Surf For The Culture

Color the Water is committed to offering free surf lessons–and the act of joyful resistance–to the black and indigenous community.

Written by Jessa Williams for Represent Co, an organization dedicated to social justice through storytelling.

“The ocean is, I feel...something that people traditionally think is for everyone. But like, is it though, if you can't even get there, and if your people have been pushed away from the ocean for centuries?” asks David Malana, as he chats with his Color The Water co-founder, Lizelle Jackson. “And then when you do finally get out there, you feel out of place, because no one looks like you, and everyone's looking at you and judging you like, with the Black tax thing, right? Like, if you don't do something twice as good, then you're looked at as like you don’t even belong.” Jackson nods her head in agreement. 

Malana shares what inspired him to create Color The Water, a BIPOC safe surf community, geared towards defiant, joyful anti-racism work through free surf lessons for BIPOC. “I'd been living and working internationally for several years, seeing some of the instances of police brutality against Black people while I was gone. Because of COVID-19, I was back in California, and I was surfing, trying to figure out what to do with life, and then George Floyd was murdered. I was trying to figure out how I could do something. There was a paddle out in his honor that I attended and as I was there, I had a mix of feelings. Most of the people there were white, and the mood of it was more of like a celebratory, communal reunion thing than mourning. And the discrepancy of surf skill was so wide between the white surfers and surfers of color that some Black surfers that went out there couldn't actually even paddle out to actually be in the circle. Some of them were alone, kind of on an island. And the irony of that hit me. After it was over, it seemed like, I mean, I can't project this onto people what they think and feel, but there was a sense of like, ‘we did something great!’ you know, among certain people. To me, this wasn't supposed to give that feeling. It was supposed to spark action for actual daily life practice. I didn't want to feel like, ‘Yeah, I went to this paddle out so now I'm an activist, I'm an ally,’ like I checked the box.  For me it was more like, now I can see how big the box is.”

Malana takes a long pause as he looks out toward the ocean, about 100 yards away from where he sits at the Marina Del Rey beach-front property he’s renting as a living space and unofficial home-base to operate Color the Water. “I was asking myself, ‘What can I do in my daily life to address this? I know myself well enough to know that if I take deep dives into cancel culture, or negativity, then I won't last. I can't sustain that. On the other hand, I don't want to ignore issues and be like, ‘Sending love and light to all of you, all the time,’ right?’ So I wondered how I could address this issue that I'm seeing right here, which looks like the embodiment of systemic racism in a sport and a culture that I very dearly love and have benefited from. I thought, ‘Well, maybe I can just try to share this?’ I think, especially now, almost everyone in society benefits from the gifts of Black culture that come from Black people. But there's a way of divorcing that where you're listening to hip-hop, but you're voting for Trump, you know what I mean? And then you try to divorce the culture from the people. And then when the people are in need, that are part of this group that have originated the culture that you love and adore, you're gone. And that hits me hard, because it's like, how can you do that? I have energy to call people out, but I know that that won’t last and it won't actually it won't develop anything. It might chip away at something that'll just reform again. I recognize the mobility I have as an Asian American man. It also comes at the cost of a solidarity of identity, that I filled in with Black culture. But I have access into this, you know, into surfing, in a way that someone else would not.”

Jackson echoes Malana’s sentiments and shares her experience as a Black woman surfer, painting the picture of being seen as “other” in such a white and male dominated sport, and how that affected both her enjoyment and rate of progress as she began learning. “I was self taught and it was always something I wanted to do, but I never felt necessarily comfortable going to a lot of beaches where there were a lot of people because of that pressure to be good. And I think, especially as a person of color, going into this predominantly white space, you feel like you have to be better—you know, like that Black tax, right? You gotta work twice as hard to fit in. And so I would always go to beaches where nobody was at, that you wouldn’t normally surf. It took me a long time to progress and a long time to get comfortable actually surfing around other people. And then, you know, once I got to that place, it still always felt like, you know, you're an outsider.”