In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protest, the racial biases that still plague countless industries have come to light, and skateboarding is no exception. Na-Kel Smith took to Instagram with fellow skaters Kevin White and Mikey Alfred to open up about his personal experiences of racism within the industry. Now, brands are stepping up with Palace pledging $1 million to charities including Black Lives Matter and the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, and Supreme pledging $500,000 between a number of charities.
Given skateboarding’s countercultural roots, brotherly spirit, and general hatred towards cops, it may come as a surprise that racism is still a serious issue. But, the sport has yet to shake the systemic biases that stem from its origins in '60s surfer culture in California, when it was an activity practiced almost exclusively by white male Californians. It was only in the early '90s, when vert skating declined due to lack of investment in parks and competitions, that people took to the streets and a new wave of skating surfaced. Street skating was accessible to anyone, and with it came an upward curve in the number of black participants, diluting the skater archetype of the white male antihero.
Although the participant demographic has changed significantly, the professional industry itself remains largely white. That’s not to say there hasn’t been positive change. The last 10 years have seen a significant increase in the number of brands and media owned by and created for skaters of all backgrounds, genders, and race, and even the launch of Pushing Boarders, an annual conference focused on addressing the social and structural issues in skateboarding. In spite of this democratization, those pulling the (purse) strings remain mostly white and the comradely nature of skating serves, too often, as a veneer for harmful biases and behavior beneath.
Following the protests and spurred on by pro skater Na-Kel Smith’s honest recount, lifetime skater Patrick Kigongo was inspired to put together the Black List, a crowd-sourced database of black-owned skate organizations, brands, and media. Kigongo grew up in suburban New York, moving to Washington D.C. to study international affairs, and went on to work in the NGO sector. All the while, he maintained an active part in the independent music and skate scenes, playing in bands, shooting videos, and working as a writer for a number of online publications, including the early arts and fashion platform Brightest Young Things. He’s now based in LA, where he works as a digital product manager and continues to write on race, foreign policy, pop culture, and skateboarding. We caught up with Kigongo to talk about the list and the state of racism in the industry today.
Why did you create the Black List?
After that first weekend of protests here in LA, I really started to ask myself, "What more can I do?" Then Na-Kel Smith jumped on Instagram Live giving what was a foundational speech with Mikey from Illegal Civ and Kevin White. What that conversation really did was touch upon something that every black skater — whether you are just a fan like me or a sponsored skater — has experienced. We’ve all experienced microaggressions. We've all experienced being targeted by the police. He is coming to this understanding as a young man, that a lot of this is not okay. Being in a van with somebody who ironically or un-ironically listens to Screwdriver, riding for companies that may or may not sponsor people who have white nationalist ties. He opened the door for a pretty serious conversation that has been on the sidelines in skating but has never been thrust into the spotlight. And that really got me thinking.
The skateboarding industry is very small. There's really only a handful of factories that make decks or wheels, and there are only a few foundries that make trucks. None of those major manufacturing plants are black-owned. But there are a handful of black-owned companies. All these folks on social media were sharing black-owned bookstores, restaurants, and clothing companies, so I figured, why not do it for skating and see how many black-owned companies I could find via crowd-sourcing? And, more importantly, reflect this back out to the world to show these companies that not only are they not producing their goods in a vacuum, but also that this could actually be a potential foundation for consolidating some sort of political power.
How has the response been?
Overwhelming. It's been very positive, people have been overwhelmingly kind. I even got to speak with a couple of legends who’ve reached out to say thank you. And more importantly, it's been very humbling. It really shows how far skating has come.
Talking about Na-Kel’s speech, what do you think prevented him and other skaters who may have had similar experiences raising them earlier?
I think it's two things. Number one, not having the vocabulary to describe what's happening to you, and number two, the fear of consequences and repercussions within the industry. A lot of young skaters may only have a high school diploma and they've never held down any other type of job, so this is really the only thing they've got going for them. There is a fear that you will be blackballed, or that folks will look at you and say, "Oh, come on, man. He was just kidding. I've got lots of black friends. I thought we were bros." There's that real fear, that people won't take you seriously.
Then there are black skaters who feel as though, "I'm just trying to do me, and work my way through this." They just don't know how many other black folks are working in the industry. They don't know that they actually have power, and a voice, and also a huge audience. But now you're starting to see the gears turning in a lot of these young people's heads.
You’ve been skating for many years — how have you seen the skater demographic change?
I started skating the summer of 1994/95. This was a period where you had this twin explosion in skating and streetwear culture. You had this sudden wave of young black skaters in the videos and turning pro. For young people like me who grew up skating in crews where I was the only black kid, it was amazing watching videos like World [Industries], Blind, and 101’s 20 shot sequences, or any of the first Girl and Chocolate videos, and seeing a lot of black and brown faces. That was incredibly empowering.
But there were still only a couple of black-owned companies. And even if they were black-owned, the distributors who are getting those boards and clothes into shops all over the world were still white, and the shops were still mostly white-owned. It wasn't until the early aughts where people stopped saying skateboarding was a white boy thing. You can really thank, first of all, Tony Hawk, pro-skater, for putting guys like Kareem Campbell on it, and also people with crossover appeal, like Stevie Williams. If you fast forward to 2011 with the rise of Odd Future, all of a sudden you saw a whole new generation of young, black kids, who were completely unbound by hip-hop or traditional skateboard culture.
Now, we're really seeing that skating has smashed through a lot of those racial barriers, at least in terms of sponsorship and in terms of visibility. Not only are there black skaters all over the country, but we’re also all over the world. In Kampala, Uganda, a bunch of kids built a DIY park. When I was a kid when we would go to visit relatives, I couldn't bring my skateboard. Where was I going to go? The streets were in awful condition, the war had only ended in 1986. It's still a very poor country, but our kids, because of smartphones and the internet, have been exposed to skating. And this is not just in Uganda, it's in Ethiopia, it's in Eritrea, it's in Ghana, it's in South Africa, Morocco, Algeria. It's all over the world. That's a very, very humbling thing, to see how far skating has come.
What do you think are the main barriers preventing more people of color working in the skate industry?
Firstly, there’s no formal network of transition out of being a sponsored skater, so we don't have a system for people to ease out of being a pro skater, into being a designer, becoming a sales rep, becoming a distributor. The best you can hope for is maybe getting a job in the warehouse.
Secondly, I think for some people it just comes down to racism. I don't think that it’s nearly as frequent [in skating] as in other walks of American life, but there are racists everywhere, so I'm going to assume that there are some people in distro companies and work for certain board or shoe companies who are racist and say, "They don't really fit our image."
Thirdly, I think it's difficult to create a sense of real, actionable solidarity within skating. In the 1990s, there was some discussion about creating some sort of a skaters union, off the model of the NBA player's union, something to get people health insurance, to negotiate fair wages, and maybe even normalize the funding for contests. And it didn't go over so well. There was an incredible amount of opposition, because again, skating has deep roots in libertarian, right-wing California. And it's very, very difficult to shake that.
And if it stays that way, the white-dominated industry will see no change.
Mmm-hmm. I’m 100 percent sure it is very similar in streetwear. One of the real difficulties in effecting any sort of change in skateboarding is that there's no oversight and there's no accountability within the industry. They're so used to being able to operate in a way in which there's not much public scrutiny. For this debate all of a sudden to not only be public but be keyed into what's happening on the streets right now is a mindfuck. Especially compared to where skating was in the early to mid-’90s, when it was thoroughly a real subculture. But skateboarding is about to go into the Olympics. These guys are no longer going to be able to operate in a vacuum somewhere.
The conversation around skateboarding becoming more mainstream often focuses on the negatives, but the positives are that it is becoming more inclusive and diverse.
Right. All you have to do is go to any skate park in LA. What a radical shift to see lots of brown and black kids, lots of women, even non-binary people. Skating has shed a lot of its mean guy culture, and it will always retain a certain sense of camaraderie. Now, you roll up at a skate spot and it’s like, "Hey, what's up? Good morning. Where you from, man?" You're just saying, "Hey, I'm a human being. That's a human being." It's beautiful. What’s really powerful is that in terms of getting into skating, anybody can do it. That's why a lot of the non-profits like Skateistan or SkatePal in Palestine are becoming more successful, because there are no rules. Skating is really positive for kids because it normalizes failure. How many people who are pushing 40 are regularly trying to go out there and fail? It really humbles you.
I think it's worth accepting what's happening right now in terms of discussion about skating and race, and also skating and gender, as part of growing pains. We are being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. And that's a really, really good thing. You don't want skating to become viewed as this macho artifact, because then it just becomes embarrassing.
What would you like the knock-on effects from the conversations happening now to be, and more specifically, The Black List?
In the immediate short-term, I want some of these brothers and sisters to get paid. Start supporting these companies. Buy a shirt, buy a board, buy some hardware, buy something. If you're a store owner, get them into your shop. The list continues to grow, which is a very, very beautiful thing.
In terms of what I hope happens next, I really hope that we can have a skate culture where people will not immediately shirk away from having small P political discussions, and that skaters in the skate industry will embrace one of the most important tenants of punk rock and hardcore, which is that the personal is political. How and where you spend your dollars is an inherently political act, and one of the most empowering and important decisions that you make every single day. And so that, instead of people saying "Oh, I'm not really political." That they will understand off the rip that they as a consumer, they as a skater, have a certain amount of power.
I also want there to be more shine for skaters of color. Black History Month this year came and went, and although there's actually a rack of skate podcasts now, where was the Black History episode? Where were the episodes with Lavar McBride or Kareem Campbell? I want that celebration. I want that feeling like this is something that's super important. And I'm not just talking about an Instagram post. You want the skate media to actually be able to grapple with these kinds of questions.
What else do you think will facilitate these changes?
I think more things like Pushing Boarders. We need more spaces for these conversations to happen in a formalized space within the industry. That’s important. Going forward, you want to make it so that skating can enjoy the same bloom that basketball continues to have as it grows bigger around the world. Something where everybody can get into it, everybody loves it, and everybody is proud of it. Being an NBA fan, you compare players now to the late '90s, early aughts, where you still have fights, you still had the commissioner beefing with players about, like, "I don't want you guys to dress like thugs." To see now, most ballers are serious, they're investors, they're part of the community, they're speaking out on issues such as Black Lives Matter. You're really proud.
Because the bad boy stuff was fun, but those stories always ended up the same with, "I spent all my money," or "I burned so many bridges that I have no friends left in the game." And now, you watch your team, you watch your favorite players, you're really proud of them. I want skaters to be really, really proud of its subculture. I still want it to be rebellious — skating will always be inherently rebellious because street skating is all about challenging norms between your individual self and private property/public property. But I really want it to be something that's inclusive, that people can look at and be like, "Why can't you all be like them skateboarders, man?," and that doesn’t have a toxic culture. I don't use that term lightly, but in some ways, back in the day, it was toxic. You were constantly being policed by other people and it was cliquish and judgmental. It's a lot more open now and I want it to continue to build on that openness, and remind people that this is a subculture, yes, but it is something that is open, and it is inclusive, and everybody has a home here. Except for racists, and hateful people in general.