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.