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Does it Matter If Blacks Can Swim?

So I’ve been running around for the last two months trying to figure out how to get my triathlon camp for minority/low-income/at-risk and disabled kids up and running. (Yeah, I know that’s a mouthful. I’m gonna’ have to think of a snazzier description of my demographic without labeling them. How can you label without labeling? Mmmm. That’s a post of another ilk I guess.)

Anyway, my brilliant idea was to hook up with USA Swimming which has a healthy program outreach to minorities. They’re trying to overcome a long-held belief and long-standing myth that blacks can’t swim.

It’s seems the subject of black aquatics is quite popular.

Witness the rerun of an episode of TAL,(This American Life for the uninitiated) where a Jewish ad man has to write an ad campaign for the military that would sell the “principles of America,” to the hostile Arab world. He likens the experiment to writing a commercial for a soda client for it’s “urban,” – read black – market. He comes up with an ad  that uses a pool as a backdrop.  And the ad agency’s  managers spend weeks pondering one thing, “Do black people swim?”

It’s a question I know floats around not only board rooms but the projects, the highest eschelons of black middle class and in the sporting world. As a 35-year-old black woman I have yet to meet another person in my age group who can swim. OK, I take that back. My friend John, who grew in Chicago like I did swims. But he’s the diversity coordinator for USA Swimming so he doesn’t count.

I mean I know a lot of blacks who “play in the water,” but as far as swim not really. Does it matter? USA Swimming will tell you it does. As Scott over at Timed Finals points out drowning is the second-leading cause of accidental death among children. And black children are twice as likely and up to five times as likely – depending upon age – to die from drowning.

So since blacks go to the beach, the pool, the lake and everywhere else it would behoove them to learn how to swim.

I always have to smile when people – including black people – say that black people don’t swim. I wonder what that makes me.

I started swimming when I young – like four. I would go to the park around the corner from my house and it had a 50-meter pool. Since I had unprocessed hair – read nappy – I didn’t care about getting it wet. So I swam. And fell in love with it. I even competed during day camp.

Learning how to swim became my saving grace when I ballooned up to 260+ pounds and couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs. It was the only exercise I could do without killing myself. It was swimming that introduced me to triathlons. And allowed me to shed a whole person in my quest to become an Ironamn.

So back to my title question. Does it matter if blacks can swim? Yes.

1. We all need to learn how to swim so we don’t drown. Global warming says we’ll have lots more beach front property than we do now.

2. Swimming can fight the scourage of childhood obesity that cuts the lives short of minorities everyday.

3. You have to swim to do triathlons. And we all know that being a triathlete is one of the best ways to lose and keep off weight.

That’s it. Rant over.



6 thoughts on “Does it Matter If Blacks Can Swim?

  1. HAHA, Good post.
    Well It’s not that Blacks can’t swim they just don”t. I personally didn’t learn until I hit college, where everyone is require to swim in order to graduate. Now picture a swimming class of 20, 18 blacks and 2 whites. I was the anomaly of the group; I learned how to swim in basically 45 mins. I turn and said that swimming was very over rated and I didn’t understand why more Blacks didn’t know how to swim.

    Alot of people says it stems from the way we grew up. Yes while we played in pools and went to the beach, when didn’t say have swimming lession when we were 2-4 like most of white counters, or nor did go to the “Lake” during the summer breaks or weekends, where socially you had to be comfortable around water in order to “survive”

    Good luck with the camp,


    Posted by Justin V | January 16, 2008, 4:17 am
  2. Very interesting post.

    Not being black, I can’t answer the question. It’s a horrible stereotype though. But I certainly have to wonder about the availability of pools and such to urban youth.

    Posted by Bill | January 19, 2008, 1:06 am
  3. I hope you email me – check out our site

    Posted by Cassie Trotter | January 22, 2008, 10:04 pm
  4. Yes, I think everyone should be taught to swim when at an early age, for their safety if nothing else. I was brought up near 4 beaches, but wasn’t allowed to swim there because of the strong currents. It was when I developed arthritis that I finally took the plunge, as I knew it would help.

    Posted by jumblue | January 24, 2008, 7:02 pm
  5. Wonderful post; this is really an epidemic with a cure. Learning to swim is essentially a life skill, and a protracted legacy of racism, segregation, and fear have essentially “deaquafied” more that just African Americans in this country. The disproportionate death and obesity rates in all communities of color are a testament to that which is why I always caution about making this a “Black” thing although this myth is most popular.

    USA Swimming is the embodiment of what is good and strong about sports today. We believe in the broader social value of swimming and have a compelling vision to “Make a Splash” in communities across the nation. Together, we can expand the opportunities for people of all ages and all walks of life to experience the health, safety and personal development benefits of competitive swimming, and provide greater opportunities for coming generations and underrepresented populations to benefit from the unique experience of belonging to a USA Swimming team.

    Make a Splash – Atlanta is one of many new pilot programs across the country created to make the sport of swimming an integral part of the programming offered to young people at six Boys & Girls Club locations in urban Atlanta. As the next section describes, this program is part of a broader vision to use the sport of swimming as a vehicle for helping to reduce disproportionate drowning rates and improve the lives of individuals and to make communities better.

    Learn to swim today!

    Posted by John Cruzat | February 6, 2008, 4:26 pm
  6. I have swam my entire life competitevely and as recreation. I have lived on 3 continents and yes, I saw blacks expressing interest in swimming, attending swimming lessons and even participating in competitions. I saw blacks learning various swimming techniques. What I have NOT seen is blacks being any good at it or keeping up with the normative even by the simplified US standards that gives blacks way more opportunity to be trained for a competitive team. I am not sure which genetic factor is the problem here, but no matter how much time is spent practicing, blacks are slow and inefficient swimmers and tend to be unable to sufficiently hold breath when compared to asians and europeans. So, let’s get it straight, blacks can splash in the pool all they want, but as far as competitive swimming is concerned, blacks CAN’T swim.

    Posted by andre | August 29, 2008, 5:48 pm

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