Black Women Don’t Swim?

On public radio, we've been hearing a lot about how Black people and water don't mix. Or more precisely, why so many Black people don't swim.

By Michelle Chen Jul 21, 2010

The summer heat tends to stir up peculiar media obsessions. On public radio, we’ve been hearing a lot about how Black people and water don’t mix. Or more precisely, why so many Black people don’t swim. Fear of water? Fear of bad hair? Or something else lurking beneath the surface? New York’s WNYC ran a long feature on the "accepted" belief that Black women just don’t swim. Peppered with references to Chris Rock’s post-racial pop-culture-freakout sensation Good Hair, the reporter Jenna Flanagan wonders whether Black women are kept from swimming by the oppressive crown of straightened locks. NPR’s Tell me More takes a public health angle, debating whether Black women’s hair anxieties may be indirectly contributing to generalized fear of swimming in the Black community. In a bit of a speculative leap, the segment suggests that this could mean fewer children of color knowing how to swim, and by extension, more kids drowning in the neighborhood pool. Is hair at the root of the problem? Citing a University of Memphis study on lack of swimming skills among youth of color, Tell Me More guest, Olympic medalist Cullen Jones, tells host Michel Martin:

…the first big thing is fear. And I can completely speak to that. You know, I almost drowned at five and my mom told me it took me a while because I was very timid about getting back in the water. Secondly, it’s parental backing. A lot of parents themselves don’t know how to swim and they feel that because they can’t save their child, God forbid anything was to happen, they treat water like fire. Stay away from it. It’s bad. And third is definitely the physical aspect of it: dry skin, ladies with their hair, which I understand completely, my mom spends good money getting her hair done, I completely understand it.

Jones suggests it’s a complex overlap of factors that keeps kids out of the pool. Still, the study itself doesn’t harp on hairstyles, though it does note that Black girls reportedly have less ability or comfort in the pool than Black boys and other females. The key findings include:

• As income increased so did respondent swimming ability/comfort, agreement with "swimming is for me", "I have a parent/guardian that encourages me to swim", "a majority of my family members can swim", and fear of drowning decreased. • Respondents from homes with highly educated parents/guardians (advanced degrees) were significantly more skilled/ comfortable swimming and inclined to receive arental/guardian support for swimming, and less inclined to express fear of drowning than children from households with less educated parent/caregivers. • Respondents indicating that it is not easy to get to the nearest pool as well as those citing a "fear of people around pool" and reported significantly lower swimming ability/comfort and higher fear of drowning. • Free/reduced lunch recipients reported significantly lower swimming ability, significantly less agreement with "swimming is for me", parental/caregiver support, and greater fear of drowning.

I’m a native New Yorker of East Asian descent who never learned how to swim as a kid. When I took a beginner swimming class in college, I noticed the class was filled with other Asian women, and was incidentally taught by a Black female instructor. Maybe that has some social or cultural significance, maybe not. But does the Black hair theory shed any light on why Black boys and Latino children, and other groups tend to be less aquatically inclined? The media appears to be mixing its fixation on Black hair politics with a separate set of social issues, tied to culture, socioeconomic status and gender. Lower down in Flanagan’s story, after explaining that a kid might not feel like getting their hair soaked in chlorine after "mom may have just paid $60 to $100 to get it done in the first place"–she touches on some issues other than Black aesthetics that might pose a barrier to water sports:

However, NYU Sociology Professor Ann Mourning says vanity isn’t to blame for the fewer numbers of black swimmers. It’s access to swimming pools and segregation. It’s no secret that summertime activities in poor urban neighborhoods are more likely to include an open fire hydrant than aquatics. But Mourning says when segregation was the law of the land, swimming pools were considered to be far too intimate of a place for blacks and whites to mix. Some pools even had rules that if a black person put so much as a toe in the water, the entire pool would need to be drained and scrubbed clean. To back up this exclusion and remove the burden of responsibility for it, theories were created that blacks simply weren’t geneticallly or physically suited for the water. As a result, Mourning says many African-Americans didn’t learn to swim and some even developed a phobia of it. They ended up teaching their own kids to fear the water as well.

Of course, it’s hard to prove that past racist policies are directly responsible for apparent the lack of a swimming culture in some urban communities of color. On the other hand, in segregated cities, where structural racism continues to shade into the use and perception of public recreation, it seems less outlandish to focus on the role of historical memory versus, say, Black women’s supposedly life-consuming hair neuroses. But of course, it’s more fun to just indulge public fascination with how hairstyles influence Black women’s behavior. And when that story gets old, just add water. Photo: Splash Atlanta, USA Swimming Foundation