The Problem of Localism | Surf Simply

This is extreme behaviour, and perhaps we like to think it’s gone from surfing but it hums along in our culture in the localism and hostility to newcomers that so many surfers so consistently practice. And the effects are still with us in other ways too. As Duane points out, surfing has a global image of whiteness, blondness, and heteronormative maleness that continues to pervade mainstream surf industries and culture. Like women and gay surfers who have long been told to keep feminist and queer politics out of surfing, for indigenous surfers, black surfers, and surfers of colour, highlighting the politics of colonisation, race, ethnicity and culture that characterise surfing has been discouraged.


Solving this in surfing is a problem of recognizing and engaging with the ongoing regional and global effects of colonization.  These things can’t be separated from how we make sense of surfing’s contemporary politics and culture: Why are mainstream surf magazine editors all basically the same person? Why was racist language so casually used to describe Otis Carey in surf media? Why do the dark histories of so many Australian surf spots remain so silent? Stu Nettle wrote about a spot called ‘Blackfellas’ for Swellnet in 2010:


The name Blackfellas comes from a massacre that occurred in 1849 during the frontier wars when white settlers wanted to occupy and farm the land around Elliston. The exact details are subject to speculation though general consensus is that in an act of retribution white settlers drove approximately 250 Aborigines off the cliffs adjacent to the wave. Those that didn’t jump were speared or shot.

Waterloo Bay – just to the south of Blackfellas – derives its name from the same event. A dark humoured local announced that, during the massacre, the local mob ‘met their Waterloo’, and the name stuck. Thus the two geographical features for which Elliston owes its existence and ongoing popularity refer to a massacre of the Aboriginal population.

But don’t look for the massacre on the record-breaking mural [the largest mural in the southern hemisphere wraps around the outside walls of the town hall] – it ain’t there. I’ve walked around the town hall and seen all the events deemed worthy of recording, but the massacre – a defining event in the town’s history – isn’t among them. In fact no blackfellas appear in the mural at all.


In 2016, Jed Smith wrote about the same break, and the same history in Stab:


The Wirangu people want the massacre recognised with a special monument at the site with the word “massacre” inscribed on it, but certain sections of the Elliston community are objecting.

“The previous councils have denied whether (the massacre) ever even happened… As much as white history doesn’t say it happened…it definitely happened,” Wirangu elder, Jack Johncock, tells Stab. “Ninety-nine percent of people are in favour of the monuments. It’s the word “massacre” (which the Wirangu want written on the monument) that is causing the conflict. But mate, it wasn’t a picnic you know.”

It’s not just Ellison. You will find stories of undocumented massacres at surf towns all over Australia. Many of the best stretches of surfable coast are created by rivers and creeks, which mould reefs, divvy up sand banks, and groom point breaks. The fertile land around these creeks and rivers has always made for some of the most desirable livable conditions on this arid continent of ours; European settlers recognised this and killed nearly every Aboriginal in sight to secure their claims.


Like solutions to sexism, this is not about indigenous surfers and surfers of colour being louder or making more efforts to fight – they already are. Successful projects like Brown Girl Surf, Black Girl Surf, and Inkwell in the USA and the annual Australian Indigenous Surfing Titles, are all effective in creating solidarity and visibility for diversity in surfing. The problem is whether and how white surfers are listening and looking. As Duane writes,

“I’d like to say that everything has changed and that my mind is now pure. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until last year that I began to wonder why so few African-American men surf my local break. That thought came up only because I heard about a nonprofit called Brown Girl Surf and realized I’d met exactly one African-American female surfer ever — in Australia, of all places, where we’d both gone for a literary conference.”


Fuck Dora and fuck Noll, and fuck their legacies of exclusion that we carry on today. Fuck their white supremacist actions, even those that they did for the shock value only. Those things are brutal and violent.


As an Australian, I am connecting the issues raised in the New York Times article with the settler colonial politics I am part of, but they apply to many other examples including those of Native Hawaiians and Native Americans*. The politics are interconnected.


Of course, it’s not just surfing. In America, there is a movement about black people outdoors, which responds to the dominance of white people in outdoor and nature-based sports and activities. A few years ago, The Guardian ran a story ‘Bad things happen in the woods’: the anxiety of hiking while black.’  The stories shared by the three people in the article were eye-opening.


I’m a white woman, brought up to be afraid of the threats of the night, so the fear of being alone outside is one that I recognise. But the fear of violence such as that described in the article – of a violence so cultural and collective based on the colour of my skin – this is something I never consider.


I love surfing. I love riding waves and being outside and in the water and under trees. I love the freedom to move my body how I like in the water. These freedoms aren’t real though; they’re imagined, partial, incomplete. This is made clear to me when I see ‘Locals Only’ graffiti, when I’m subjected to a torrent of disgusting verbal abuse because I got a wave someone else wanted, when I see others being excluded or treated badly. This is clear when wannabe-radical online surf magazines publish click-bait defences of people like Dora.  This is clear to me in my own choices about what I put up with and how I behave.


Wave by wave, break by break, beach by beach, magazine by magazine, surfer by surfer – we can change. It means we might get fewer waves, but we can make surfing more welcoming and inclusive.




*In recent years, there is some great research and advocacy being done regarding Native American surf politics by Dina Gilio-Whitaker, while Karin Ingersoll and Isaiah Helekunihi Walker have both published books on Native Hawaiian relationships to surf breaks and surfing. Surfing politics play out in other countries too; Tara Ruttenberg is working on ethical and sustainable surf tourism models for areas where surf tourism is creating new local issues, and many other researchers, activists and surfers are working hard in other places.



Surf Simply would like to thank Dr Rebecca Olive for working with us and allowing us to share her article.

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