Wheels whir and clatter as Jerahn Thomas and his skateboarding friends land tricks on the streets of downtown Houston, Texas, each success bringing broad smiles to their faces.
Passersby at nearby taco stands seem oblivious to their skill — but that does not bother 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, said last month.
Thomas is excited because Thrasher, the iconic skateboarding magazine, has confronted a historic image of whiteness in his sport by placing 32 black skaters on the front and back covers of the issue in September last year.
The cover has no headline. The portraits speak for themselves and the message is clear: The skating community must highlight its members of color.
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,” said Thomas, who is black.
His friend and fellow skateboarder, Jordan Miles, agrees.
“People from my community often told me I should play basketball,” Miles said, referring to a sport more stereotypically associated with black athletes.
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 overseas — thanks to US soldiers stationed in Germany —but it has long been associated with an image of affluent, suburban and rebellious white teenagers and punk culture.
Yet skaters of color “were always there,” said Neftalie Williams, a skateboarding expert at the University of Southern California.
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, for example, American football, that image can be more difficult to push back against, Williams said.
It is not just the media, he added, 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 the global phenomenon that it is,” he said. “It was really disheartening.”
At a Houston skate park, the talented Dallis Thompson, 33, recalled his first experiences of sliding down ramps in Long Beach, California, surrounded by “people from everywhere: Hispanic people, Asian, Indian.”
Thompson, who is black, said that he does not personally see a revolutionary quality in Thrasher’s recent front page.
“So many people are underestimated in our sport,” he said. “Why choose 32 of them because of the color of their skin?”
However, Williams, who has also coauthored a study on the influence of ethnicity, gender and cultural background on skaters, said that those facets of their identities must be taken into consideration.
It is important to acknowledge “some 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.
“Coming from where I came from, it’s so easy to get in trouble,” Thomas said. “Skateboarding kept me out of that... It kept me out of dark places, for sure.”
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