Dr Neftalie Williams Interview

Neftalie Williams, Haarlem, Netherlands, August 2020. Ph. Marcel Veldman

In 2018 at the Pushing Boarders conference in London Karl Watson and Neftalie Williams sat on stage and discussed issues of race within skateboarding. In the talk Karl had said that he encouraged young people of colour that he’d meet to not have a ‘chip on their shoulder’, to not stay stuck in that victim mentality instilled by slavery, and to approach difficult situations with other people with chips on their shoulders (police, etc.) with a fresh way of thinking. At the end of the talk, an audience member (a British white male) stood up and addressed Karl by saying he was ‘shocked’ and it was ‘quite dangerous’ to shift the emphasis on people of colour to forget what has happened in the history of cultural colonialism, slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.’ He then opened his laptop and proceeded to read statistics about the rates of poverty being proportionally higher for those of colour to that of whites in the UK in 2007. Karl then replied: ‘You don’t have to forget what has happened in the past, but move forward and live in the present and be a better person without having that chip on your shoulder.’ But then what Neftalie said just after really stuck with me… I’ll paraphrase it: ‘you can give me numbers and give me stats, but you can’t tell me about that experience, because you haven’t lived it. Context matters. We should be navigating these spaces and figuring out what works best for us. He’s offering his feelings about what worked for him, it doesn’t mean it’s perfect, but people of colour always have the burden of not only navigating this experience themselves but also constantly being told how they should navigate it by others.’ 

Neftalie is a skateboarder but also an academic. He’s a sociologist professor at USC, the TM for Kareem Campbell’s City Stars, he’s done diplomacy work for Cuba Skate and Skateistan, he co-chairs CSEF, he’s the first and only ‘Ambassador of Skateboarding’ for the US State Department and honestly his resumé goes on and on. I’ve wanted to interview him for quite a while, but respected his wishes of ‘let’s wait until my PhD is done’. So after his dissertation was submitted (the most comprehensive study on race in skateboarding to date) and a few days after he was awarded the title of ‘Doctor Williams’, we caught up for a long FaceTime chat. And with everything happening in the world in the past six months it couldn’t have come at a better time…

Interview by Will Harmon

If Pushing Boarders was right now, in 2020, how different do you think that conversation about race and skateboarding would be? 
Dr Neftalie Williams: I think it would be an entirely different conversation. I think people would actually be open to figuring out multiple ways to create change. And I think the thing that is different at this moment is that people are actually listening. People are taking note that they actually might not have the answers and they are letting people tell them what their experiences are. And so when we did Pushing Boarders in 2018, even though it was set up to have conversations about people’s experiences, people could take what they want from it. People thought they were open, but maybe they really weren’t. That kind of thing shows that they were less self-aware. That was sort of a post-racial conversation to get into the intricacies of things as opposed to just listening what the hell people were telling you their lives are like and what they’ve done in order to stay alive.

And I think that’s the difference now… People did not realise the amount of violence that was inflicted upon people of colour (POC). And we can say black people in general and people of colour broadly. So sometimes you get in these theoretical discussions without actually realising, ‘you’re going to tell the people around you to just keep moving, move on, and not let this police officer or these other powers stop you,’ because you know that if they get too angry their life might get extinguished. And that’s a reality; it’s a real thing. So anytime someone’s telling someone else to operate differently without recognising the violence that’s involved (it’s just a daily occurrence in black lives), it’s rather insensitive to tell you the truth.

Yeah I completely understand what you’re saying… That white male member of the audience has the privilege to question authority and skaters of colour don’t always have that privilege of being able to question authority without facing violent repercussions.
Yeah and that’s a real thing. Aaron Snyder’s brother Greg, who’s a professor and was there, said to me, ‘Neftalie, the thing that’s crazy is that they expected you to solve racism in an hour,’ ha ha, and he meant it. ‘That was the deal, you were supposed to have every answer to everything and people were supposed to walk away going like, “ok that’s what we’re doing.”’ And then sometimes people don’t like what they hear, but do not get me wrong, Karl was nervous to be in the spotlight like that and he is very aware of himself and his place as a black man and a black man raised by two moms, so he’s very aware. The reason I might have gotten a bit upset is that Karl has tried very hard to create space for POC and people in general. He’s very loving to everyone. So I think the context there was missing…

I mean is there a nicer pro skateboarder? I don’t think so.
Even if you didn’t necessarily agree with everything Karl said, it’s like, ‘Karl’s doing work in the field dog and has been doing that for a long time. So I don’t know what you’ve been doing, but he’s been putting people on his back and bringing everybody up.’ You don’t have to love everything, but you do have to at least recognise that he’s done a lot to help others and so I think that was missing. And that was the point that I was trying to get across in that discussion with Karl: that Karl was also navigating those things… And it was a different time.

Oh completely. 
We’re in a different time now. Because to bring up the stats of the disadvantages of black people that that young man was saying, those weren’t real to people.

Yeah it’s such a different time now. In the past few months I think white people in general (myself included) have really had to take a hard look at what’s going on for POC, how they are mistreated and how systemic racism has affected them and it’s really opened people’s eyes. 
Everyone believed we were in a post-racial moment and so therefore you can have these broader discussions about what strategies are best and what we should be doing in the hypothetical realm, but now people are aware that it is a real thing that everybody who they see or who they may know who has survived this long, thus deserves some recognition on surviving this long. The conversation we’re having right now, and that everyone’s having right now, is now based on a whole bunch of new knowledge that people didn’t have six months ago. You know what I mean?

We’re starting at a different point… We’re starting at a point where we’re like, ‘actually there’s structural inequalities all over the place and there’s so much racism in all these ways that are so commonplace, that we don’t even recognise when we’re perpetuating and doing those things ourselves.’ And that was not where we were at that time in 2018, so if we had that same talk again it would be very different. But I want to thank the Pushing Boarders team, because they were doing the first event that was ever like this. Also I want to add that I’m not mad at that guy with that question. He just didn’t know that this is who you (as a person of colour) have to be and how you have to roll when you’re around police, because you never know who this police officer is, what their background is and what can happen.

Neftalie Williams, Haarlem, Netherlands, August 2020. Ph. Marcel Veldman

I read in the New York Times about a racist incident you had with the police where you grew up, in Springfield, Massachusetts, that really had an impact on you. Can you talk about that? 
I was skating through a church parking lot and I was stopped by the police. They stopped me and accused me of trying to steal cars. At the time I didn’t even have a license yet so I said to them, ‘I don’t have a license; I can’t drive. What am I going to do with a car?’ And were I not a person of colour I’m sure that would have been feasible, like I was literally there with my board skating through the parking lot. But, because I was there and I was black ‘I had to have nefarious motives.’

This would have been in the nineties? 
Yes, and then the cop just straight up punched me in the face.

Yeah that wasn’t in the New York Times version, for whatever reason they left that bit out. So I was heading to my girlfriend’s house and I just cut through the empty church parking lot, therefore choosing to not walk along the sidewalk and the cops stopped me and accused me of trying to steal cars. I told them I was just trying to get to my girlfriend’s house and they said, ‘you don’t know anyone in this neighbourhood,’ and then another police car pulls up. Again I told them I wasn’t trying to steal cars and that I didn’t even have a license and then the cop just rolls up and punches me in the eye. Not only am I not doing anything, but now the other cop has shown up and they needed to have a reason to have stopped me. So now I’m pissed as I just got punched in the eye and I had no idea what was going on. So I’m not retaliating, but I’m trying to see his badge number and the dude says, ‘my name’s Rorowski’ or something like that and then says, ‘my badge number is 2119 and there’s a long list of people with the same accusations as you and nothing’s going to happen.’

When the dude hit me he was like, ‘ah you did it now!’ and I was like, ‘I did what? I’m just cutting through a parking lot.’ So then I had to go to jail!

What was the arrest charge? 
Attempted auto theft. So I’m there, I’m in jail, it’s ridiculous, my board’s gone, I’m jacked up and now I was facing a criminal record. So then when I went to the arraignment again they said, ‘he was trying to steal cars’ and of course I denied it, but they weren’t trying to listen and they set a date for the court case. So when it came time for the court case, one of my friend’s dads was a lawyer, he was white and he worked in that same courthouse. So he came and defended me; he went downstairs and said, ‘Judge, I know this young man; he hangs out with my daughter and her best friends. I know him and he is just a young skateboarder. I would not let him hang out with my daughter if he was the kind of man who was stealing cars. Your Honour I think this is a case of mistaken identity.’ And so eventually they dropped the case, but the prosecutor was still very hesitant to do this.

Wow so you’re lucky you knew this lawyer’s daughter!
Well for context, he got me out of that and if he wouldn’t have been there, I would have just been another young brother stuck in the system. And the fact the prosecuting attorney didn’t want to let it go…

That’s the systemic racism embedded in the judicial system…
Exactly. He was like, ‘no he must be guilty; something must be going on…’ And let me tell you, that case has haunted me my whole life. Once you’re in the system it doesn’t matter if the case is dismissed, you’re in the system. And that’s what happens: that’s how people get records.

So when we chatted before doing this interview you spoke about the Strength mag article you did in 1999 about black skaters, and this was before you got into academia and you were just talking about your experiences. So I wanted to ask you what led on your path to becoming a sociologist and focusing your studies on race in skateboarding? And was that decision at all based on your experience that night in that church parking lot? 
Ok I would say on a personal level, the people I grew up with or the building that I lived in, the kids there didn’t get along. It had to do more with the way their parents were, they told their kids to ‘stick to their own kind’. But for me, skateboarding was the first space where everybody was so new, everybody (all races) was involved in skating and everyone ended up teaching each other and wanting to be together. And so that’s the part of skateboarding that I’ve carried with me my whole life. I recognised that was something different then, so even in that Strength article back then for Black History month, I still wanted to include Daewon (Song) and Gideon (Choi) and just be thinking about it as all of us, because I also assumed that I wasn’t the only person to have felt that skateboarding was something that bonded kids together.

So that was my original impetus for understanding that something special was going on, and also, the truth is, being black at that time you recognised where you had power and where you didn’t have power. So having that incident happen made me recognise that I was experiencing skateboarding differently, but the good part of skateboarding was that skateboarding was giving me the reason to be with more people than I would normally be with.

Yeah you meet so many different types of people skating. 
Yeah, and in my thesis (Colour in the Lines: Understanding the African American and POC Experience in US Skateboarding Culture)… Ok those experiences were my experiences, but I also believed that they could be the experiences of other skateboarders of colour and it turns out that they were. So when I did the PhD, it was really recognising that something special had happened when I got started and then seeing if that was the case with other POC and also it stems from finding out that people always wanted to discuss it. They wanted to discuss those experiences. And also with the PhD, I realised that there had not been space for POC to talk about their stories in any of the literature in skateboarding and skateboarding in academia. So one of the things I realised the more research I did on race and critical race theory was that that happens all the time. People are always discussed without ever being the people who do the research. People always talk about marginalised groups, but they are usually in a position of power or privilege…

They’re viewing from afar…
Yeah and that’s the way academia has been – and that is not always helpful for the communities that you’re trying to assist or advocate for. The voices of those that are discussed are often not the people who are doing the research, which means you can have mixed results.

Neftalie Williams, Haarlem, Netherlands, August 2020. Ph. Marcel Veldman

Yeah you’re right.
And then we can have this discussion: people always come to me and say, ‘hey how come you don’t just say “black” in this particular instance?’ and I would just say, ‘I look at my role as to try to do what I can to help and assist all marginalised communities. I use the term people of colour.’ So people sometimes say, ‘how can you talk in such broad terms?’ I speak a language of inclusion because that’s my choice and I want people to know and understand that. That is my politics; that is my political stance, it’s to try to be as inclusive as possible. I can say my experiences are individualised, and I might be talking about individualised groups like when I talk about in my dissertation Dynasty Skateboards and Spencer Fujimoto and his experience was different than Kenny Anderson’s. Yes, we may all say they’re Asian American skateboarders, but their experiences are different; they come from different lineages in history that also affects those experiences.

I also wanted to add that the PhD is an extension of the wishes of Eric Stricker before he passed away. He was the editor at Strength when I wrote that article about my experiences as a black skater. Later when he went to Transworld, he wanted to do Black History month issue, but it didn’t end up happening before he passed away. The thesis builds upon our original work and intention and I know he would be proud of the research.

I’m sure he would be. So last week Jenkem posted an article entitled ‘Black skaters share their experiences in skateboarding’ where they asked you a few questions. One of the questions a lot of the other black skaters were asked was: ‘Do you think there is racism instilled within the skateboard industry?’ You weren’t asked this, so I was wondering what are your thoughts on this topic? 
Does the US have a problem with racism and discrimination? Yes. So is it perpetuated within skateboarding culture and the industry? And I would say yes, there are lots of opportunities for that to happen. It exists because it exists within the United States, and I think that’s a real important distinction and the guy at Jenkem messed that up. He wanted a binary, and he asked does the industry have this (racism)? Well there are a lot of people in the industry, so it doesn’t necessarily have that, it just depends on whom you are talking to. So the question should be, have there been instances where skateboarding culture and the industry have propagated stereotypes in ways that are negative? And I would say yes, there have been instances where that has happened, but also there have been instances where it hasn’t. It’s also been a space for power to be contested. Ok maybe now I’m getting too academic, but does that make sense?

Yeah totally.
All things are flawed and we have a problem with power and who has that power.

People of colour have been marketed by the skateboarding industry for decades and thankfully a good percentage of our industry’s hardgoods brands employ POC, but even still, how do we get more POC in the room in terms of decision making?
One of the things that is important is, even more so than being in the room, it’s just people getting the space to create and develop the things themselves. I say that like Paul (Rodriguez) started Primitive you know?

Making those decisions… That’s what’s good about skateboarding culture is that you can make the space for your voice to be heard. I mean you do need money, but the barriers of entry are relatively low compared to other sports. Can you imagine just trying to start a new NFL team?

Ha ha nope!

Ok so in June adidas Skateboarding made an Instagram post explaining their commitment to POC and how they’re taking active steps to make their internal staff significantly more diverse. I wanted to hear your thoughts on the efforts of the bigger footwear/sportswear brands involved in skateboarding on initiatives like this? 
Yeah well that’s where skateboarding is now, it’s bigger than just the board brands. That’s where the budgets come from now. With the board companies we had more power and we need more POC in those spots, because overall, no matter what, that’s gonna make any business better. If you’re running a business in the first place and you’re not having conversations with women or POC or any marginalised groups, then that means your business is missing out. And if you do make space for this, your business will improve.
Now to see what the big shoe brands like adidas and others are doing yes, this is exactly what we need to see. And I’m very excited to see that people are having a moment of reckoning and thinking about how to move forward, how to support POC, and how to support change within their institutions: that’s really important to me.

So there are a lot of ad campaigns going on right now and my question is: Are you trying to make real change? And real change does not look like your ads, real change is who you hire, who is on your board, what neighbourhoods are you helping, etc. You have to think about what change really looks like. I don’t need to just see an ad or the black square, it’s like, ‘yo, I’m sure you could just help the POC who are working for you and give them a raise, let them tell you what needs to happen and actually listen to them.’ But I am excited to see when companies are publicly saying ‘these are the steps we’re doing to introduce change.’ I’m very happy when I see that and I want to partner with them and help them to continue to do that and I want to support the people that were already there who have been marginalised and haven’t had their voices heard and needed to protest in order to get things to happen.

While our world of skateboarding is not perfect, it is what we have, and so we need to do the best job with what we have to improve upon it because it is better than a lot of other things.

So for the past few years you’ve been living in New Zealand doing your PhD at the University of Waikato, and now you’re over in the Netherlands, has it made you think about the state of the things in the US differently being an American and viewing the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement from afar? 
Yes and it helped me with doing my PhD; it gave me perspective. It allowed me to have perspective on the history of racial politics of the US. And it reminded me that it does not have to be this way. There are issues everywhere, but there’s a particular form and way that racism continues to live and fester in the US in ways that could be helped and improved. And that has to do with just an acknowledgement of where we’ve been and saying what are the steps for reconciliation that can help us move forward.

And when doing the thesis, one of the key things was, there was no one saying that they needed to vent, no one was mad at America and no one was mad at the skateboarding industry. And I talked to 47 different American skaters of colour from across generations from basically the 1970s until now… But the most important bit was that because America has worked so diligently to discuss both its exceptionalism and its time being post-racial I found that made it difficult because by not acknowledging that change has happened, that we weren’t all just perfect in harmony yesterday, then you’re not creating space for people’s experiences and to learn from them and move forward. So the best thing about doing the thesis was having 47 different people saying, ‘Neftalie I’m really glad that you’re putting our voices together, in sort of a collective way, because we haven’t had the ability to do that.’ And that’s important because you’re aware of the racial politics of the US, so you’re aware of when things are good in your own life and you’re aware when things are bad and you’re aware of how it connects to those broader struggles. So because there had never been something that connected those things, when I called people, they were very excited to talk in a way that they felt I could relate also because I was a person of colour who has dealt with these things.

And so this might be a tough question, but can you sum up some of the things you learned talking to these skaters about their experiences? 
I can and I think some people will appreciate that… So what I was pushing back against on the academic side, was that people of colour had agency, that they were able to try to express themselves and that they fought to make the space for themselves in the skateboarding culture. And particularly that they were aware of race in the US because they were in the US, so it also made them more aware of what it looked like to have power and be able to have a voice. And what I first understood was that nothing was given, everybody, just like in any instance in the US, everybody fought for that space. Now everyone fought differently and in different ways in different decades, but it was space that was contested and that’s really important. And from an academic perspective, skateboarding is a site of those politics, in this instance racial politics or power, because it’s a site where people are together. So they all come together with whatever pasts that they had and now they’re choosing to do something within proximity of each other.

So the first thing I sought to do was push back against previous research, which framed POC as dupes, or as tokens, or just having no power or say-so in their lives or image. That was really important to me you know, as a person of colour looking at the way they were discussed by academics truthfully was quite painful. People are very quick to discount the experiences of people of colour. That’s just the truth. So the first role of the PhD was to push back and give them (POC) a voice and to be able for them to speak for themselves, rather than to be spoken about.
The second phase was going through and asking people, ‘hey, what were times that you felt like you were making ground and when were times where you felt like you weren’t? Who was pushing back? Who was stopping you? In what ways were you constrained? What ways did you feel like you had some successes?’ So the thesis really talks about the struggles and successes of POC in skateboarding culture. And that’s the deal, and this was on their way to becoming elite skaters.

So these 47 skaters of colour were all ‘elite skaters’ as in pro or sponsored? 
Yes. I wanted to find out what it took for them to become successful. You’re not learning much about elite skateboarding or by skateboarding culture by studying kids. It only gives you a snapshot of what kids are like at that moment.

Well the elites have dedicated their lives to skateboarding. And they’re arguably more dedicated than some kids who have only been skating a couple of years. 
Right. These are elite athletes, they have minds, they are not kids, they’re adults and they can formulate their feelings and strategies a lot better. Plus I shared all their stories from growing up and getting into skateboarding, developing their voice and to eventually becoming elite athletes. So I actually gave them data on young skaters, but I gave them data on young skaters that became successful.

And then also you were involved in that study on young, everyday skaters sponsored by the Tony Hawk Foundation that was mentioned in that New York Times article ‘How Skateboarding Can Help Fight Racism’. So actually you knew the data about non-elite skaters as well.
Yeah I spent a year and a half doing a whole other study at the same time! And I said in my defence (of my thesis) that ‘both groups were important, so I did both groups.’ And truthfully it’s not often in life that you do research where you get to bookend the conversation. I can tell you about Spencer Fujimoto and Kareem (Campbell), but also be able to talk about the everyday skaters now who look at the magazines, who look at social media and we look at what things they get out of skateboarding, and it turns out they’re getting the same things, which is they’re building community and getting to hang out with people who are different than they are and finding something that they love to join them. And those findings are the same in my dissertation, but we get to go further than that, as my dissertation research covers decades of data and not just right at this moment.

Kareem Campbell, 360 flip to fakie, Los Angeles, 2019. Ph. Neftalie Williams

Any fascinating tidbits that you learned from the ‘Behind the Board’ Tony Hawk Foundation study? 
Ok this is one of the most important findings of all time! It was that skaters of colour, particularly African American skaters, felt safer and were judged less harshly by white people when they were carrying a skateboard compared to when they weren’t. The key finding for me and thinking about how important this was, is that black people do not have spaces in which they feel safe that often. So any tool that makes them feel safer, or potentially is building a bridge, or making them able to walk home without getting hassled by the police, or just to make it home in general after all the things we’ve seen happen to them… That’s fucking important to me.

That’s an incredible finding.
In the US, there are so many more skaters now, and a new generation where every parent, if their kids don’t skate, their neighbours kids are skating… So there’s more people skating in general, and this is something we found through the study: we think that people are also beginning to recognise that the people that participate in skateboarding really are just kids; they’re like everyone’s kids. These kids are not the other, they’re your kids, they are your neighbour’s kids, your nieces and nephews, they are kids from your neighbourhood so nobody should be mistreating them and marginalising them in any way, because that just marginalises yourself. Calling them names and ostracising them only hurts you.

That’s been my focus, trying to get that point across. And I want to give a shout out to Tony Hawk, and his Foundation for funding the study. But also I want to mention his video game (THPS), one: everybody got excited about it and everybody played it, but it got people to see that there were more than just white skateboarders. Now we know this, and maybe we take it for granted, but that was a huge deal. How many times in the beginning did people say, ‘yo, you trying to be Tony Hawk?’ But when the game became something people were instead like, ‘I played the game and I don’t play as Tony Hawk, I play Kareem Campbell, or I play Elissa (Steamer), or I play Stevie (Williams) and that’s real change. I don’t think Tony gets enough credit for that move because the fact that there was diversity at a time when there didn’t have to be… Even if he wasn’t aware of larger racial justice issues or things like that, he was just letting it reflect what skateboarding looked like at the time when he was creating the game. And that had repercussions that aided everyone. The importance of that game to increasing the visibility of POC and particularly of African Americans was huge and is not discussed enough.

You’re currently in the Netherlands working with refugees for the US State Department right?
Yes… So we worked with these young Syrian refugees and we wanted to help them integrate and feel like they’re part of Dutch culture. The best way to do that for us, as Americans, was to remind them that they’re not in this alone. So we took young kids who had just been granted asylum here out skating and showed them that they could find a home in the Netherlands, and also that America loves them and supports them. And not only were they introduced to me, an American, but I brought in Belgian skaters (Fries Taillieu, among others) and also introduced them to the local Dutch skaters. It was really successful.

Neftalie Williams, Haarlem, Netherlands, August 2020. Ph. Marcel Veldman

That’s really amazing…
So yeah, I’m here currently working on some new projects to further develop skate diplomacy and to build upon the 75-year relationship between the US and the Netherlands. And then two new things have just happened, I just got added to the Board of Directors for the Tony Hawk Foundation and for Skateistan. So those are two things that I’m really happy about because that means we can continue to work towards racial justice and equity in all of the endeavours. I’m honoured that both groups recognised that this is a new day and age and that they felt like I could offer a valuable contribution.

Seems like you’ve got your hands full!
I have three things I focus on… I think about: How do we get the skateboard industry to understand and develop new allies and advocates? And how do I get the cultural institutions and academia to understand that all these young people who are skaters that they matter and they’re important? So that’s the second thing and then the third is getting young people to recognise that their voices are important and that they have power and how to use that in a positive direction you know? And change those various institutions even though they might not be that responsive to them now… My goal is getting kids to understand you should be going to university, even though these places are flawed, because when you get there you are the one that is going to be able to make them not flawed. You are going to be the change, just you being in that room… Just you being a person of colour and having made it into that room is a fucking accomplishment and you can be part of that change…

How can skaters not of colour be better allies to POC? And what are some of the best things we can all do right now to move forward?
Truthfully to be better allies is to recognise the instances in which you may have power or influence. It can be in a conversation that you can stop from going in a bad direction when there are other skaters of colour around, it can be informing, it can be in voting, it can be making sure that you’re caring about them as much as you care about yourself and recognise that there are differences in the way that we have access to power. So really being a good ally is going, ‘yo, I care about you and I love you, and so I want to make sure that the world is good and hospitable for all of us.’ Those are the things to do, so just caring and making moves like someone who cares. I’m not trying to give a prescription for everything, ‘cause the thing is yo, if you love, you’re going to be all right. Treat everybody like you love them and the way you want to be treated and when you see people not being treated correctly you go ahead and make that move and speak up. If one of your friends is saying stupid shit, you don’t just cut them out, you inform them and help them grow. Now not everyone believes in that, but I do.