I was speaking to an adventurous friend of mine about some of his outdoor activities and commenting on how fun water skiing looked, when I revealed that I wasn’t a very good swimmer. “Yeah, what’s with that?” he asked, perplexed. My friend, who was white, pointed out that most of his black friends didn’t know how to swim, either. This reminded me of a time when I admitted my aquatic inability to another friend (also white), who matter-of-factly assured me that black people were just biologically inept swimmers. Before I could think of an appropriate response, someone else pointed out to her that this was more a cultural thing than a biological one.

But is there some truth behind the stereotype? A 2010 study for USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport, found that nearly 70% of African American children and 58% of Hispanic children have little or no swimming ability, compared to 40% of White children. This puts us at risk for drowning, and also limits those outdoor activities. The study, conducted by the University of Memphis, used surveys of almost 2,000 participants from YMCAs across the country. Most respondents were children of color aged 4 to 18 from “low income households with moderately educated parents/caregivers;” 72 parents or caregivers were also interviewed.

Black participants reported a significantly higher fear of injury or drowning than white respondents, and they were less likely to report that their parents encouraged them to swim or that their family members or best friends were good swimmers. Black respondents were also more concerned about getting their hair wet, and the impact that the water or chemicals would have on their appearance. The study also found that finances or the availability of a pool were not significant factors that hindered swim ability (at least not for these kids, who already spent time at the YMCA).

Black Americans’ relationship with the water has been a complex one. While Africans were “avid swimmers” when they were brought over as slaves, subsequent generations were not allowed to learn how swim, out of fear that they would use those skills to escape. Segregation and racism prevented even later generations of blacks from having access to pools, or pools of good quality. In the 1960s, there was a study published in the Journal of Negro Education that asserted that black people were not as buoyant as white people because their bones were heavier and denser. As the USA Swimming study and some news articles noted, swimming is sometimes viewed—however incorrectly—in the same light as golf: an activity that is mostly enjoyed by the white population. All of this has helped contribute to a culture of non-swimmers.

Although we do have positive examples like that of US Olympic swimmer Cullen Jones, who helped the US win a gold medal and break a world record in 2008, we also have the staggering numbers: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that between 2000 and 2007, the fatal drowning rate for African Americans of all ages was 1.2 times that of whites. Further, the drowning rate of African American children aged 5 to 14 was 3.1 times greater than their white counterparts. The CDC notes that the physical environment (such as access to pools) and combination of social and cultural issues (such as “valuing swimming” or “choosing recreational water-related activities”) possibly contribute to the racial differences.  In the past several years, this problem has been gaining recognition, and there have been initiatives aimed at teaching children of color and their caregivers how to swim and feel comfortable in the water.

For those of us who don’t know to swim, or don’t know how to swim well (guilty), it’s important that we take some initiative ourselves. Although I did have a few swimming lessons as a child, I didn’t have enough—there was time that I almost drowned while playing in the deep end of my aunt’s pool. These days, my lack of skills seems to be more of an annoyance than a danger. I’ve been on vacations and have had to sit on the sidelines watching others splash around in a pristine lake or a picturesque waterfall because the water is too deep for me. But a day might come when I have to swim to safety, and it would be a shame if I can’t because I was worried about hair maintenance or paying for swimming lessons. So when the weather warms up, I will be braiding up my hair and forking over my hard-earned money so that I can learn how to swim.

We all should have this conversation with our family and friends, and my fellow non-swimmers should consider taking some lessons. Not only will you open up a world of new activities, but one day, you might just save your life.

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  1. I wish I would’ve learned how to swim at a younger age. I was so embarrassed when, as a teen, I went to pool parties, and I was always so scared to get in the water. It didn’t help that guys would throw girls in the water, pretty much ending my attendance at most summertime events that involved pools.

    Luckily, my boyfriend went with me to an adult YMCA swimming class, and I finally got over my phobia and really got into pool exercising…

    Thanks for the read

  2. I love Cullen Jones! He’s a cutie..

  3. I’ve always been putting off learning to swim for so long because of a near death experience when I was little girl. I have issues with deep bathtubs. lol

    I know it seems silly but the feeling of weightlessness freaks me out. I never feel in control. This article has given me a little bit of motivation to start swimming lessons. I’m too old to have never gone to a water-park…

  4. i always went swimming as a child. My dad swam alot, but not my mom. i wish she learn since she always like to go on vacation in the islands and etc. but I started to learn how to swim since I was one years old and I would go to the YMCA, girl scout camps, beaches, any pool, basically you couldnt get me out the water. i think its important for every child to learn how to swim, for not only fun purpose but for survival reasons as well. i use to hate going swimming with some of my friends who were black (im black also.) because not only they didn’t know how to swim but because they didnt want to get their hair wett. I hated that with a passion!!!!!! I mean i dont like to get my hair wet too, who doesn’t!. but when its also 90 plus degress with humidity, a glass of water, ice cream, or air conditioner might not help as much as jumping in a pool or ocean to be cooled off. As a suggestion to the ladies that doesnt want to get their hair …put it in braids, or whenever you are going someplace where you know you going to get your hair wet, make an appointment with a salon or a friend to wash your hair the next day. or go to those places towhere you get your wett when you KNOW for sure that its time for a wash and set , and etc. Plain and simple. but overall, at least learn how to swim for safety reasons.

    • @Angela: I feel you. I had a similar situation as my mother didn’t know how to swim, but she eventually learned enough to not drown in shallow water. I was raised with a pool (privileged) and it helped me get comfortable and GROW into my body in the water.

      It so important to make sure children learn how to move in the water so that when they are older they help someone else. Its really like riding a bike, once you learn you never lose confidence…unless your in the ocean, which is a different story all together.

  5. “So when the weather warms up, I will be braiding up my hair and forking over my hard-earned money so that I can learn how to swim.”

    I’m w/ you on this. I didn’t learn to swim when I was little because my parents were afraid I would be part of the drowning statistics. Last year I signed up for swimming classes for 3 weeks, then school kicked in. I only got as far as dead man float. My goal this year is to swim “at least” 1 lap in a pool.

  6. Coming from a family of islanders, I really wanted to learn how to swim. I felt if I did not swim I was insulting my heritage. I need to get back into it because its a fun activity and it made me lose some pounds.

    It just disgusts me when black women/girls dont swim because they are afraid of how their hair will look. Swimming is a potential life saving activity everyone should learn regardless of color, and putting hair concerns over learning swimming is just frivolous to me.

  7. My father swam but I was never taught growing up. My Dad is from coastal SC, I remember growing up and spending summers with my grandmother, she would not allow me to go on any social outing where there was a possibility of water. There was a DEFINITE fear of drowning on her part. I finally learned this year with swim instruction at my health club. My goal is to swim strong enough to complete my first triathlon.

  8. I have always had a love of water, when I was little I would always tell my mom that I wanted to own a house boat. So you would think I could swim like a fish. Not so much. All of my siblings can swim except for my oldest sister and that’s because she had a kid throw her in the deep end of a pool. I can swim ok however I haven’t mastered the art of treading water,which is what will save my life. I am fortunate to have friends who are willing to help with this. Plus I have on my bucket list to cage dive with Great White Sharks so lets go swimming!

  9. It’s not as if you can’t avoid drowning. You can only drown if you’re near a water source. If you stay away from pools, lakes, oceans, rivers and streams, you will likely never have to worry about drowning, and swimming will never really save your life.

    Now–learning to swim is probably as important as learning to ride a bike or roller skate. It’s just one of those things that you will learn to do as a child if you’re exposed to it, and if you aren’t then you’ll likely never learn and become more afraid of it the older you get.

    Swimming is so relaxing, it’s invigorating and it is probably one of the best aerobic exercises ever. Half of all gym machines are built around the kind of natural resistance you get in a pool. A few days a week of swimming can turn your flabby body into a nice, toned, summer body. It works every single muscles in your body and unlike the gym you don’t even notice. As a matter of fact unlike the gym you’re not sore the next day after a day of swimming. You don’t even have to have a routine. All you need to do is hop in the pool and start moving. It’s the best of all world’s.

    As for the hair thing–the swimming pool is like the first part of washing your hair. When it’s all wet it’s got that great wet look to it. Pull it back into a pony tail or let it go natural–it’s just going to keep getting wet. And the best part is that you can keep it wet until you’r ready to get out of the pool for the day, at which time you can go dry your hair and restyle it.

    I can’t believe how much I love swimming and I’m so tickled every time I hear a black person say they can’t swim. It’s not biological. Black people are just as capable of putting one arm in front of the other and kicking their feet as any other group.

  10. I’ve also noticed that if parents aren’t comfortable in the water, there is not as much opportunity or encouragement or kids l be water safe. Learn young- it is such a worth while skill, aside from feeling great and being empowering… There are some great classes for adults too…

  11. This is the reason I’ve started Black Girls Who Swim on Face Book. I witness a friend draw and it has taken me 30yrs to get over it. I love swimming now, and can’t get enough of the water.

  12. Black people don’t avoid swimming because of getting their hair wet – At least that not as main a reason as is claimed. That’s just an excuse.
    They’re afraid of confirming once again that black people are less good at doing something than others. My parents didn’t invest in swim lessons and I admit it never occurred to me to ask. And I always loved water!
    At parties, I was embarassed at how awkward and uncomfortable I felt in the water – as well as being overweight and unattractive in a bathing suit. I’m sure some of THOSE insecurities also plagued some of the women who claimed their hair was the barrier.
    Instead of being disgusted and impatient – have some sympathy. Let’s share a resolve to encourage compassion and change – if only by example.

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