Have you ever come across the stereotype that Black people can’t swim? Although this is in fact true for many Black people, where does this come from and why is it a dangerous assumption?
Many tell the tale that Black people have a fear of water because of the slave ships traveling across the Atlantic ocean. Mass murders took place in the past, such as the Zong Massacre, where more than 130 black hostages were flung overboard and left to drown. The slave traders attempted to claim on their insurance for the financial loss. Thankfully they weren’t successful, yet when the charges were turned around on the slave traders for murder, it was laughed out of court at the audacity that ‘human beings’ were thrown overboard, as Blacks were goods and property, like wood.
Research has shown that fear alters genes and can be passed down to children genetically, which supports this tale. And while we cannot even begin to imagine the trauma of slavery, we do know that being transported on ships across water wasn’t the only disgusting thing that happened to slaves. Fear of chains, whips and cotton haven’t been passed down through generations - we all know that cotton bedding is soft af. Just because research has shown that fear CAN be passed down to children genetically, this doesn’t mean it always is.
Other laughable theories have been published as to why Black people can’t swim:
Water closes our pores which means we can’t get rid of carbon dioxide and tire quickly
This stems from the stereotype of Black people’s skin tending to have larger pores. However, breathing out is what gets rid of carbon dioxide, not our skin. I mean come on.
Black people have longer limbs and denser bones
Yes, Black people do tend to have denser bones. However the difference is so minute between Black and White people that it’s not enough to affect the swimming ability of an entire race. And on the longer limbs, Michael Phelps is 6’4 and he has what, 28 olympic medals now?
That’s a rhetorical question, he does have 28 olympic medals. I checked.
The wrong ideas are absorbed by media and spread so quickly, that by the time they are discredited and the correct information is published, it is too late. It is yesterday’s news. Like when newspapers spread lies on the front page, yet when they have to retract their statements it’s on page 32, in tiny writing.
So what is the reason a lot of Black people can’t swim? When swimming became popular as a leisure activity, Black people weren’t allowed into the pools. The fear was that Black men would hit on the helpless White women. When Black people were eventually allowed into pools, not many could afford it. If a parent can’t swim, they are very unlikely to teach their child. It’s not seen as a necessity, and this has been passed down through generations.
Besides, wash day is once a week for me, do you know the damage that chlorine would do to my hair, let alone how it dries out your skin?! I actually enjoy swimming, but it really isn't worth the hassle. We gotta retain all the moisture we can get.
Systemic racism keeps many Black people poor today, and when you live on the breadline, there isn’t any spare cash for unnecessary swimming lessons. Running however is free - and that opens another discussion into the stereotype of Black people and running, which we’ll save for another day. The stereotype itself also increases the expectation of failure when it comes to Black people swimming, both internally and expectations from others.
This stereotype is dangerous and needs to be addressed. There are Black people who can swim, of course there are. But pinning a lack of ability to biological reasons due to race is insidious. You can see how easy it was for the news of Black people being more at risk of COVID-19, to spread for the wrong reasons, without even a second thought about the impact on Black people’s daily life, at work and at school. People believe it is biologically due to race that hate crimes are increasing, while ignoring the impact systemic racism and discrimination have on health, housing, income and access to services. How long till it becomes the narrative that we’re just not as good at running companies because of our biology? Or biologically unable to make make informed voting decisions?
Decades of systematic racism and discrimination has controlled the wealth, education, housing and employment of black people. Swimming wasn’t, and for many still isn’t, affordable and therefore isn’t seen as a necessity, which is passed down. Ignoring racial stereotypes is a slippery slope. Let's correct them and tackle the causes.
Written by Simone Robinson
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