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Why can’t Black people swim?

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Why can’t Black people swim?

Some of you are probably screaming, “You can’t say that!”

Well, before anyone “dives off the deep end” (pun very deliberately intended), this article ambitiously attempts to address the title in three ways:

  • Why don’t more Black people swim, is it really “Blaquaphobia” (the apparent fear Black people have of water)? 

  • Is the title a greater metaphor for why people from diverse backgrounds (not just Black) “can’t swim”, in the sense of facing the greater/wider challenges in society?

  • Is the issue more about accessibility rather than ability?

It is a widely held misconception that Black people can’t swim. This is perpetuated by statistics that indicate that “only 2% of regular swimmers in England are Black”, according to an article in The Observer newspaper in April 2021. The article goes on to state that, according to the sport’s governing body, Swim England, “95% of Black adults, and 80% of Black children do not swim.” One of the biggest concerns to come out of the statistics is that “Black children are three times more likely to drown than white children.” 

The lack of Black people or people of colour participating or succeeding in major swimming events further perpetuates the myth. As a child I often heard people chuckle when they used the absence of Black swimmers at the Olympics as some sort of “proof of idea/concept”. Some well-meaning pragmatists would put forward arguments about muscle and bone density, skin type or Afro hair, etc. But isn’t the issue a lot simpler … access versus ability? Access to swimming pools geographically and economically, access to coaches, and the existing barriers of misconceptions from both Black and white communities about swimming. 

Access versus ability is, for me, a crucial issue when addressing diversity and inequality in general. When answering questions about the “overrepresentation” of Black sportspeople in football, athletics, and basketball for example, one only has to look at the low barriers to entry. These sports can be played almost anywhere by anybody, at almost no cost (physical ability permitting), in contrast with sports that involve membership fees, equipment, travel, parental support, overcoming prejudices, etc.

When you look at sports where Black athletes are “overrepresented”, representation changes dramatically when it comes to management and ownership, where the high barriers to entry occur again, particularly stereotypes and misperceptions.

Isn’t it a perverse irony, however, that some sports with incredibly high barriers to entry have had Black athletes not only succeed but raise expectations about the standards to which those sports can be performed? Ballet (Misty Copeland), gymnastics (Simone Biles), golf (Tiger Woods), tennis (Serena Williams) and even more remarkably, Formula 1 (Lewis Hamilton). I am absolutely not trying to suggest anything other than … “See what happens when the chance to participate is open to the wider community.”

Couldn’t we look at the foregoing as lessons we should learn from, and apply to society in as a whole? Let’s take the title of this article strictly as a metaphor. 'Black people' could stand for everyone from a diverse background, and the 'swimming pool' as society in general. Many assumptions, stereotypes and misconceptions prevent people from diverse backgrounds from accessing resources, including finance, education, training and opportunities. Societal prejudices prevent people from diverse backgrounds excelling even when the perception is that we are being given a chance. (“Diversity is being invited to the party, but inclusion is being asked to dance,” as Verna Myers said). 

Yes, this article looks at diversity from a sports perspective, and yes, because I’m Black. But the issues apply across all sectors and aspects of society. The five Black sports stars could easily have been people that are not from the ‘four pillars’ of white-heterosexual-Christian-male in many other industries.

Before we make assumptions about ability, shouldn’t we first examine accessibility?

Originally written Divercity Magazine -read here