The Snowboarder’s Journal: You grew up in Seattle?
Max Djenohan: Yeah, in one of the whiter suburbs of the Northwest, in the north end of Seattle. A little history lesson: they redlined a lot of Seattle back in the ‘60s. People of color couldn’t get past the bridge on the Montlake Cut after dark, so that’s why there’s so many more people of Caucasian descent in North Seattle in comparison to South Seattle where they redlined a lot of districts, like Rainier Beach, and that’s where the population is predominantly African Americans, Filipinos, Japanese, Vietnamese—you name it.
In north Seattle it’s only like a four percent African American population, so I didn’t really grow up with people that looked like me—and if they did look like me, they pretty much acted like a Caucasian, because you have to fit in. A fit of survival, essentially.
My father is from the Ivory Coast, which is in West Africa. I was born in Seattle then lived in the Ivory Coast for three years, then we moved to Brooklyn, so we didn’t live in Seattle proper until I was about six. When we moved to Seattle, I spoke mainly French, because that’s the main language in Cote d’Ivoire.
I was so used to being around people of color until we moved back to Washington and everyone around me was mostly white. I kind of separated ways with a lot of my African American friends as I went more into the outdoor realms… they’d always put themselves in a box. I’d always be like, “Let’s go hike, let’s go hit the boat, let’s go canoeing, let’s go do something,” and they were like, “Niggas don’t do that.” I’d be like, “Yes we do. I’m doing it right now.” And they’d be like, “Well, you’re hardly a nigga.”
I’m in this spectrum where I’m half-white and half-black, and black people don’t 100 percent identify with me and with white people—if you’re brown, you’re brown to a white person, you know? They might say they don’t see color, but the system is set up so that if you see any sort of color you’re on one side, and if you’re white you’re on the other side. I’ve been thinking of all of the blatant racism that I had growing up and it’s pretty insane. The experiences that I’ve suppressed are a lot to unpack, and I’m not sure I want to get into that now, so let’s talk about snowboarding.
I started snowboarding at Snoqualmie Pass, which is the closest resort to metropolitan Seattle, so you think it would be a bit more diverse. But I think most of the people of color were actually going to Crystal Mountain at the time, because it’s closer to where they live. At Snoqualmie, there was no diversity for as long as I can remember. In the last 10 years, you’d start seeing more people of color, but I was pretty much the only Black kid at every competition.
I’d always put it out there and wind up in second place, never first. There was this one competition that made me leave Snoqualmie called Backcountry Booter Buddies. That day I ended up throwing a double, back 7, front 7, front 9, back 3, back 5—stomped everything. When the awards ceremony came around, they gave it to a dude that did a back 5. Super clean, not going to hate, but I didn’t even place.
That’s what I’ve seen the industry do to a lot of other people of color and it’s been a bummer—I put in a lot of work and usually my white counterparts get the spread or the shot or whatever. Maybe it’s because I’m not relatable in the market, in the industry, but it’s just how it’s been. That was seven years ago and I’ve been at Stevens Pass since.
How old were you when you started boarding?
I was 13 years old and I’m 31 now, so it’s been 18 years.
You said you noticed more diversity recently at Snoqualmie. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s people of color seeing themselves doing it and being out there. I’m talking about my personal human experience. Stevie Bell, Kareem [El Rafie], Dillon Ojo—so many black snowboarders have crushed it and have gotten the notoriety that they deserve, because they’re out there slaying it. That’s human nature—if you see someone doing it you’re 95-percent more able to picture yourself doing it, especially if it’s someone that looks like you. Before it was more like a club, but now everyone’s getting a membership to this club, especially because things like Instagram and Facebook are helping people see themselves out there without actually being there, so I think that really helps.
So, even this limited amount of people that you’ve been seeing is enough to push or allow young people of color to feel like, “Okay this is something we do, this could be part of my culture?”
For sure, like: I can do this. I belong. This other person that I saw is thriving in this place.
And even before that you had the drive to come up, find some sponsors, pursue a life in snowboarding.
I put in a lot of work to get to that point. If you put in the work it will happen, you just got to keep dropping parts, keep competing, keep pushing yourself and keep pushing everyone around you. I’ve always been able to stay positive and keep the stoke up, even if I feel like people were being prejudiced—it’s still not going to knock me from having the best time ever, because that’s what snowboarding brings to you. It’s that endless rush of trying to find the next epic turn, the next line, that epic hit, and it’s just a constant search for that feeling. That’s why we keep going back. You see the snow report and you’re like, “I’m not going into work today.” Just the sacrifices you make to be there and experience it.
Who’s supporting you these days?
I was on 686 for a bit and they dropped me, because they said they couldn’t highlight me. I was like, “I’ve been sending you hella footage, during the [Seattle] Snowpocalypse, I back lipped the down-flat-down right in front of the Space Needle and grinded a rail right in front of Pike Place [Market].” I sent them all that footage and then they said that they couldn’t highlight me. I was like, “You chose not to highlight me—it’s not that you couldn’t, it’s that you chose not to.”
Now you’re just doing it for yourself?
I actually work for Bataleon. I rode for Bataleon for five plus years and they offered me a job, so I’ve been working there as the tech rep and doing all their warranty stuff and still getting gear to ride. It’s a gray area between rider and employee, but it’s legit.
That work/ride setup is a common thing these days—not that many people get enough pay to just snowboard for a living.
The thing is, we’re not doing it to get paid. We’re not snowboarding because we’re thinking we’re going to get rich by any means. We’re doing it because we love it.
Very few folks last long in snowboarding if they’re here to get rich. Working into the brand end of it, do you feel like you could leverage that to offer more racial diversity?
Yeah. I actually just incorporated my nonprofit. It’s called the PNWealth Foundation. We’re aiming at getting BIPOC, underserved and underprivileged kids into the outdoors, by sharing the wealth of education and experience of the outdoors. We’ll be connecting them to nature via snowboarding, skiing, hiking and backpacking.
What do you think other snowboarders can do to encourage people of color to come board?
It can be hard to get into the local crowd. We need to be more accepting of everyone that’s out there. You see somebody out in the backcountry, and you know they’re new to the area, reach out instead of being like, “Oh, this motherfucker’s going to steal my line.”
A lot of people have that mentality of, “It’s my line–me, me, me, me.” But we can make everyone’s experience a little better by reaching out a little more. I’m not one to tell about the secret stash, but I think being able to reach out a little bit more is what’s going to be the change in the end.
Being more welcoming in general. It’s kind of a closed culture to start with, we’re too protective.
We’re all guilty of it, even me if not more than anybody else.
Somebody’s already feeling a little bit out of place and they’re not seeing anyone like them, and they’re catching this vibe on top of that.
It’s tough. It’s tougher for people of color, because even on all media platforms and on all brands, not having that one token dude. Even looking at REI, they’re like, “We totally want to integrate,” but all the people of color represented by their brand are sitting by a fire, literally doing the least. You have no top tier athletes showing. Who said a collegiate basketball player couldn’t be one of the top climbers on earth? Not being able to see yourself there, that’s the barrier.
There is a lot of tokenism and you have to start somewhere, but at some point we need to feature people of color doing the activity, not just sitting by the fire, not just showing them because they’re Black, but showing them because they’re thriving in those outdoor spaces. They belong there too. For as long I can remember you can open up any snowboard magazine and you’re not going to see a black dude in the entire magazine.
That’s something we have to do better moving forward. Does race affect the lens that you see through snowboarding?
I’m a Brown man in a white sport and that’s just how it is. I’m not sorry anymore. I was always like, “I’m sorry, I’m always talking about race,” but that’s what it is for a Black man in America. A lot of things are about race and it’s always been really uncomfortable for my white counterparts to even talk about any of this stuff.
It is always about race for people of color. The entire history of what we’ve learned is that of the oppressor and not of the oppressed. I’d be lying to say it’s not through the lens of a Black person or we don’t see race, but I actively try to make it as non-racial as possible, until something blatantly racist happens to me. I’m always trying to give the benefit of the doubt of like, “Oh, that person didn’t mean it” or “Oh, it’s just a joke.” The whole gaslighting thing: “They’re good friends, I’ve known them forever”—all that kind of stuff. Those are the words of the oppressor, those are the actions and that’s what the oppressed do: give excuses to the person that has been oppressing, because they’re friends, because they’re the first person that you sent this hit with and you build up these relationships, and at a certain point you need to be like, “You know that’s not okay, that’s not cool.”
You do see through racial glasses, but you try your hardest to push past it and not really think of it, because at the end of the day we are all humans and we’re all just trying to get after it. On a powder day I don’t care if you’re yellow, purple or pink. I want to shred my favorite lines just as bad as you do, so we’re all charging up there and who cares—at the end of the day who gives a shit. But, it’s just sad, because it’s true, I would be lying if it wasn’t.
Have the recent events and the overwhelming amount of media surrounding racial equality changed your perspective, or at least made you think about race more?
Definitely. Everyone’s always known what’s been going on. A lot of people are still in denial about it, but the fact that it’s all out there—the dirty laundry is out there and everyone is smelling it, everyone’s seeing it and it’s really made me address a lot of the things. I’m unpacking a lot of the things that I have stuffed into that racial sack, that I’ve pushed away and tried not to think about, because for me, I’ve been as blessed as possible. I was raised by a white mom and an affluent family. I could go to Harvard if I wanted to, but I chose to snowboard as much as possible and not really take things too seriously, so I’ve been blessed.
At the same time, a lot of the people that look like me have not been blessed and have been pushed down to the bottom of the barrel, been put in jail, disproportionately shot and you name it. We’ve been oppressed, so realizing the things that have happened to me growing up, I can attribute it to a lot of the things in our society nowadays that come down to the way the system is built against us. It’s a lot the deal with right now. I just want to go in the mountains and forget about it, but I’d be cheating myself and I’d be cheating all the people that look like me if I didn’t do my part to make it better and be a voice and a face that someone can see, and be an inspiration. If I can inspire someone else to take the reins and get outside, that’s the endgame at this point.
That’s something we as media, as an industry, as a culture, have to play an active role in supporting.
I’ve had so many of my friends hit me up [recently] since I’m one of their only Black friends. They listen to me like I’m speaking for everybody that looks like me and that’s not the case. I’m speaking from my human experience. I’m speaking from where I come from and my opportunities, so what I’m saying is probably as PG as it gets for someone that’s lived in a low income neighborhood, that’s been over-policed and been in a shitty school system. I can’t talk for everybody else, but I can be an inspiration for somebody that is in that position to try and be where I’m at, at least in respect to being outside and snowboarding and having an outlet other than whatever they do in after-school programs or whatever else.
So, it just starts with an example and putting it out there as much as we can?
For sure, and educating yourself personally, going forward and dedicating yourself to how you can become not just an ally, but be anti-racist. That’s key; allies are cool and all, but we need co-conspirators. We need people that are actually going to be actively anti-racist.
Like when you’re kicking it with your white boys and one of your buddies is like, “Come on nigga, let’s go do this.” I’ve heard it so many times and it’s like, “Dude, you’re not Black and there’s no need for you to say that and you’re not acting cool.” Call them out for how it is, call it how you see it, don’t let it slide, because that’s how we continually let this system fuck with people that are oppressed.
In the outdoor industry, it starts with the brand managers, the editors right down to the pro riders setting that example and choosing to frame things in an inclusive way.
Maybe not even that, maybe you just hire somebody as a writer that snowboards and they’re of color. Put them on your team, it needs to be diverse, not just from the face of the brand, but internally as well. If the system itself inside media and brands is still going to be the same, it’s still going to continually produce mainly the same things and have tokenism, instead of having an authentic human African American or anyone of color’s experience at the core.
The hard part for a lot of people to grasp is that it’s going to require proactivity, you can’t just wait for something to happen.
We need to work collectively, not from the perspective of finite resources, but instead from the perspective of abundance. If you feel like you put this Black dude on a pedestal on this magazine cover, then there’s not enough for me to go around, you’re missing the point. We need to be able to go, “Ok, I don’t care that I didn’t get a cover shot, but Stevie Bell got the shot and that’s just as good for me, because it’s good for all of us.”
More people need to think about the greater good, especially when it comes to Black people helping each other out. What’s the saying? Crabs in a bucket. They’re always trying to pull each other down. And that’s what we’ve been doing for a while, but I think this movement, more now than ever, has really highlighted the Black culture and people of color holding each other up. Not just as athletes, but people that are everything from scholars to birders to natural conservationists. This movement is huge. It’s a cultural shift.
We’ve got to get rid of that ego. Is that what I’m hearing you say?
Yeah, we’re all grappling with it, but it starts with a perspective of abundance. I could bitch and moan about all the times I feel like people have been prejudiced towards me, but you have to start looking at what you do have going for you, not things that have not gone for you.
That’s a deep conversation regarding how we’re pitted as individual-against-individual as a society—the me-first consumer culture.
That’s the root of some of the problems we’re facing today. We need to be able to think of the collective right now. We’re seeing what the real power of social media is and what it can really harness on a massive scale. Before 2020, all you would see is like, “Hey, look at me, look at my ass, here’s this mountain backdrop, check out my ass.” There was no depth to what was going on at all, and any depth that was there was always too deep. People wanted that superficial fakeness.
We’ve been in quarantine and we’ve been fighting this battle of COVID, but now we also have a tangible enemy we can see, and that’s racism is in the United States. It’s something that you can tangibly change in a time when we’re fighting something we can’t even see, and it’s the perfect moment to grapple with something so heavy in our society.
I hope most of us have been thinking deeper because we’ve been stuck at home with ourselves. I hope you’ve been picking up a book, meditating, doing yoga and doing all the things that make you a better human being, then transitioning that depth of thought to something that you can affect, like systemic racism in our country. Now is a great time to actually get something done. As a collective I think we’re all coming together, at least I hope we are.
A lot of people having been losing their shit—they don’t have a sense of purpose right now. Anti-racism is a good place to find purpose and we have the time to really dig deep.
The perfect example is one of my girlfriends that I’ve known for a while. Five years ago, we were at the pub talking about white privilege and she was like, “Get out of here, that doesn’t exist.” Now, she’s one of the number one advocates I know. She’s like, “We’ve got to bring down the oppressor, watch ‘13th,’” a total freedom fighter. It’s not funny, it’s awesome to see this change.
Once you know better, you should always do better, but there are a lot of people that just want to live in this ignorant box so that they don’t have to ever really face themselves, the music or the issues at hand that are really going to change their living in this finite realm. They’re worried that if people of color start to get better jobs, better opportunities and all that, they’re going to take it from me. But instead, we have to think about it as we’re going to enrich everything as a collective. We can all start striving to be better, together.