Cultural Intersection

While the New York Surf Film Fest has a few marquis films, an awful lot of the shorts and features come from the periphery of surfing culture. And these often wind up being the most interesting.

WhiteWash, by Ted Woods, promises to be one of the most interesting of these new films, a historical focus of race and the water, or more specifically, surfers of African American decent.

Black culture and surfing culture are two seemingly different circles. Woods examines where they intersect and the history of the two. And as he explained, the two aren't as different as you might think.

By now we've read the official film tag line, but tell us in less formal words what you are trying to do with this film.

I think in a way, I wanted to explore how we construct the world around us. I wanted to look at race and racism in a different way and deconstruct some of the myths around it.

What is your own surfing background?

I've always loved the ocean. I grew up outside of Chicago but every summer we would spend a few weeks on the East Coast at the beach. I learned to body surf when I was really young and boogie boarded, throughout but I didn't learn to surf until I moved to LA about five years ago.

One of the first friends I made when I moved out here from New York was a black surfer named Airrion Copeland, who is the Producer of WhiteWash. I bought my first board off of him and he gave me my first lesson. WhiteWash was born out of conversations that took place during my first sessions.

I read you have a background in Anthropology?

Yes, I got my degree in Peace and Justice Studies at Fordham University in New York but a lot of my work was in Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology.

As far back as I can remember, I was always fascinated by other cultures. I got that from my Mom and Dad, they were always taking us to museums and introducing us to different ways to look at the world. That instilled a real love of learning in my brothers and I.

This was an anthropology project in some ways. It seems this film is really a study of culture — and the intersections of two seemingly different cultures — distinct vocabularies, traditions, dress, and shared experiences, no?

No doubt! Culture is defined as 'learned traits or behaviors,' the things we eat, the concept that red means stop, that we drive in the right lane, our language, and the sports we play are all part of culture, what we have been taught.

Two seemingly different cultures are, at their essence, more alike then they are different. There is a great quote from Rick Blocker, a black surf historian, he once told me, "We go down to the beach and surf but we also play the dozens and we talk about your mama and sing old Motown songs. We put our spin on it."

That's really the root of it, race is a social construction. Surfing is surfing is surfing. The idea of a "black sport" or a "white sport" is really a matter of culture, the things we learn and the way we learn them. There is no race, there is only culture but culture has a tenacious grip on all of us…in ways most of us never realize.

Did you uncover any real racism on either side that you didn't expect?

Woods: I think what surprised me is how sophisticate racism is today. It's not guys in hoods or physical attacks or intimidation, not to say that does not exist today, but it is more complex and intricate. Today, racism is psychological, about what you can and cannot be, it is really about control but in a very subtle way.

My dad spent a year at the University of Florida in the 1960's and we have this argument about whether things have changed since then or not. He witnessed first-hand segregation where a sign dictated where you would sit on a bus or whether a restaurant would serve you or not, or which beach you had access to. And so, yes, things have changed.

We have a black president. That was inconceivable in the 1960's but racism prevails in other ways today. It's playing out in Washington (as Jimmy Carter pointed out last week.) It's legacy is playing out in the pools and beaches right now. Black children are three times more likely to drown that white children (according to a study commissioned by USA Swimming). I think today's racism respond with something like "well, blacks have denser bones and that is why."

That idea may very well have no intention to be a racist statement but in spite of common held beliefs that were based on "biological evidence" that have been widely disproven. Much of the so called "evidence" for why blacks don't swim or surf was put forth in an article titled "The Negro and Learning to Swim: The Buoyancy Problem Related to Reported Biological Differences" written by R. L. Allen and David L. Nickel in 1969. So today, what we find is a legacy of racism. We like to think that we're not racist but our beliefs are rooted in racist ideologies.

So there's been mostly support for the project?
Yeah, I felt really blessed at how gracious people were with their time. From the professors to the surfers, everyone was just really gracious, willing to open up and talk about their experiences and thoughts.

Thanks Ted. Looking forward to the screening.

WhiteWash will show at the New York Surf Film Festival on Saturday at 7:50 p.m.