whether you're in a magazine or you're actually boots on the ground coaching, you know that this is not an easy path, especially for women. And now you add on the complexity of women of color and the marketability because all of this is, it's marketability” - Rhonda Harper, BGS
This phrase was one that I took a lot of time to reflect on as Rhonda went into more detail about the hardships of marketing Black girl surfers in the media.
First, it is already a challenge for diverse, female surfers to gain confidence in the water and even then, confidence in competition, especially in countries where culture and religion merge to confine women to domestication. Surfing is not widely accepted in local villages, especially as a sport for women. Many eastern cultures have a mindset that views women in sports and physical activity as negative. Add the tight-fitting wetsuit or swimwear to that and women in surfing can be regarded as prohibitory. There is also not enough access to boards or proper training. Thus it is hard to get girls into the sport. This became immensely comprehensible to me when Rhonda spoke of a particular time of recruiting a young girl to come surf for BGS.
“For one of our girls, we literally, both Khadjou and I, had to walk into the house of the family, stand there, and explain to them what we were going to do for their daughter. And you could see the mom's eyes water up because she knew that her daughter was never going to have an opportunity if somebody didn't walk through that door.” Rhonda further explained that there is actually a lot of support now from local communities in Africa for their girls to surf. “It has opened up a whole new world.”, she told me.
Step two of getting diverse girls to be successful in the surfing industry involves visibility and marketing. Marketing leads to sponsors and Rhonda explained to me that even though persons of color have significant buying power and marketability, the avenues for advertising and media are often hard to come by for the minority surfing populations. Rhonda, realizing surf media was a dead end, pushed for mainstream media of her program and the up-and-coming Black female surfers. I think anyone familiar with the surf industry knows that magazines, social media, and film revolve a lot around the stereotypical white surfer, especially for advertising purposes. Rhonda is trying to change that. She is creating more visibility and awareness about the marketability of Black female surfers and works hard to get her girls noticed by sending out marketing packages so that they can get sponsorships. She told it to me straight:
“If you don’t fit the type, then you can’t get sponsored”
I along with Rhonda and many others think it is time to break that mold.
Towards the end of our interview, I asked Rhonda what she would like to see differently in terms of growth happen in the professional surf industry 5 to 10 years from now.
“I have never seen an African American woman on anything surf-related (print-wise)”
- She said. Rhonda calls for more representation of diverse surfers in magazines and product advertising.
"This needs to be a regular part of surf media instead of it being in for a season. That's the March through September season, and then you don't see us again, nobody contacts us again, they're not regular stories, they're always some inspirational, Christopher Columbus type of story. It's never about the general, how they live."
Black girls in surfing should not be an anomaly but a regular part of the culture!
Organizations like BGS should not be something that is atypical, but celebrated along all other organizations and people in surfing. Rhonda went on to say that there definitely has been more press but there is still a long way to go in terms of representation and visibility.
BlackGirlsSurf along with another organization led by Rhonda, 'Inkwell Surf', are rocking the coasts of California and elsewhere with major participation and eagerness of Black surfers. Both non-profits lift youth up through surfing as well as provide them with a formal education.
Let's support them on their mission! Financially (click here for their fundraiser), by spreading the word, acting and surfing more consciously overall.
Currently, Rhonda and the Black Girls Surf organization are arranging worldwide Paddle Outs for a “Solidarity in Surf” peaceful protest initiative in wake of the murder to George Floyd.
This is a protest for the Black lives lost to police brutality and racism in America and across the globe.
“Let’s send a message to the next generation that unity is the only way to make a real change."
Facebook: Black Girls Surf
For more info on the topic please also check out the following: