Just after the new year, California state assemblymen Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) and Ian Calderon (D-Whittier) introduced a novel idea to make surfing California’s official state sport. While plenty of Californians might be psyched on legitimizing our love of surfing with this seemingly innocent public gesture, I am not. And here’s why.
The text of the bill (AB 1782) argues four main points. The first is that the state is awash with historic surf spots from Maverick’s to Trestles, Malibu to Steamer Lane. Second, numerous surf contests take place up and down the coast every year. Third, surf history is well-preserved with a handful of surf museums in the state. And last, surfing is a major driver of economic activity – generating $1.15 trillion per year.
All but the second point are difficult to argue – the U.S. Open, while large, remains a Qualifying Series Contest for the men, and the only CT event in California at a natural surf spot (not a wave pool) was removed from the 2018 CT schedule. Still, that’s not the main argument here.
While surfing is wildly popular in the Golden State and has been for generations, the sport’s roots are Hawaiian, period. In 1998 the Hawaiian state legislature designated surfing as the official state sport. And while state sport designations range from the culturally insignificant sport of cycling in Delaware to jousting in Maryland, California’s attempt to co-own surfing with Hawaii is inappropriate given the sport’s role in the fabric of ancient Hawaii’s cultural and ethnic roots. It’s akin to California designating the state hand signal the shaka or the state tree the palm tree (which are mostly non-indigenous). The whole thing just rings hollow.
To emphasize the point, let’s take a look at the bill’s preamble: “Existing law establishes the state flag and the state’s emblems, including, among other things, the golden poppy as the official state flower and the California redwood as the official state tree.” State symbols like the golden poppy and redwood are native to the state and lumping the sport of surfing into that pool is irresponsible in that it suggests surfing has roots in California. It does not.
What’s closer to the truth is the common refrain: “Modern surfing was popularized in Hawaii, but California pioneered the industry.” Indeed George Freeth, regarded as the one who brought surfing to the mainland, was hired to perform surfing demonstrations as a marketing tool to entice the sale of coastal properties. Decades later, Gidget, the Beach Boys, and the like ushered in a wave of popular interest in the sport, and saw carfuls of gremmies invade Malibu. Malibu has never been the same. Point being, California has a veritable stake to the claim of modern surf culture and the surf industry. It cannot, however, claim the sport’s significance vis-à-vis the social and ethnic fabric of its native population’s cultural heritage in the way Hawaii can. Conflating those two ideas willfully ignores the distinction between the legitimate claim that Hawaii has to the birth of surfing and California’s undeniably rich (but far more exploitative relationship) with surfing. It ultimately undermines Hawaii’s rich history of He’e nalu (surfing).
So please, California. Just let this one go.