Color the Water surfers enjoy a group lesson in Santa Monica.
© Rahzizi Ishakarah
Social Innovation

Ending the Whitewash

How Black Lives Matter inspired the surf collective Color the Water to reclaim the ocean for people of color.
By Lou Boyd
Published on
Like so many, David Malana was moved by the death of George Floyd, the Minnesota man killed at the hands of white police officers in May last year. Malana is no stranger to social struggle himself—the 39-year- old Filipino American spent four years serving in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan, and he teaches media literacy to youth around the globe. He’s also a lifelong surfer. As Black Lives Matter demonstrations began springing up worldwide that May, the Los Angeles resident attended a peaceful “paddle-out” protest at Santa Monica Pier. It was there that he noticed how overwhelmingly white the other surfers were.
“I realized that the ocean—one of my most prized sanctuaries—is almost entirely a white space,” says Malana.
“I also saw a discrepancy in surf skill, ocean knowledge and comfort between the Black and brown people and the locals who were there.”
Brothers Kieran (left) and Julian with CTW co-founder David Malana.
Brothers Kieran (left) and Julian with CTW co-founder David Malana.
On his return from the protest, Malana hatched an idea: He’d use his skills as a surfer and a teacher to create a space where BIPOC (Black Indigenous and People of Color) surfers could perfect their craft and take their rightful place on the waves.
‘Institutionalized anti-racism’ is a phrase I get really excited about.
David Malana, Color the Water co-founder
Despite its global reach—more than 50 nations were represented at the last World Surfing Games, staged in 2019—surfing has a genuine diversity problem. Only in 2018 did South African Mikey February become the first non-white African surfer ever to compete on the Championship Tour. It’s this predominantly white narrative in the sport that Malana is keen to tackle.
“We want an inclusive community that rides waves differently, that goes about this stuff in a way that’s more celebratory like it was in the beginning,” says Malana. “When it was an ancient Polynesian, Melanesian practice, it was communal, spiritual, a celebration. It was reverent. We want to hearken back to that—a surf culture we identify with more.”
Color the Water is primarily a surf community and, alongside his co-founder, Lizelle Jackson, Malana has already signed up more than 400 people in California for free lessons, meet-ups, and volunteering. The community is about more than surfing, however—it’s a response to a moment, to the events of 2020, as well as centuries of systemic racism. It’s defiant, joyful anti-racism through surfing.
Color the Water co-founder, Lizelle Jackson, and member, Indra, a firefighter from Alaska, share a laugh.
Women of color make up the majority of Color the Water’s community.
“‘Institutionalized anti-racism’ is a phrase I get really excited about,” says Malana. “I remember studying social justice in college: all these examples of institutionalized racism and how it’s impossible to separate from systems. To now have an opportunity to create a legitimate institution that’s the antithesis of that thinking means a lot to me.”
Before the pandemic put everything on hold, Color the Water had given more than $60,000 worth of free lessons, and it’s working to build an infrastructure offering much more. “I’ve put my life savings and I don’t know how many hours a week into this, but it doesn’t feel like work,” says Malana. “I have this chance to be the person I wish [had been there] for me.”
Instagram: @color_the_water