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.”

Jackson met Malana at the paddle out for George Floyd and reached out to him afterwards to offer to volunteer for Color The Water. As they started to work together, it began to grow into something bigger than just a personal practice for Malana and they knew they wanted to build it into something that could be sustained. Malana also recognized the need for the group to have Black leadership as it was a space born from Black struggle. Two other Black surfers, Nathan Fluellen and Joi Madison stepped up to join Jackson on the leadership board. With Covid-19 severely impacting her employment in the travel industry, Jackson began to volunteer all of her time, energy and expertise to Color The Water, driving an hour each way, every day, to help build and support the new initiative. It’s a 90-degree afternoon in mid-September, as she sits out on the tiny patio of the Color The Water HQ, enjoying her packed lunch salad, in between teaching morning and afternoon surf sessions where BIPOC surfers come from all over LA to be a part of this community. 

Jackson continues, recalling her early days in the water as a young teenager almost 20 years ago. “There was nobody like David (Malana) to come up to me and say, ‘Hey! Do you need a little help? You know, maybe if you change this foot position, or adjusted your timing in this way, you'll be in a better position on the board.’ Nobody was offering advice like that. So the biggest thing for me is, if we can be that for somebody, that's huge, because maybe that gives them just a little bit more confidence to go out to the water the next time and know that they can hold their ground.” 

Jackson shares a story about recently having lunch with another Black female surfer, Ludine Pierre, who’s a student in the group. “We were at lunch, talking about clothing, and how when we were young we both liked wearing surf clothing like Roxy, or Etnies shoes, or something like that because we were just attracted to this idea of surf culture. Ludine said growing up in Florida she had a lot of white surfer friends. They all knew that she wanted to learn how to surf, but she was never once invited to go. Nobody ever took her out to go learn how to surf. Nobody ever even asked her if she wanted to go. And so she just felt like it wasn't for her. Like it wasn't a space that she should be in. Now she’s in her late 20s or something, and so now, you know, to finally have that opportunity—you can see it, that it means so much to her to finally have this childhood dream realized. And to have it be in a space with all people of color where she feels safe and where she doesn’t have to worry about competition or this pressure to perform. You know, I think it is really, really special.”

The water not being a safe and welcoming place for Black people in America dates back to the long history of racism at pools, beaches or any outdoor space where people go to seek connection to the earth, freedom and leisure. In California, it is a history not just of segregation, but also violence against Black people who dared to try and enjoy the beauty of earth’s natural resources like the sea. Jim Crow-era rules restricted access to the ocean for Black people and other minorities. What was once an open shoreline for casual enjoyment, soon became commodified as businesses and resorts set up shop and exclusively welcomed white people into those spaces. In the 1920s, in an effort to have a space of their own to enjoy the beach, The Pacific Beach Club was built along the shores near Huntington Beach. Black middle class Californians could get a lifetime membership to the club for $75 and enjoy amenities such as a large bathhouse, ballroom, restaurant and space to enjoy the sand, sea and surf at the club’s seven acre plot of land. A Black-owned newspaper, The California Eagle, described the club as “the beginning of the very foremost step of progress that the colored people have ever attempted.” The club was set to be the largest all-Black recreational space in the entire country. It planned to open its doors on February 12th, 1926, to mark Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, but just 2 weeks shy of the grand opening it was burned down by arsonists suspected to be affiliated with the KKK. No arrests were ever made.

This history of the beach being an exclusive space for white people to enjoy still permeates popular surf culture even today. For example, maybe you’ve seen surf-style clothing that touts the phrase, “Locals Only,” but didn’t understand the phrase’s deeper roots. Malana explains, “Localism is the idea that if you don't live in a certain area and surf a break regularly, that you're not allowed to surf there. And the deep irony of that is like, how do you live there? How did you end up on this coastal land that is the most prime in all of California? And who was there before you and why do they not live there anymore? And so surf culture, it became commodified, it became competitive, and it became something that was just super selfish. For instance, when you surf with people, there's not a lot of outward celebration, there's more of like, kind of a silent competitiveness and ego involved—even the way that waves are ridden. In a lot of the ancient pictures that you see, everyone is riding at the same time, right? But now it's like one at a time, there's a whole hierarchy, there's an etiquette system that if I'm on the wave already, at a certain position, you can't get on, and all that stuff. And to me, that just sounds like a colonizer mentality, where it's like, this is mine, this piece of moving water that only—for even a few seconds—belongs to me. And if you touch it in any way, I'm mad. On an individual level, I don’t think the average surfer is a bad person, or a racist, but they may be ignorant to many of the ways in which they could be upholding a culture or system within surfing that is.”

Jackson chimes in to draw contrast to the culture they’ve created within Color The Water, “It's just fun. Nobody here is professing that they're professional surfers, or that they're the best. We're all learning and growing together. After someone catches a wave, there's like, a little celebration—it's just pure joy! And you don't see that when you go out surfing by yourself anymore. It is a little bit jarring now to break out of this community and then to go back into the outside surf world and then feel how closed off it is, and how competitive. You're always on the edge like ‘Can I try to get into where that peak is?’ and ‘How are the other surfers going to react to me?’ So I think Color The Water is really providing that space to celebrate—even if you're a beginner, it doesn't matter, we're all learning. So to give beginners the opportunity to enjoy their successes, however small they may be, I think is really special.”

Malana adds, “We reject all of these elements of surf culture that are non celebratory, that are competitive, that are based on ego and selfishness. The idea of celebrating each other's success might seem like a natural one, but when you think about American society and culture, it’s not! It’s more like ‘I gotta get mine! Look out for #1!’  So this is a space for us to really put all that away for a moment. When you think of a celebration, it's colorful and flamboyant and loud. But surfing is a very stoic thing now, even a lot of the wetsuits that are worn are all black, right? Some surfers will consider you what they call a ‘kook’ or ‘kooky’  if you celebrate too much, or even for wearing something, or not knowing how to do something in the way that it's supposed to be done. But as people of color, that's not us, like, we reject all that. So we're trying hard to find loud wetsuits, you know, and we're being loud in the water, and we're sharing and congratulating each other instead of it being a stoic thing where it's like, super somber.”

The origin of surfing is one that is spiritual and communal. As a community practice, it was about connecting with the Gods of nature. There's a lot of gray area in terms of what that entailed because missionaries and colonizers were documenting the first things they saw, and that became what was generally known about the origin of surfing, but there's hundreds or thousands of years before that just aren’t documented. In Hawaii, it was part of a societal structure. In Peru and in West Africa it had religious ties. Modern surf culture was spread by the Duke Kahanamoku of Hawaii in the early 1900s. From there, it started to change and developed into a sprawling industry, highly profitable commodity and a popular competitive sport.

On the topic of surfing as a competitive sport, Jackson says, “ I think there is a place for professional surfing, of course, and there is a time and place to be competitive. I don't think it needs to be all the time. If you're surfing your local break, you don't need to catch every single wave every time if there's a lot of other people around you. I feel it’s important to share that space with others too, regardless of if they're a beginner or not. But what I notice in sports, and in the outdoor industry in particular is, it's like, if you're not at this certain level, then you're not doing it right. Let's talk about camping. If you go car camping, there's people who are going to say ‘Oh that's not really camping!’ So what do I have to be doing? Do I have to take my backpack, go hike in, you know, 10 miles someplace in order for that to be considered camping? What is a hike? Hiking is relative, right? What my hike is for me is gonna be completely different than what your hike is for you. So each person has their threshold. I feel like what happens with surfing is that it's like, if you're not up to a certain level, then you shouldn't even be out there. I've heard that when we go out. I’d just like to see more of a gray area, where people can feel comfortable to go, even when their intention is not to be professional, their intention is just to have fun, and to grow, grow as an athlete and as themselves.”

Since its inception in June 2020, Color The Water has grown into a community of almost 200. In his first official Color The Water experience, Malana was filming Winston Trotter, a Black surfer who joined him on day one. He recorded Winston’s voice over the footage he’d captured of him surfing, “I don’t know if this is going to help one person, or five or ten or 1,000 people.” Since then, the idea of 1,000 autonomous surfers of color has stuck with Malana. He enlisted the help of his father, a Filipino immigrant who is a retired mechanical manufacturing engineer, to hand-make some Color The Water balance boards for his first 12 members of the group. He asked him to write a serial number on each one, starting with 0001, to hold a place for the community to impact 1,000 people. It was a labor of love, but still a grueling task, working with wood in 100 degree heat. Malana laughs, recalling when his father realized the point of the numbers and exclaimed, “So you want me to make a thousand?!’ The laughter turns to deep gratitude, “Having my Dad contribute to this is such a blessing to me. I’m so thankful for him.” His father ended up making 50 boards, adding a special touch to each one—a Tagalog inscription that means, “the key to life is balance.” Malana asked his father why he chose a dark walnut oil finish for the wooden boards, to which he replied, “Well, you know, because, color the water!”

Malana and Jackson hope to see this grow into something that can continue to be sustained full-time, but operation costs are high and it will need financial support in order to do so. (They’ve given away an estimated $50,000 worth of free surf lessons thus far.) They’ve started to raise funds and Malana is putting his all into hopes of achieving their financial goal. This Tuesday, September 22nd, he will be paddling 12 miles from Santa Monica to Malibu, something he’s never attempted before, in honor of Nick Gabaldon, LA’s first well-known surfer of Black and Mexican descent. In the 1940s Galbadon would try to hitchhike north to Malibu to surf, but nobody would pick him up. Because of this, he had to enter the water at The Inkwell in Santa Monica (famously named because of the skin color of the beach-goers) where Black people faced less harassment than at other beaches, paddle the 12 miles in the water to Malibu to surf, and then paddle back. Malana is hoping his 12 mile tribute paddle will help push the group’s fundraising efforts to their goal, and see Color The Water become an official 501c3 non-profit institution. Tuesday also marks the 158th anniversary of The Emancipation Proclamation, and he sees his paddle as a nod to the fact that there is still so much work to be done in the name of true freedom, for all. Malana is hopeful about the group’s mission to bring more equity to the water. “You know, I think all the way up to the ocean there’s barriers. But we’re gonna try to break as many of them as we can.”