Interviewing the woman behind the words CSP intern Carolina Irizarry interviews Chelsea Woody of Textured Waves for Black History Month and Women's History Month
One name kept surfacing in our research around black, female surfers during Black History Month in February: Chelsea Woody of Textured Waves has written biographical blog posts about black female surfers, the likes of Mary Mills and Andrea Kabwasa, on the Textured Waves website. We thought it would be interesting to interview the woman behind the words, and what follows is an interview between CSP alumni, social media and communications intern, board member, and instructor, Carolina Irizarry and Textured Waves co-founder, Chelsea Woody!
Carolina: So, my first question is how and when did you start surfing?
Chelsea: I haven’t been surfing for very long, I started surfing on a trip to Indonesia six years ago. My husband and I were traveling around the world for 18 months and on that trip I wanted to learn how to surf. We hunkered down in Indonesia for two months and taught ourselves how to surf and caught the surfing bug.
Carolina: So what was the objective when you started Textured Waves, how did that happen?
Chelsea: Textured Waves was really started out of a void of collective imagery of brown and black women surfers. All of the women that are in the collective were searching for community and we would all search for other black female surfers through social media and realized that we needed to take control of our narrative. So we thought we could come together with our unique perspectives and really try to discover the history and find new women of color surfers and showcase that to the world. So that’s kind of what the genesis of Textured Waves was.
Carolina: That is so cool! I was actually just about to ask you how you find women you surf with and then you said you’d find them on social media but that is really cool, I love that.
Chelse: We usually have meetups but since Covid that has been limited. We don’t only surf with women of color of course, but it’s really nice when we get that chance. We look for women on social media and scour the internet to feature women that we’ve never seen before. We also feature women from countries that don’t really get recognized as surf destinations. We also focus on the states as well, particularly on a lack of representation of African American women in surfing.
Carolina: So I wanted to talk about racism in surfing, I actually had just seen that post that basically all surfer communities were talking about, where this young black man had water splashed in his face by a white man and said some not very nice things to him. Seeing this video, I was thinking back to when I had seen racism in the water when I have been surfing; if I’m being honest I’ve only ever seen one black male out in Linda Mar in Pacifica and he’s the only black person I’ve seen recurrently surfing there. Then I actually have a cousin who started surfing in the Summer who is Mexican and he very much looks it. So it’s hard for me to think about or see him getting harassed in any way, even if it’s just a head shake directed towards him. I don’t know how that feels especially, but I have experienced being treated as less than through sexism. So to think what it must be like for you, for any black female surfer, etc. – how do you deal with racism when you’re out there, and sexism too?
Chelsea: Yeah I think the incidents you described were pretty blatant, typically it isn’t that blatant. It can also be pretty passive aggressive. I’ve had people tell me “You don’t look like a surfer,” or just making assumptions about my surfing ability. When it is not as blatant, It can be difficult to recognize. There’s this idea that surfing belongs to a certain group of people and I think that’s rooted in systemic racism and ideas of who belongs in spaces and who historically has had access to these spaces. How do I deal with that? I try to go into these spaces just for the pure freedom of being in those spaces. I don’t necessarily go out thinking I’m going to combat racism today, I don’t think anyone does that, but the motivating force is the want to be surfing, the need to be in the water. Those feelings of joy that we experience in the water, this combats feelings of being an outsider, if that makes sense. We do need allies in spaces. So I think it’s important when people see something, that they say something, especially if you’re not a person of color.
Carolina: I was just going to say that I think it’s pretty awesome that you’re explaining it in that way because for me being someone with white skin color and being Mexican-Cuban, I recognize my privilege for being white, and then being a white female surfer is a whole other thing. But I think it’s awesome you explain it in that way, because I think so often people are trying to understand what racism is and how to effectively be anti-racist. That can be hard because it seems that people are thinking so much into it that they’re kind of saying “well black people must always be thinking about having to constantly defend themselves, but it’s like in the way some view sexism or elders against youth: it’s not that you’re constantly thinking about it, but you know it’s there and that people are always going to say and do things. Though it’s great that even though you know that it’s there you continue to do your own thing and that’s awesome.
Chelsea: Yeah you know it’s always on our minds but it’s not something we want to be at the forefront. Although it feels on the forefront lately and we are now collectively calling attention to it and saying this isn’t right. I think as a country and global community people are starting to pay attention more and starting to see how systemic racism can seep into everyday life and we’re not really cognizant of it.
Carolina: Yes, yeah, that is really powerful. I’m mind blown talking to you because I don’t just get to talk to people with platforms like this with such a powerful stance. We’re in 2021 now and it’s like, now it’s not just about one color, one age, or one sex – it’s that anybody gets to be a part of anything they want to be involved in. That is so cool and I’m so glad that I get to be a part of this, inspiring and helping people see the bigger picture and that actually has to do with my next question. You’ve interviewed surfers like Mary Mills and Andrea Kabwasa who have led the way for black female surfers for so long. But now that you started Textured Waves and interviewed them, you’re a part of this new era, this new wave that gets to show young female surfers not in just the way like Mary Mills did but in person, with your website, your social media, talking about what’s really happening especially with social media. I see that you have listed articles talking about how to take care of your hair when surfing, how to take care of your skin and that’s so cool. So what I’m asking is what is that like to have started this new era for black female surfers?
Chelsea: It feels like a lot of responsibility, but I think everyday we’re reminded of how important and powerful this work is by the messages we receive from women contacting us. We get questions like” what wetsuits work for you? What did you do with your hair after surfing? What kind of sunscreen did you use? Where’s a good place to learn? I’ve never seen women like me out there, I didn’t know we did this.” It’s very empowering for all of us I think and we feel a responsibility to protect women and make sure that they are going to coaches that protect them in the water and are qualified to be out there with them and safely introduce them to this new and beautiful sport. Yeah, you know I didn’t get to interview Andrea Kabwasa, she’s a pretty private person, but the podcast I linked is a very good one. So for us knowing who came before us is really a big deal, because those women often started a little later in life. They started at a time when social media wasn’t around, so they couldn’t build their platforms as easily as we can. We really just want to shed light on what they did and how they paved the way for us and continue to pave the way for black women and women of color in the states. I also want to mention Sharon Schaffer is the first professional African-American female surfer – she’s part of that history as well, and there’s other women that really go unnoticed as a part of this history. We just want to make sure that future generations understand that ‘you are not the first one and you will not be the last. There’s a legacy of surfers before you that were just not the “ideal surfer” that the media highlighted back then and so we’re trying to change that.
Carolina: That is pretty powerful. Speaking of that, I remember having a conversation with one of my surf mentors recently about how it makes me uncomfortable as a person to see that so much of the surf industry really only revolves around white men, and it’s upsetting because we don’t fit that criteria. We don’t get to pick who we are or what we look like. So I believe that it is important that everyone take the step to recognize everyone else because those other people can do awesome things too. So it’s mind blowing to me that so many of the surfers you’ve talked about have gone unnoticed and it is really sad. I went through your website just to look at all things you all write about and what’s on there. It’s crazy how someone can love a subject so much but not know about a specific part of history like this, black female surfers, it never even registered to me that I didn’t know that part of history and I’m sure that is so many people. Before last week I didn’t know who Mary Mills was and that’s crazy and now I can’t help but talk about her. I’m telling my other surfer friends people I know who don’t surf that I’ve talked about her with them, I can’t help but be inspired by her, all of those women you spoke of.
Chelsea: That’s what we hope. It inspires folks to even research their own history and know for example who were the first Mexican-African American surfers. Nick Gabaldon was also half Mexican and he was one of the first African-Americans surfers documented. So there’s a rich history there that I think can help us discover what we can be in the future. When we know where we have come from and know that our past is not just related to trauma and that there were people out there making history and enjoying these spaces but maybe not being seen by traditional media platforms, the future is bright.
Chelsea: The women of Textured Waves are not competitive surfers – we just surf for leisure and I think that is a beautiful aspect of what we’re up to. You don’t have to be the best at it to be in this space, and I think that’s something people get caught up in a lot. This idea that you have to be excellent. We all have real jobs and regular lives but feel passionate about this. We feel free to use our voices in this space, we have the ability to use our voices to call out things that have been barriers in the past. We use our platform to highlight other people who are amazing African-American surfers like Nique Miller – she’s a longboarder and she’s competed in a few WSL events and is sponsored by Billabong and that’s a huge deal, too. Lala Stewart, Kaniela Stewart’s sister is also a legendary African American female surfer folks should know about. The whole Stewart family are legends in African American surfing and so there’s a history there and it hasn’t been fully documented yet.
Carolina: Hopefully it being 2021 and the future and all I hope that more of it is undercovered so that more people know. And so my last question is: if every surfer was to take a piece of advice from you, you know to take home after surfing with you what would it be?
Chelsea: oh after surfing with me?
Carolina: I mean I can tell you’re talking so honestly and it’s so vibrant, you are so colorful I can just imagine with you, it must be so fun.
Chelsea: I don’t know I think my friends would say I’m kind of silly out there and I just like to have fun. I haven’t been surfing long enough to do the maneuvers that folks can do that really rip. I have realized that I’m always going to have my own style and not try to emulate anyone else because there’s nobody else out there that I see that looks like me so I’m just going to try and do my own thing and have fun, always.
Unlocking My Inner Freedom MARRIANAH MEADORS from The Freedom to Live without Fear via 826 Valencia
As I leave school after six hours of abusing my writing hands, I look up in the sky to see that it’s very foggy. It doesn’t seem like a pretty day to get in the water, but I wish that within the thirty minute drive down to Pacifica the fog will clear out. When I get to the parking lot of my school, I can see the big, white van with like ten surfboards on top and a big logo right on the side saying “City Surf Project.” All the students get in and we all drive down to the beach, listening to the radio station 106.1 R&B and Rap, getting us in the mood. I have to have a right-side window seat because when we’re driving up and down the Pacifica hills, I have the best view of the ocean. Looking at the ocean gives me this inexplicable feeling. The sun is out, making the beautiful water sparkle, and when I look up a little bit, I can see the horizon that connects the sky and the ocean. It gives me the same feeling of awe that I get when I see a rainbow after the rain.
Out of all my years of living, I had never thought of surfing. I knew about it, but I watched movies of people surfing and getting eaten by sharks which put fear in me. I didn’t even want to go surfing, not only because of my fear of sharks, but because I’m scared of drowning. I also thought surfing wasn’t for me because all you ever see riding surfboards all over the media are white males. I don’t see any black girls in the water surfing, ever, and there’s history to why there are barely any people of color who do sports involving the water. In the 1950s, black people were discriminated against and prevented from swimming in public pools. Police officers in the city would prevent black people from entering pools, and it was encouraged by police officers that white people should beat black swimmers out of the water and even pour acid in the water so that the black people would be forced to exit the pools. Simone Manuel became the first African American woman to win a medal in an individual swimming event in just 2016. This is so important because she overcame that barrier and wanted to be an inspiration to others, to make everyone believe that they can do anything no matter what.
One day in my ninth-grade health class, one of my classmates asked me to come to the surf club at our school. He had his own wet suit and a surf- board. In my head, I was nervous to even think about surfing, but I have an exploring personality, so I just felt that maybe I should check it out. He decided to get our health class to go on a surfing field trip. I was so excited because most of my friends were in the class, which means we could all try something new together. I went home that day to go get my field trip permission slip signed by my mom. I was kind of nervous about what she was going to say about me surfing, since it does sound sort of dangerous and unsafe. My mom was really supportive though, and was happy that I was trying something new.
Putting a wet suit on is difficult. First you have to make sure the wet suit isn’t backwards—the knee pads have to be on the right side. Then you pull the wet suit up each leg, and it’s so difficult because the wet suit is so tight that it feels like your leg can’t even fit through. Once both of your legs are through, you pull it up to your waist, and pull the wet suit up both of your arms. There’s a zipper on the back, and there’s this string that’s built in so that you can zip it up yourself.
I pick up a surfboard and carry it with a partner down to the beach from the parking lot. The board is really heavy, which is why it takes two people
to carry it. When I step my feet on the beach, it hurts, but I can’t look down to see what I’m stepping on since the surfboard is on top of my head. I know that I’m stepping on rocks because I can feel small, sharp objects scratching the bottom of my foot. In a couple of steps, the sand becomes soft and I’m guessing this is where the tide ends that makes the sand clear out smoothly. We lay the surfboard flat on the sand and get in a circle to stretch, go over safety tips, and practice popping up on the surfboard while we’re on land. To pop up, I lay on the board looking back at my feet, and scoot back to make sure they’re at the end. I cuff both of my hands and pretend like I’m paddling in the water, digging in the sand. When the wave is coming, I lift up a small bit, arching my back so that the board doesn’t tip nose-first into the water, and I place both hands flat on the surfboard to push my body up, lifting my right leg forward so that I have a good stance. I make sure to stay low and look forward, not down, to keep my balance.
After we practice, I’m assigned to a surf instructor and we start walking towards the water. I already know that the water is going to be cold, but once my feet touch the water, I become shocked, but at least the wet suit is making the rest of my body warm. My instructor helps me carry the board into the water and once the water is at my waist, I hop on top and start paddling. As I’m paddling, I can see a wave coming at me and, oh boy, I’m terrified. He tells me to start paddling harder because we’re going to go over. He pushes the back of the board down and I hold on tight to the sides of the board so that I don’t get smacked off by the wave. I’m in the air for like two long seconds. I feel like I’m flying and I snap back to reality once my board hits the water. We see the next wave coming and even though I’m still a little terrified, I give him a thumbs up. My instructor turns my board around and tells me to start paddling. As I’m paddling, I feel like I’m literally going nowhere. I can feel the wave come under me and my instructor gives me an extra boost. I push my body up with my hands and stand up with my feet flat on the board. I wobble a bit, but I bend my knees to keep a balance. I can’t believe it. I’m actually standing up on the board on my first try. Everything is going in slow motion. I look down at the water and I can just see my board gliding like I’m walking on water. I look up with a big smile and I can hear everyone cheer me on. I feel like I’m in my own world and when I fall off the board, I get back up with laughter.
When I came out of that water, something sparked in me. I unlocked some- thing in me that I never thought I had. All my life I felt limited to the things I can do because of my race and gender. I always felt nervous and scared to be places where I didn’t see anyone like me. Surfing has made me figure out that it doesn’t matter what surrounding you’re in, at least you’re doing some- thing that makes you happy, and that’s all that matters. I feel like surfing has unlocked my inner freedom because since then, I’ve done things that I never thought I could do. I’ve joined a science internship at University of California, San Francisco, I’ve participated in an all-girls firefighting camp, and I even went to Switzerland for a Model United Nations debate conference.
Surfing has made me believe that I can do anything, without a doubt. I hope to inspire and be a role model to those who believe that they can’t do anything because of who they are. I want to introduce career pathways for the youth who didn’t grow up seeing people like them pursue careers. I’m looking forward to going to college and pursuing my dream career as an as- tronaut not only for myself, but also for the ones who are interested in space and science, but can’t imagine how to get there.
–Marrianah Meadors is a San Francisco native who wants to be an astronaut or an astronomer. She loves to travel the world.
from 826 Valencia