For Black Communities, Learning To Swim Can Be Anything but Simple

FINA has lifted the Olympic ban on Soul Cap, a swimming cap that better supports natural hair. But organizations like Black People Will Swim say more must be done to combat centuries of racial discrimination that kept Black people out of pools.

In Black communities, you'd be hard-pressed to recall heartfelt memories of summer that don't include water. Occasionally, it's a cool glass of ice water on a hot day. It might be the water hose doubling as a fountain. But often, it's a body of water that we pass and play in as we travel cross country to see family out of town.

Yet despite the constant presence of water in fun times, it's no secret that within Black communities water brings risks, and occasionally painful memories. With as many as 64 percent of Black children having little to no swimming ability, according to USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport of swimming in the United States, Black children face enormous risk engaging with one of the best aspects of summer.

Thankfully, there are organizations working to expand the access Black children, and Black communities at large, have to the joys of swimming and the lifesaving skills they need to preserve their safety. One of these organizations is Black People Will Swim.

"When we talk about Black people's relationship with water, it's really complex," says Black People Will Swim founder, Paulana Lamonier. "We want to make sure our clients and community are aware that we understand what we have been through as a community. We are not going to throw you in the water, but we are going to take baby steps to teach you how to swim."

Black Children in pool with a black swim instructor
Black People Will Swim

Breaking Barriers and Busting Myths

The biggest barrier to Black children and adults knowing how to swim has always been racism. From the early 1900s through the Civil Rights era, and beyond, pools were segregated through formal and informal expectations. Access to many pools was limited, occasionally because of draining and often because Black families were banned from local pools and only allowed to visit limited Black-only pools. Segregation ensured that Black people and white people did not share spaces, and the pool was no exception. There were even cities where city officials allowed white patrons of the pool to use means of physical intimidation, including beating and harassing Black people who violated the expectations of pools as a white-only space.

Today, pool access continues to impact Black youth and their families' ability to learn how to swim. More recently, a national lifeguard shortage has left communities with reduced access to public pools. The American Lifeguard Association says that around one-third of the more than 300,000 public parks and pools have been affected by the shortage, with many having reduced hours or closing. In Philadelphia, 15 pools have closed due to the shortage of lifeguards. Similar issues are happening at pools and beaches across the country.

Unfortunately, this lack of opportunity still brings devastating consequences for Black people. The Center for Disease Control notes drowning is a leading cause of death for children. Black people drown at a rate 1.5 times higher than white people. For Black children, the disparity is much wider. The rate of death for Black children is 2.6 times higher for children between ages 5 and 9 and balloons to 3.6 times higher for Black children ages 10 to 14. Black people, especially children with conditions like autism, epilepsy, and heart conditions, face additional risks.

The truth is, there are several under-acknowledged and often ignored factors contributing to the disparities that Black people face in swimming lessons. Lamonier says to understand what prevents Black people from swimming, one must familiarize themselves with the three barriers—lack of affordability, limited pools in Black communities, and a lack of representation.

"One that's notorious is that Black people don't swim because our bones are too dense which is absolutely false," she says, noting this myth's pervasiveness across different sports.

She notes that swim classes can be costly and limited pools means less time to learn and practice swimming. Out of many Olympic swimmers, some teams have never had Black swimmers or have had very few such as Great Britain who has only seen three as of the 2021 Games. All of these factors, when perceived in the context of the exclusion, racism, and discrimination experienced by Black communities within the United States, demonstrate why Black people have had limited opportunities to learn how to swim.

Black Children in pool with at swim class
Black People Will Swim

Diving In With Black Families

"I came up with the name 'Black People Will Swim' because it's not a matter of whether we can or we can't, Black people can swim but will we swim?" asks Lamonier, a first-generation Haitian American who lives in Long Island, New York with her parents, grandparents, and siblings.

A desire to challenge the narrative that Black people don't swim informed Lamonier's decision to found Black People Will Swim. She plans to achieve this by teaching 2,020 Black and people of color to swim and ultimately save lives. But it's clear these stereotypes, myths, and under discussed histories point towards a lack of awareness around Black culture and history.

Black People Will Swim isn't alone in the fight to end aquatic disparities. Other organizations, like Diversity in Aquatics, are working to ensure marginalized communities have equitable access to water safety and aquatic opportunities.

There have also been efforts to bring inclusivity in swimwear. SOUL CAP, is a growing company working to accommodate the hair needs of Black swimmers. FINA, the organization that oversees international competitions in swimming, initially denied their request to bring this resource to competitive swimming. Their reasoning was it wasn't necessary since athletes have "never used, neither require to use, caps of such size and configuration." Many believe the initial verdict reflects the continuous pattern of systemic discrimination that pushes Black people out of the sport of swimming. FINA changed course and gave Soul Cap official approval in early September.

Lamonier believes trust and relationship building is central to her efforts to help Black people of all ages learn to swim. She's better able to achieve this as Black People Will Swim expands into a family effort through the support of her sister and cousin. The work is hard, and there are still structural challenges but Lamonier is not giving up. And she attributes the lessons she has internalized on hard work from watching her parents' example.

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  1. Drowning Facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  2. Schultz, Jaime. Racialized Osteology and Athletic Aptitude, or “Black” Bones as Red HerringsJournal of Sport History, vol. 46, no. 3, 2019, 325-346. doi:10.5406/jsporthistory.46.3.0325

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