Karl Watson and Prof. Neftalie Williams continue the conversation

Pushing Boarders scratched the surface on a range of topics across the weekend, it was the start of conversations, and with rich and varied questions from the audience those conversations continued after the official talks were done. Karl Watson wanted to go further on some of the points raised in his discussion with Professor Neftalie Williams for their panel on Race, Skateboarding and the Power of Imagined Communities and so they picked up their conversation and sent us this interview. Read it in full below: 

Neftalie: So, to begin with I just want to follow up on some of the topics that we discussed during Pushing Boarders. It was an amazing conference but we were short on time to cover such a vast topic. Were you feeling any pressure when discussing the concept of race and racial formations in skateboarding culture?

Karl Watson: No, I never felt like that. When it was going on, I felt the need to answer as honestly as possible but I realize it was without my backstory. I didn't really share everything during the discussion that I would have liked to, you know? From the history of my early graphics, to explaining what it took to personally reach a point of open-mindedness when it comes to race. And how I arrived to thinking of us all as one race, the human race.

Neftalie: I understand. It’s in our discussions of race in skateboarding culture for my PhD, but maybe it wasn’t present enough in the Pushing Boarders discussion. Let’s talk more about your path now. [The African American and US Minority Experience in US Skateboarding Culture, forthcoming]

Karl Watson: Early on it was very tough [working through my identity in the US] and I was very confused. When I was growing up, I had the African-American side of my family, and then I had my skateboard family. From 18-20, I had to really find my roots, so I went back to studying the history of Africa, and I studied a lot of Egypt. This was because I had to find something to connect to because I was lost in this American society.

Over time, I became an even bigger part of my skateboard family because that represented who I was more as a creative person [in the skateboarding industry]. But of course, I never denounce my roots. In fact, even in my early graphics, from the first through fourth graphic — everything was very Afrocentric.

My first graphic was a stick figure from art my mom had on the wall; very beautiful and Afrocentric. My graphics for Mad Circle skateboards depicted a brother with dreads and was a very popular graphic. The hand went into the moon and the stars, the dreads are going to the earth, as if they're roots. It is a clear scene showing how we are all connected to the world around us.

Neftalie: This totally makes sense in the context of navigating African-American identity in the US.

Karl Watson: Yeah, you feel me? Then after I found that — I found the self-worth I didn't have before as a person of African descendent in the US. That's when I started to think — I'm becoming more of the identity of a "skate-boarder".

I don't know if you saw that DGK sticker? It has a checklist that says “Your nationality, your race,” whatever. It says “White, Black, Hispanic; it gives all the options and it says “skateboarder” and that’s what is checked. So, I see myself as a part of the human race, but I'm a skateboarder. That's what I represent.

Neftalie: During the conversation people might not have fully seen how you've had to navigate your own personal identity. Now they see Karl Watson, and you're sort of a fully formed person. But that's not who Karl Watson was in the beginning. You were working through these issues of identity politics like everyone else.

Karl Watson: Yes, and I'm definitely always a work in progress. Especially early on, so all the stuff that I talked about in our discussion — maybe it didn't come out so clear. And maybe some stuff didn't represent my true feelings because it was a very high-pressure situation. But everyone should know skateboarding has always been a safety net for me when it comes to issues of race.

And I actually used to get more flak from my own [non-skateboarding] African-American community for being a black skater than from my skateboarding community. So, I feel I was adopted by the culture of skateboarding, and that's why I think the way I think.

Neftalie: This is very similar to my research findings. As an African-American person living in the U.S. with a similar background and experience, I understand that there are often things left unsaid and assumed between people of color when operating in largely non-minority spaces. There are often strategies employed to achieve success in America and not succumb to pressures or obstacles and still keep a positive attitude.

Karl Watson: Exactly. You and I have come a long way. You're very similar, when it comes to your positive outlook and stuff like that. You know how it is and how we manage. Through it all, we both remain Black — with everything that is attached to that. We know who we are.

Neftalie: Right. We don’t forget it. It is always there.

Karl Watson: And it's not even deniable if we wanted to. We might walk into a store and people might profile us, until we show them otherwise, unfortunately. It doesn't feel good of course and isn’t our fault. But for me personally sometimes when I enter those situations with an open heart and a clear mind — sometimes the outcome will be better.


Neftalie: People might not understand this concept of an “open heart” but it seems like you are just trying to live with love. Everyone has their own survival strategy and this is what you are doing. I don’t believe it makes you less militant or “down for the cause” because you are leading with love.  People of color often have to navigate questionable territory at every turn. It's not just something we read about on Google.

Unfortunately, to be a person of color in America can be difficult, but particularly as black male, who are often perceived as threatening, depending on which strategy you use that day — you’re the one who might have aggression placed upon you.

Karl Watson: Exactly.

Neftalie: Is that what you meant by stating you were trying to mentor young people and advising them against having a “chip on their shoulder”?  Which meant something totally different in the UK context. There might have been the assumption that you were telling young people not to advocate for their rights. But that's not what you were saying, was it?  

Karl Watson: Not at all.

Neftalie: Were you more so saying — not to do things that would make them more unsafe in a world that already may not trust them or give them a second opportunity to present themselves?

Karl Watson: Exactly-100 percent, 100 percent accurate. You know in those situations, say a group of young brothers are approached by cops. I've been in this situation a number of times, as a skater obviously. So, we're approached and the way you greet them or react to them, might often determine what the outcome is going to be. In my opinion, as a strategy if you approach them looking them in the eye, talk to them man to man, let them know what you're doing, hopefully you might have a better outcome than without that approach. But if you immediately give them attitude like they are persecuting you, then you know they aren’t going to like you. And they're the authority figure, and when they feel like that and then maybe they're going to treat you a certain way.

Neftalie: Right, they are still the source of power and we are operating under them.

Karl Watson: And I had to learn the hard way. I got punched by a cop from talking smack. At age 14, I got arrested for skating at EMB. I was handcuffed to the bench at the Chinatown police station and I was talking all the shit I could talk. Just saying this and that, "You should go arrest the crack heads down the street!" You know just all the stuff I heard my mentors, the older guys say to cops, you know? And guess what that cop walked over to me and popped the crap out of me, man.

And my mom and I we tried to sue the cop. The other cop in the end of the station said he didn't see anything. However, my mother and I talked about it and I've learned eventually that you know-fuck man, maybe even he was having a bad day, which made it worse for me. But, you know he's a person too. Of course, he should not have put his hands on me!  But I stepped outta line, too, you know? So, there in that particular time, the way I was acting altered the outcome of the situation.

Neftalie: Yes. And that was a factor.

Karl Watson: Now, moving forward in my life I've never had too many negative experiences with cops because of the way I approach the situation now. I’ve avoided speeding tickets, had the police give me back my weed, everything (laughing).

Neftalie: It seems you just want to help young people be safe and you mentioned that at the skatepark as well.

Karl Watson: Absolutely. Absolutely. With me I've always lived adjacent to the hood by choice. And I can afford to live in a “White neighborhood” or whatever that means. But I like to be close to the hood, because the youth are there so I can possibly give back and you know shed some light. Especially at the parks I’m at.  These kids-their parents are in jail, the kids I'm talking about at my little skatepark. They’re in jail and people get shot right there at the skatepark, you know. So, I mean, I'm in the thick of it, bro. Literally in the thick of it.

Neftalie: So, you’re experiencing a real reality, not in the safety of an online reality  reading about the Black experience and survival tactics, then?

Karl Watson: Naw, fuck that this is real life. We know the harsh reality and we live it.

Neftalie: Someone might argue, “Well, Karl is in too privileged a position to weigh in on racism and racial constructs because it seems like he has lived a charmed life” but from what you are saying you have dealt with race and racism.  

Do you think the particular context of the event might have kept that from being fully expressed? From some of the comments after the panel, it seemed people might have benefited from hearing more of the gritty stuff in your life. They may have wondered about the effects of everyday racism on you and were interested in how you navigated so many obstacles to create your own brands, agency and power in skateboarding and the world.

Karl Watson: Yeah and I wish I had shared that you know? I really wish that. It was just how I came in to the event which may have thrown it off. I came in after skating six miles trying to find the place. I was a little flustered and I was thrown off by Benny not being there, too. I wish I would have shared those experiences of being the only African-American on a team.

For years that seemed like the protocol in skateboarding? A feeling that there can only be one black guy on a team and if you thought about doing more, it might have thrown off some unspoken balance, right? And that’s something I have always been responding too. And we founded Max Allure in response to that notion.

Neftalie: And of course, we know that shouldn't be true. But from what you are saying, there were people in the industry who felt that way?

Karl Watson: Yeah. That was just the way, unfortunately. So now, I have Max Allure and I've reversed the roles and there actually is only one white guy and everyone else is a person of color. (laughing) I’m always trying to break ground and help others.

For example, I recently went to Portland for a team building exercise for adidas and I might have been the only African-American person there, which is a spot I have been in before. There were some other people of color there, but I was the only brown person.

That was very, very eye opening because I feel like I'm doing what I do — I like to open doors. I’m opening doors there just like Ray Barbie and other people that came ahead of us.

They were the firsts, but they helped us to understand that we're brown and people of color — we can all do this too! I'm in the position to build bridges and create change and lead people into these positions. I’ve been given particular privileges that are firsts for us on this scale. I have access to finances, I have access to the product. And it's a huge honor to be the first and I appreciate Adidas and working with them in every capacity. Now, hopefully I can show other people that look like me — that this is possible.

Neftalie: Are there other things you would like to address from the Pushing Boarders conference?

Racism and Slavery

Karl Watson: I do want to bring up my comments on racism and slavery and the way we discussed it during the conference. It is a very taboo topic some time and I hate making people feel uncomfortable talking about so maybe you know I was trying a little extra, extra hard to make everybody feel comfortable in the room on such sensitive topics. And I didn’t want to make people feel tense, but I should have approached it in a different way, so people didn’t think I was ever making those seem trivial. Where I took the time to explain my adversity — all the things I had to deal with early on, and how all those obstacles that are just part of being Black — led me to this point. And that's the only thing I wish I would have done differently.

Neftalie: What may have gotten lost in the dialogue is that when you are a person of color you are expected to comment on these situations your whole life, and it means different things at different times. Every moment is spent navigating, race and racism in real time, and some time it’s better than others. In that context, it makes sense that you were trying to keep it a little bit calmer because you didn't know that it was a forum to talk about those things. And you missed the earlier groups-because you were late. (laughing)

Karl Watson:  Yeah, I just didn't want to point the finger at anyone else because overall my experience has been good with all different races, all different nationalities. Since we are all one race the human race and I fully understand that. I just wanted to share that experience.

Neftalie: This is another example of knowing what you represent and being cognizant about your own impact. My students tell me, they see me a young black professor, who also is a skateboarder, an educator, and an advocate on a number of fronts. That gives them something different to see in so many ways. When we discuss strategies for social change, I tell them in the face of hostility you can’t always be angry or physical because it sometimes only increases the likelihood of people of color being jailed or killed.

Karl Watson: Absolutely. It can often lead to bad situation. I have a friend like that, now. He's just spiraling down with one negative experiences after another and he being impacted by his attitude.

Neftalie: If I’m correct, you’re not saying that people don't have reasons to be upset but that you want to give them strategies, so that they remain alive to fight another day.

Karl Watson: Absolutely. And it's most important to look to the future and live in the present instead of just focusing on the past. To my earlier point about slavery and racism, of course we feel our ancestors and understand and give thanks to what they did to bring us to this point.

And that's another point I wish I would have voiced there too. I mean of course I have those feelings and that admiration for the people that came ahead of us. It's in my DNA. There's no way to deny that. But I'm feeling like I've graduated from only the [concept of] the “race thing” and you know I want to think on a universal level you know?

Neftalie: It seems you want to present that the movement to engaging people via their humanity shows a sign of growth? Wanting all humanity to engage in a universal understanding, so then we don't have so many things separating us. Is that what you are getting at?

Karl Watson: Absolutely, right. Exactly. Instead of focusing on mundane differences you know the color of our skin and the things that really don't matter except for in certain contexts. I want to look at it through understanding that there's 99.9% more similarities than differences between white people and to black person.

Neftalie: You're saying — let's try to live positively and develop our relationships together as opposed to just stating, “My people have been oppressed, therefore I will never attempt to relate to you” or vice versa “I can never understand what my people did to you or why they did it and that’s not my reality, so I’m not going to try to relate to you on any level either.”

That lack of finding a human basis of discussion seems like a stalemate and the end of the conversation. We all lose with no dialogue.

Karl Watson: Exactly, well said.

Neftalie: People might misunderstand your statement and think it means move forward in a way that doesn’t acknowledge the past. That's not what you're saying, right?

Karl Watson: Yeah that’s definitely not the case. I one hundred percent acknowledge the past and what it took to get to this point.

Neftalie: Do you want kids to also take that history and find positive energy because it can be a really dangerous situation out there?

Karl Watson: Exactly, and you know what? The thing is — maybe my approach with young people should be — something more similar to what I experienced, you know?  Focus more on your African roots; find your foundation first. Help them understand where we came from, then we move on from there. Maybe I'm going one step too far by saying just — don't have a chip on your shoulder, don't focus on the past and do this. Maybe I should use a similar approach to what brought me to this point.

Neftalie: Yes, that could be good too. We're all growing.

Karl Watson: Exactly. You know I use the term assimilation and I realize when people hear that they think, something really negative. But for me I define it in a way that’s not negative you know? I use it for a positive reason, not as a negative term. I’m not thinking of ignoring anyone.

Neftalie: I understand. Though some might interpret a comment about assimilation as "Karl wants us to forget our backgrounds and all to be white." But in your terms, assimilation does not mean erasing anyone. It means coming to terms and coming together, correct? What you actually want is conversations between people to help find a middle ground. Is that correct?

Karl Watson: Exactly. This is not to assimilate to be white, it’s to come together, understand our past and move forward — It's just to be human. Let's just all be human together

Karl Watson: And the last thing I want to do is to offend somebody. I guess there were parts that just came off wrong. I was just misunderstood some in that situation. Honestly, it's all a learning experience and I learned a lot. Now I understand how to approach it differently. I would not have done it the same and I would make it more inclusive for everybody. Then they would understand fully what I went through on both sides.

Neftalie: Well, we don't often get to have a conversation like this. In general, we are all used to bottling up our experience or emotions in most contexts. You never really know when you're in a safe space.

Karl Watson: Yes, that's true. Shit. You never know. But this whole experience with Pushing Boarders was eye opening. The people that run it are incredible and I always love working with you brother.

Neftalie: Same here, we will do it again next year!