When you consider sports where Black men and women thrive, it’s likely that surfing doesn’t even cross your mind. Because of the long-standing historical biases that exist in this country, the sport never quite infiltrated mainstream Black culture. Between segregation, racial discrimination, and a lack of access to quality pools, learning to swim simply wasn’t a priority for many Black people, so immersing yourself in an industry like surfing wasn’t viable and certainly not celebrated. Until now.
Rhonda Harper, affectionately known as Coach Rho, is working diligently to change that narrative and the trajectory of Black surfers everywhere. She’s the powerhouse surfer behind Black Girls Surf, a Los Angeles-based organization with camps scattered across the world, that advocates for Black female surfers and trains them to go pro.
As a self-proclaimed “water baby,” she’s challenging the perspective that surfing is solely a white sport by grabbing the spotlight and focusing it directly on all the other Black aquaphiles out there too. By fostering the talent of young Black girls, Harper is both increasing representation and building a sense of community for a whole population of surfers who would otherwise be overlooked.
"The goal is to get a whole bunch of Black women in professional surfing. Everybody else is represented but Black women."
“Imagine going to the NFL and there’s not one Black person,” she says. “[In surfing] they can’t get sponsorship because the imagery is stuck on blond hair and blue eyes. It just doesn’t reflect Black people. The goal is to get a whole bunch of Black women in professional surfing. Everybody else is represented but Black women.”
And not only does the industry not reflect Black women, it leaves much to be desired to those who dare to show up—including those as professional, impassioned, and skilled as Harper. Once, she was out on the beach in Santa Cruz and someone vandalized her car with a racial slur. Some years later, she was actively on her board in Del Mar and another surfer confronted her directly.
“I’m in the water and the person comes straight up to me while I’m paddling,” she remembers. “And he’s just like, You coon, get out the water. Go to the shore. He’s yelling all kinds of stuff. So I did. And that kept me from surfing for a few years because I was like seriously, we’re not supposed to be here.”
While Harper admits that the unnerving incidents gave her pause, she’s no stranger to racial tension in America. With parents working in criminal justice and civil rights serving as an example, she learned to navigate unjust waters and developed a deep-seated sense of pride at an early age.
In fact, it’s because of the obstacles she faced as an adolescent in Kansas City in the ’70s, and because of the racism she endured on the beaches in Northern California, that she’s so adamant about creating a progressive space where Black female surfers can train, excel, and compete at the highest level. She’s resolute in making sure the industry reflects a more inclusive snapshot of its players, including her girls.
“I know the passion we have for the water,” Harper explains. “That’s Black Girls Surf. We teach you to be what you want to be.”
"I know the passion we have for the water. That’s Black Girls Surf. We teach you to be what you want to be."
Maybe it’s the sense of purpose that emanates so unapologetically from Harper that intimidates lesser people. After all, she is completely self-taught by way of the North Shore of O’ahu, one of the most celebrated coasts for surfers all across the globe. Even as a young adult and novice surfer, she knew that as a Black woman, she was on the brink of something extraordinary. Her time on the island would plant the seeds for Black Girls Surf to eventually blossom, simply because she saw that it was possible.
“People were brown in Hawaii, and they looked like me,” she recalls. “We were doing the same thing. I had a sense of ownership that this ocean was mine because I was doing this thing that was so hard and I was accomplishing my dream of being a surfer. I had conquered my fears.”
That perseverance and awareness of the importance of visibility has served as a cornerstone for Black Girls Surf and the community Harper is building. It’s simple: with engagement and opportunity, underserved young surfers can soar.
Take Senegalese surfer Khadjou Sambe. She’s her country’s first female surfer and proof that Black Girls Surf’s mission to cultivate community works. Harper discovered Sambe while hosting a search for Black surfers to rep a clothing line she was developing. Instantly inspired, she took Sambe under her wing and brought her to California. Now Sambe’s registered with the WSL and hopes to compete in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
Sambe is a model success story for Harper.
“As soon as she lands in California, I get her trained,” Harper says with a grin. “We’re going to the same breaks. I take this dark chocolate, beautiful Black female and stick her in the water in Santa Cruz, and she surfs better than the men. What happens is, now there’s a visual of a Black woman surfing, and the press just went crazy.”
It’s a sort of poetic justice to stunt on the very beach where Harper was shunned so many years prior. But that’s just an added benefit of Black Girls Surf and working with a coach who maintains a macro-level perspective. She’s not only training Black girls and helping them with technique and mechanics, but also stresses the importance of mental health. For surfers like Sambe who’ve only known a patriarchal society, she helps them celebrate their independence and embrace personal goals.
“Right now we’re doing surf therapy,” Harper says. “We’re concentrating on healing. It’s a competition camp, but we’re also helping them get their mindset together. It takes a lot of strength to go through what she’s [Sambe] gone through. It’s not pretty being a Senegalese woman trying to live your dreams in a male-dominated sport, but I honor her strength. And now these little girls want to be like Khadjou.”
"I had a sense of ownership that this ocean was mine because I was doing this thing that was so hard and I was accomplishing my dream of being a surfer. I had conquered my fears."
The point is, positive representation speaks volumes. And at Black Girls Surf, nurturing a forward-thinking community that values being on the right side of history matters. Harper recently wrapped a series of “paddle outs” that turned into a worldwide blanket of exposure for Black surfers. She created it to pay respect to the Black lives lost to police brutality and to take a stand on the civil unrest happening in the country.
“My white counterparts would post about whales being killed and the ocean being dirty, but I’m here talking about somebody who just got shot by the police,” Harper exclaims. “It’s about us and making a statement. I put it up on my IG and thought maybe a hundred people would come out. I woke up to 200 emails from people all over the world wanting to be a part of this day of mourning.”
Harper says the paddle outs not only increased awareness around this key issue, but it also helped alleviate the financial strain some Black surfers face in coming from communities that lack the resources needed to become a serious wave rider.
"Right now we’re doing surf therapy. We’re concentrating on healing. It’s a competition camp, but we’re also helping them get their mindset together."
“It opened up the gates for people getting sponsored, for more visibility and for representation,” Harper says. “I was working with the American Surfing League to bridge that gap. Surfing is one of the most expensive sports. It’s all about travel and the equipment. After the paddle out, a company donated 13 brand new boards to Black Girls Surf, so now all my kids on the Elite team have new boards.”
Still, despite all the progress Black Girls Surf has made so far, from the seemingly overnight success of Sambe, to collabs with major clothing brands like Hurley, to helping athletes get sponsorship deals, Harper knows the trek is far from over. She wants to see some longevity before she allows herself to get comfortable.
“We have fads,” she says. “If we make it through the surf season and regulate into the next surf seasons, then we’ll know we weren’t a trend. We’ll see next year and on the Olympics of who’s actually going. Right now, I’m skeptical. I’m going to sit back and watch and wait, and if it doesn’t happen, we’re going to protest this thing again. My work’s just starting.”
"Shatter those stereotypes. We are everything we choose to be. We have a Black vice president. We surf, we bowl, we golf. Those are the tools I teach the girls. You can be anything you want."
Harper’s family calls her “Rocky” because of her commitment to the fight. She jokes that she was probably supposed to work in social justice instead of being a surfer. The funny thing is that it’s the fusion of both of her passions—activism and surfing intertwined—that keeps her connected to her nickname and deeply rooted in the cause. It’s her North Star that guides her as she paves the way for generations of Black female surfers to come.
“Shatter those stereotypes,” Harper says. “We are everything we choose to be. We have a Black vice president. We surf, we bowl, we golf. Those are the tools I teach the girls. You can be anything you want.”