‘Black People Can’t Swim’

‘Black people can’t swim’. ‘Aren’t your bones really dense? How can YOU swim’?

These are just a few responses I have personally received when people discover that I, erectile can indeed swim. Excuse me for my brazen attitude and whilst I find myself admittedly irritated at the memories of these incidents, ask this is a topic that needs to be discussed. Black stereotypes in sports exist today even at high levels and it is both alarming and harmful. Now, not wanting to be cavalier in my approach, I am weary of the responses that I may get. ‘Most of the fastest runners in the world are black!’, ‘Nearly all competitive long distance runners are African or are from African descent – no one is complaining about that!’Why does it matter if nearly all of those who compete at the highest levels of swimming are white if the latter is true? It is simply more than participation and diversity at a face value, it goes beyond that. It is to do with the language of racist stereotyping that creeps into the world of swimming and how this has an effect on participation at a grassroots level. Stereotypes like these do not exist for white people in other sports and if they do are not a hindrance to their participation.  

Let me clear up something for those who are unsure or simply unaware: black people can swim.

If we trace back the absurd notion of the stereotype we will find unsurprisingly that it is only a myth, there is no scientific backing and if there was it would probably be pseudo-racist scientific ‘research’. Black people do not have denser bones; they do not sink more quickly when they enter the water. The myth, particularly in America, was merely a means to perpetuate and affirm the racist laws that had plagued America for centuries, banning African-Americans from public swimming pools. In  1953 an entire pool was drained at the Last Frontier Hotel when actress Dorothy Dandridge purposely dipped her toe in the water.


Dorothy Dandridge

With these swimming pool laws only occurring just over 60 years ago, it is not surprising that there is a lack of participation from African-American’s at a competitive level. 70% of African-American and 60% of Hispanic/Latino children cannot swim, a figure that correlates with the fact that if a parent does not know how to swim, there is a 87% chance that a child in that household will not learn how to swim either. Let us not forget, however, that this harmful stereotype exists closer to home in the UK too, as well as in other countries around the world.


We must not allow ludicrous stereotypes to stop young black children from thriving in sports. Simone Manuel, who took home four Olympic medals in the recent Rio Olympic games, was the first African-American woman to win gold in an individual swimming Olympic title. Just as she wanted to do, Simone became an inspiration ‘For people who believe that they can’t do it’ and went further to encourage others to ‘get out there and try swimming’. I was overjoyed when imagining young black girls and boys watching the TV screen as she took her gold medal and thinking to themselves, ‘if she can do – it so can I’, a privilege that they are sadly not as accustomed to as their white counterparts.


Simone Manuel

I was lucky enough to have parents that signed me up for weekly swimming lessons at the age of 7 when I moved from Ghana to the UK, after all, my childhood was filled with stories of my father swimming in the sea with his brothers and sisters. For those who are not as lucky as I am, please do not let a racist stereotype stifle your desires. Whilst I myself only competed amongst my girl guides troop at my local swimming pool and am certainly not an Olympic champion, I am warmed by Simone Manuel’s triumph.

It is sad that it took her victory for me to finally be able to debunk the ‘black people can’t swim’ myth, but the next time someone tells you that black people can not swim, remind them that this is not true and the reasons why it is merely a myth, a racist stereotype nonetheless. It is stifling and harmful to the achievement of young black children. With this myth beginning to fade into the past where it belongs, I only hope that participation at a grassroots level and in swimming competing circles for black people will continue to grow.


Written by Jasmine Botchey

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