The recent decision to lift the ban on the Soul Cap, a swimming cap designed to accommodate natural hair, at the Olympics marks progress. However, organizations like Black People Will Swim highlight the ongoing battle against racism, taking steps in overcoming challenges and promote swim education in Black communities.
In Black neighborhoods, it’s hard to think of a warm summer memory that doesn’t involve water. On hot days, it’s sometimes a cool glass of ice water. It could be the hose being used as a pond. But most of the time, it’s a body of water that we drive by and play in on our way across the country to visit family who lives somewhere else.
Even though water is always around when people are having fun, it’s no secret that water brings risks and sometimes sad memories in Black communities. USA Swimming, the national governing body for swimming in the United States, says that as many as 64 percent of Black children don’t know how to swim or can’t do it well. This makes it quite challenging for Black kids to take pleasure in a traditional summertime activity.
Organizations are trying to give more Black children and the Black community as a whole the chance to enjoy swimming and learn the lifesaving skills they need to stay safe. Black People Will Swim one of these groups.
Paulana Lamonier, who started the group Black People Will Swim, says, “When we talk about how Black people feel about water, it’s a very complicated story.” “We want our clients and the community to know that we understand what we as a society have been through. We won’t just throw you in the water, but we will teach you how to swim step by step.”
Getting Past Obstacles And Busting Myths
Racism has always been the main reason why Black kids and people don’t know how to swim. From the early 1900s until after the Civil Rights Movement, official and informal rules kept different groups of people out of the same pools. Access to many pools was limited, sometimes because they were being drained and sometimes because Black families could not use neighborhood pools and could only go to a few pools just for Black people. Segregation meant that black people and white people couldn’t be in the same places simultaneously, and the pool was no exception. There were even places where city officials let white pool-goers beat and harass Black people who broke the rule that pools were only for white people.
Access to pools still makes it hard for Black kids and their families to learn how to swim. More recently, a lack of lifeguards across the country has made it harder for people to use public pools. The American Lifeguard Association says that the lack of lifeguards has hurt about a third of the more than 300,000 public parks and pools. As a result, many of them have cut their hours or closed. In Philadelphia, 15 pools have closed because there aren’t enough lifeguards to watch over them. Similar things are happening all over the country at pools and beaches.
Unfortunately, this lack of opportunities still hurts Black people in terrible ways. The Centers for Disease Control says that drowning is the most common way for kids to die. Black people have a mortality rate that is 1.5 times higher than that of white people. The difference is much bigger for Black children. Between the ages of 5 and 9, the death rate for Black children is 2.6 times higher. Between the ages of 10 and 14, it is 3.6 times higher. There are more risks for black people, especially children with autism, epilepsy, or heart problems.
In reality, many under-recognized and often ignored factors make it harder for Black people to take swimming lessons. Lamonier says that three things keep Black people from swimming: they can’t afford it, there aren’t many pools in Black areas, and Black people aren’t represented in the swimming world.
“One that everyone knows is that Black people can’t swim because our bones are too dense, which is not true at all,” she says, pointing out that this myth is common in many sports.
She says that swim lessons can be expensive and that there aren’t enough pools for people to learn and practice swimming. Some teams have never had a Black swimmer or have only had a few, like Great Britain, which has only had three as of the 2021 Olympics. When all of these things are looked at in the context of the exclusion, racism, and discrimination that Black communities in the United States have faced, it becomes clear why Black people haven’t had many chances to learn how to swim.
Getting Close to Black Families
“I chose the name ‘Black People Will Swim’ because it’s not a question of whether we can swim or not. Black people can swim. The question is, will we swim?” asks Lamonier, a first-generation Haitian American who lives with her parents, grandparents, and brothers on Long Island, New York.
Lamonier decided to start Black People Will Swim because he didn’t agree with the idea that black people couldn’t swim. She wants to do this by teaching 2,020 Black people and other people of color how to swim, which will save lives in the long run. But it’s clear that these stereotypes, myths, and experiences that aren’t talked about enough show that people don’t know much about Black culture and history.
Black People Will Swim isn’t the only group working to end differences in swimming. Other groups, like Diversity in Aquatics, are working to make sure that people from underrepresented groups have equal access to safe water and aquatic chances.
There have also been attempts to make swimwear more open to everyone. SOUL CAP is a company that is growing to meet the needs of Black swimmers’ hair. FINA, the group in charge of international swimming competitions, first said no to their desire to use this resource in competitions. They said it wasn’t necessary because players “have never used caps this size and shape and don’t need to use them.” Many people think that the original verdict shows how systemic racism keeps pushing Black people out of the sport of swimming. FINA changed its mind early in September and gave Soul Cap the legal OK.
Lamonier thinks building trust and relationships with Black people of all ages is the most important thing she can do to help them learn to swim. With the help of her sister and cousin, she can do this better as Black People Will Swim into a family project. Lamonier is not letting up, even though the work is hard and there are still structural problems. And she says that watching her parents work hard taught her how to work hard herself.
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