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Kick Flipped: How Skateboarding Rides With Race
Skate culture has always been a few steps ahead of mainstream popular culture. It has influenced punk and hip-hop music, fashion and footwear, as well as art and graphic design. Skateboarding is a society of creative brains who take risks and bring new perspectives to old ideas.
Contemporary skateboarding culture thrives artistically and, in recent years financially, via its successful board companies, big money contests and high visibility pro riders. But has it always been on the cutting edge socially? I analyzed my own experiences as a skater and talked to some of skateboarding's media and business elite to get a perspective on how race figures into skateboarding.
Growing up in San Diego, California, skateboard culture was everywhere. I found myself drawn to it with a passion that no team sport or Boy Scout troop ever evoked. On my board, I explored streets, neighborhoods and the whole city. I encountered like minds, and within a few months I made some of the best friends of my life.
It wasn't until many years later that I truly began to realize just how unique, and perhaps unlikely, our friendships were. While some lived in the quiet and affluent communities of Coronado or North San Diego County, others crossed the border from Tijuana, Mexico every day to skate. Through skateboarding, I was not only able to stretch the horizons of my physical world but my social sphere as well. I had friends from all backgrounds, both ethnic and socio-economic, and it never occurred to us that our mixed group was uncommon outside of skateboarding.
Although we weren't completely unaware of our differences, they paled in comparison to our common desire to shred new territory. Race was something that we occasionally joked about, but it was never a serious issue between us or any other skaters we encountered. At school, our peers often segregated themselves by race like prison gangs while we found common ground, not in the color of our skin, but in the holes in our shoes and the wheels beneath our feet.
Home, however, was a different story. My friends and I would get strange looks from people in our communities or families because we were engaging in an activity that many saw as a "white boy thing." While this never deterred any of us from skating, it made us feel like outcasts. Usually we just ignored it, adding it to the lengthy list of things outsiders did not understand about skateboarding.
Trading Hate for Skate
As we grew older, these misunderstandings occasionally rose above a gentle ribbing or teasing. I can remember African-American pro skater Kellen James (pictured right), who rides for Sk8mafia, getting hassled by gangbangers at a bus stop. Perhaps their idea of blackness did not include skateboarding. While other riders of color and I were used to some feelings of prejudice, either real or perceived, it was frustrating to find this ignorance coming from our own friends and family.
"Everybody got hated on for skating," says Pete Martinez, who works at Street Machine, one of the best-known skate shops in San Diego. He says the estrangement he and his friends felt from parents, teachers and other kids forced them to group together and support each other regardless of what neighborhood they were from.
Martinez says that in his 20 years of skating he never felt there were racial divisions in skateboarding. "It's always been that way because of us and who we are," he says. "Skaters just don't give a fuck." He suggested that the increasing visibility of skaters of color is a matter of taste, not an effort to showcase non-white skaters: "They have better style, and they just happen to be [other] races."
Skateboarding's Mixed History
Perhaps this idea of the stereotypical skater being the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, Jeff Spicoli type is based on the fact that the first skateboarders were almost all avid surfers as well. This outdated image has persisted in mainstream culture for decades.
However, the history of skateboarding reveals that it has never been a white-only sport. Mexican-American Tony Alva, one of skateboarding's first mega-stars was, along with the rest of the Z-Boys, including Asian-American skaters Peggy Oki and Shogo Kubo, responsible for bringing skateboarding out of its surfer roots and into a culture of its own.
In the mid- to late '80s, names like Mark Gonzales, Tommy Guerrero (above), and Christian Hosoi soon joined Alva in the pantheon of skate gods, each bringing their own flair and innovation to skate culture.
Michael Sieben, head wizard and artist at Roger Skateboards and columnist for Thrasher Magazine, grew up far from the smooth seaside asphalt of Santa Monica. In his native Texas, the population was less diverse but he says the skate scene still represented a pretty good cross section of its inhabitants. "When I first started skating [in '86 and '87] most of the dudes in the magazines were white guys skating vert[icle] ramps," says Sieben. "If you picked up a magazine at that time and flipped through it, you'd definitely see more white dudes than any other ethnicity."
In his book The Answer is Never, Jocko Weyland chronicles the sea change from skateboarding's infancy to its rise as a multi-billion dollar "sport" and industry. Weyland writes about the transformation of this idyllic American toy into an edgier symbol. This was captured by the photos Craig R. Stecyk shot in 1976 of "El Thumper," a skater Weyland describes as "a hardcore cholo wearing sunglasses and a bandana on his head, holding a board with his middle finger extended over the grip tape." In an e-mail interview, Weyland elaborates: "Skating was [always] multicultural... there were always a lot of non-whiteys involved in skating, which is something I liked about it."
If the menacing appearance of "El Thumper" signaled a change in the culture, it was a harbinger of the renaissance that skateboarding would undergo as it left the concrete skateparks and backyard pools of the '70s and '80s and took to the streets.
Street Style and Urban Changes
As skateboarding moved out of the suburbs and into cities, it embraced new terrain and participants as a fresh cadre of professional skaters and companies rose to the top. When Chocolate Skateboards was founded in 1994, it was hailed by many as a "multicultural team." Though it wasn't the first team of multiracial skaters, it did anticipate the subsequent change in racial demographics brought on by the popularity of street skating.
In the 2004 skate film Hot Chocolate, original Chocolate rider Richard Mulder, who is Dutch and Filipino, reminisces, "When I was on Chocolate at that time... we had all these different races on the team." Mulder, however, cares less about the ethnicities of his teammates and more about the fact that "they just looked right on their skateboards."
With street skating's ascendance, urban jungles like New York and San Francisco became meccas for skaters seeking concrete adventures. Urban centers, by demographic default, have largely had more multicultural skate scenes than smaller towns or suburbs. New York City, in particular, was a breeding ground for skate talent from all over the East Coast.
"Skateboarding is an activity [for youth of color] that is just exploding in the cities," says Steve Rodriguez, founder of 5Boro Skateboards, and a central figure in the New York skate scene. Respected Supreme skate shop manager Charles Lamb agrees that the scene has always been diverse.
The scene in San Francisco, a city famous for its diversity, has similarly become home-base for many skate companies and magazines -- an organic result of both the city's unique hilly streets and the cosmopolitan environment. J. Strada, of FTC, a skate shop in operation for over 20 years, says the recent boom in skateboarding's popularity has helped sales but has not changed the diversity of the scene. "San Francisco has been the same the whole time," says Strada.
In West Oakland's DeFremery Park, a.k.a. Little Bobby Hutton Park, a new kind of revolution is going down. Located in the heart of one of the city's largely working-class African American neighborhoods, the site that forty years ago birthed the Black Panther Party is now home to Town Park, the city's first fully-sanctioned skate park. While the revolution still may not be televised, the park's founders predict that it will roll up on four wheels and a deck.
The fully tricked-out park, which officially opened on October 18, 2008, is the brainchild of Oakland's Keith "K-Dub" Williams, a noted visual artist, teacher and former skater from South Central Los Angeles. K-Dub conceived of the project after the three-year success of Hood Games, his inner-city answer to the ESPN X Games.
In a town with a large teenage population and mounting youth violence, the games and skatepark have acted as an oasis for local youth, many of whom hail from the ethnically diverse and under-served communities throughout "The Town's" flatland neighborhoods.
"This is my way of having events that celebrate youth and youth culture," says Williams, who sees skateboarding as a metaphor for life. "The concrete will humble you... it teaches you to fall down and get right back up."
(image: Dylan Wooters)
Money Changes Everything?
After a relative lull in the mid-'90s, skateboarding began to rapidly change, with more money and commercial interest than ever. Even the most out of touch non-skater may have noticed the culture's skyrocketing fame in recent years. Tony Hawk's video game series and ESPN's X Games are just a few of skateboarding's more noticeable mainstream outgrowths. For better or worse, all this attention has brought more people and money into skating.
Yet, for all of skateboarding's growing popularity and historic multicultural achievements, the old stereotype of the white suburban skater still exists in the minds of the general public, leaving non-white skaters feeling a little out of place.
Part of this is due to the mainstream media's push to make skating consumer friendly. Additionally, the last several years have seen a resurgence of skateparks throughout the country (see sidebar). While many of them are designed and built by skaters, the majority are little more than carelessly designed enclosures for suburban youth. The popularity of skateparks is only a small symbol of what many skaters see as outside forces -- both financial and governmental -- eager to capitalize on a trend.
The larger scope of this issue is what Michael Sieben would describe as "target marketing." Commercial entities such as Mountain Dew or popular hip-hop producer Pharell "Skateboard P" Willams use skateboarding to market a product or themselves. It's no wonder that skateboarders have become increasingly cynical when it comes to anything with even the slightest tinge of mainstream.
Uneven Skate Portrayals
The media's courtship of skateboarding has not been one-sided. Television shows like MTV's "Viva La Bam," "Rob and Big" and "Life of Ryan" (a program serious skaters consider an embarrassment), show professional skaters in their "real" lives. Regardless of the shows' inaccurate portrayals, the majority of viewers are not skaters themselves and may take these TV images at face value.
"Life of Ryan" sells its star Ryan Sheckler, an affluent white suburbanite, as the typical skater, despite his fame and inflated income. By contrast, there are few representations of low-income or non-white skaters in the mainstream media, which leaves the non-skateboarding masses with an outdated idea of what a skater is and with little insight into skateboarding's rich cultural diversity.
This lack of representation is not a new story. Sieben jokes that the idea of skateboarding as a "white" activity came from cheesy Hollywood movies with white protagonists like Gleaming the Cube and Thrashin'. Some films have attempted to give a more realistic portrayal of skateboarding as an urban and multicultural activity, most notably Larry Clark's 1995 feature Kids about young teens in New York City, and 2005's Wassup Rockers, which follows a group of young Hispanic skaters from South Central LA as they mingle with girls in Beverly Hills. Both films attempt to dissect the issue of race and skateboarding through characters who contradict mainstream culture's skateboarding archetype.
Of course, skateboarding companies themselves use style trends to cater to various niche markets. For example, African-American skate legend and former Chocolate pro, Stevie Williams (right), formed the hip-hop influenced company Dirty Ghetto Kids (DGK). DGK promotes a distinctive image reflected by its multiracial team.
Similarly, some companies market their products to skaters who are into the punk or metal look, others to an earth-conscious style. The emergence of these niche markets has been the subject of debate in skateboarding circles, leading some to simplify the divide as simply "baggy pants versus tight pants."
One of the only instances of overt racism in skateboarding that I, or anyone I interviewed, could recall was sparked when Corey Duffel, not yet a professional skater, called Williams a "trashy nigger" in an interview with Big Brother magazine.
The backlash was disastrous for Duffel who was dropped from some of his sponsors and is still living down the racist comment. This incident aside, the divisions within skateboarding are located in fasion and music rather than race.
Race on Board
"Deathwish is all gangsters," claims Dan Rogers, head of sales for both Deathwish and its sister company, Baker. A look at the Deathwish roster will prove otherwise. While rider Antwuan Dixon looks the part of a gangster, some of his teammates, such as Salt Lake City native "Lizard King," are far from gangster in the literal sense. Such is the dichotomous marketing magic of Baker and Deathwish. "In the real world they wouldn't cross paths," Rogers says of the two teammates.
Deathwish/Baker founder Andrew Reynolds marketed their brand to the grittier and less glamorous side of skateboarding, with Baker becoming notable for taking young talent from low-income Los Angeles neighborhoods and turning them into skate celebrities. "Reynolds is super into playing the race card," says Rogers of a 2006 Baker magazine ad proclaiming rider Terry Kennedy of Long Beach to be "the best black skater in the world."
Rogers says that race does not play into the selection process for new riders; it is a consequence of looking for skaters who not only have skill but unique style and personality as well.
Other companies have taken his lead with more and more teams both racially diverse and marketing to a variety of styles, destroying old misconceptions that a company is "black" or "white" because of its riders or its board graphics.
With more riders from Europe and other countries gaining notoriety in America, the idea of being able to describe skateboarding by the way a skater looks or dresses is quickly becoming impossible. "The exposure is making it change," Rogers says of traditional notions of race in skateboarding and marketing.
In the end it comes back to the old lessons I learned on the streets of San Diego with my friends, appreciating and accepting people because of a shared passion for skateboarding, even if it is the only thing you have in common.
Adrián Castañeda is a 22-year-old freelance writer and reporter who has spent the last 10 years traveling and skating around the world and only regrets he didn't start skating sooner.