How Skateboarding Can Help Fight Racism

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In early March, I talked with a pair of researchers at the University of Southern California who had recently published a study — funded by the Tony Hawk Foundation — showing how skateboarding helps build resilience among young skaters, and helps them form communities across backgrounds.

“The stereotype is white stoner guys,” Dr. Zoë Corwin, one of the researchers, told me at the time. “The reality in 2020 is the skateboarding community is really, really diverse, and not only are they diverse, for many skaters, that’s a point of pride.”

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As protests against police brutality continued and reckonings over deeply rooted racism picked up steam, Neftalie Williams, the co-author of the study, an expert in skate diplomacy and a longtime skater himself, emailed me to catch up.

The findings in the study, as well as Mr. Williams’s ongoing work around race and skateboarding culture, had taken on new urgency.

“There’s this broader narrative in sports that sport is the great equalizer,” Mr. Williams told me last week. “But what’s in our report is that the rhetoric of a colorblind approach is not the world people live in — it’s not the world skaters of color live in.”

Skateboarding’s ethos is defined, in some ways, by resistance to authority and by bodily autonomy.

So skateboarding is how many young skaters first come in contact with the police or security guards. It may lead to their first questions about who gets to use public space and why.

In the earlier days of the pandemic-driven lockdowns, for instance, it felt pointed when skate parks were filled with sand to prevent skaters from congregating.

“People want to stop you,” Mr. Williams said. “They want to get in your way.”

For young skaters who are black or Latino, looking for places to skate may be their first time recognizing that those encounters will go differently for them than for their white friends.

Mr. Williams told me that in his research, he’s interviewed the parents of professional skaters of color, who recalled having to give their sons or daughters the talk.

“They might want to get a little flippant, because they’re kids,” he said. But the parents had to tell their children: “You cannot question authority, because you will not come home to me.”

[Find all the latest coverage of race and policing here.]

That was something Mr. Williams, who is black, recalled experiencing when he was growing up in Massachusetts. He remembered once walking through a parking lot with his board and being accosted by a police officer who apparently believed he was trying to steal a car.

“I remember thinking, ‘I don’t even have my license, how could I steal a car?’” Mr. Williams said. It was something his white friends didn’t experience.

Those encounters also leave impressions on young white skaters, who may not otherwise see racism at work, he said.

While the study found that skateboarding communities still sometimes leave girls and young women who skate feeling pushed aside, Mr. Williams said that the pace of evolution in a sport that’s only about 60 years old has been rapid, in large part because groups form more organically than they do in other sports.

“Young skaters are really excited to demonstrate to each other and en masse that they’re important and they want a better world,” he said.

In recent days, skaters have organized protests, like one in San Francisco, “Bomb Hills 4 Black Lives,” which Curbed San Francisco reported aimed to draw attention to racism at the hands of the authorities, but also within the skateboarding community.

Skaters carried signs that said, “Listen to black skaters,” and “Abolish the police,” as they rocketed down the city’s famous hills.

Mr. Williams said those are the kinds of impulses that schools, universities and businesses need to pay attention to, invest in, and foster, particularly as skateboarding gains more mainstream attention. (It was set to make its Olympic debut this year.)

He said he’s been glad to see skate companies issue statements or announce big donations to racial justice groups.

But what he’d rather see, he said, is more work in individual neighborhoods — helping young skaters get gear, starting mentorship programs, or lobbying cities to build skate parks.

“You don’t have to leave it to someone else,” Mr. Williams said.

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Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, went to school at U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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