Skateboarding seeks to flip its image of whiteness

The September 2020 issue of the skate magazine Thrasher, which features portraits of 32 Black skaters as it pushes back against an image of whiteness in the sport
The September 2020 issue of the skate magazine Thrasher, which features portraits of 32 Black skaters as it pushes back against an image of whiteness in the sport Francois PICARD AFP
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Houston (AFP)

Wheels whir and clatter as Jerahn Thomas and his skateboarding friends land tricks on the streets of downtown Houston, each success bringing broad smiles to their faces.

Passers-by at nearby taco stands seem oblivious to their skill -- but it doesn't matter to Thomas.

"What we've been through those last months, that's history in the making," the 25-year-old, dressed in a beanie, hoodie and glasses, told AFP on a recent Friday in January.

The reason for his excitement? Thrasher, the iconic skateboarding magazine, recently confronted a historic image of whiteness in his sport by placing 32 Black skaters on the front and back covers of its September 2020 issue.

The cover has no headline. The portraits speak for themselves, and the message is clear: the skating community must highlight its members of color.

And this acknowledgement from an established skating source was a long time coming.

"I heard a thousand times -- from people who had never been in a skate park -- that (the sport) was something for white people," Thomas, who is Black, said.

His friend and fellow skateboarder Jordan Miles agrees.

"People from my community often told me I should rather play basketball," a sport more stereotypically associated with Black athletes, Miles said.

Skateboarding's origins can be traced back to surfers in California and Hawaii in the 1940s and 1950s who, on days when the ocean was gentle, turned to "sidewalk surfing" instead.

Its popularity has peaked and dipped as it spread across the country and -- thanks to American soldiers stationed in Germany -- overseas, but it has long been associated with an image of affluent, suburban and rebellious white teenagers and punk culture.

And yet skaters of color "were always there," says Neftalie Williams, a skateboarding expert at the University of Southern California (USC).

He attributes the misperception of the sport as "white" to a historic lack of representation and diversity in media.

In a marginal sport without the resources of, say, American football, that image can be more difficult to push back against, he argued.

It wasn't just the media, citing his own field -- academia.

"We were missing the stories of those people who are actually responsible for helping bring skateboarding culture into the Olympics and making it be the global phenomenon that it is," he said. "It was really disheartening."

- 'We had to do something' -

For him, that finally began to change with the eruption of the Black Lives Matter movement in recent years.

The reckoning with racism in America it has provoked -- during mass protests in 2020 in particular -- included the world of skateboarding.

Thrasher was not the only magazine to take action.

In December, the British skating magazine Skateism dedicated its issue to nine skaters of color, with athletes from South Africa to Brazil.

"After witnessing what happened earlier this year with the BLM protests and uprisings, we felt like we had to do something," the publication explained in an editorial.

And former skating great Alphonzo Rawls, who himself appeared on the cover of Thrasher in 1992, turned to his later career as a designer to help broaden skating's image.

He created a skateboard covered in the names of Black skaters who had inspired him, with the words "Thank you" written in red in the middle.

- The different stories of skating -

At a Houston skate park, the talented Dallis Thompson, 33, recalled his first experiences sliding down ramps in Long Beach, California, near Los Angeles, surrounded by "people from everywhere: Hispanic people, Asian, Indian."

Thompson, who is Black, said he does not personally see a revolutionary quality in Thrasher's recent front page.

"So many people are underestimated in our sport," he lamented. "Why choose 32 of them because of the color of their skin?"

But Williams, who has also co-authored a study on the influence of ethnicity, gender and cultural background on skaters, insists that those facets of their identities must be taken into consideration.

It's important to acknowledge "some (skaters) have different stories, they're still dealing with the systemic racism in the world," Williams said.

For some skaters of color -- as for white skaters -- the sport is a way to reclaim public space. Others are still attracted to its lingering image of urban anarchy.

For Jerahn Thomas -- filming his friend Miles as he skates in hope of being spotted by a brand offering sponsorships -- it could be a way to a brighter future.