Who Says Black People Don’t Swim?

by Danielle Pointdujour

The Black People Don''t Swim MythOne thing that sets the Clutch woman (or man) apart from the rest is an adventurous spirit and ability to go against ‘the norm.’  If you’re anything like me your spirit moves you to do things that typically are met by friends and family with statements such as “Girl, you crazy…you know black people don’t insert activity here”  or “Please, only white people do….”  Thing is, black people do a lot of these ‘negro no-nos’ and have a great time doing so.  One of the myths I hear most often has to be that black people don’t swim.

Now statistically speaking it is true, plenty of black people, and minorities in general, don’t know how to swim *shamefully raises hand.*  However, that doesn’t mean that all black people don’t swim.  Yes we worry about sharks and maintaining our fresh Indique weaves, but we swim.  Even someone like me who can’t swim will jump in a pool and get my dog paddle on.  Don’t judge me!  Recently our favorite Cosby kid Keshia Knight Pulliam was spotted hitting the diving board in preparation for her stint on the upcoming reality show called Splash and there are even famous black swimmers, just check out Maritza Correia, who in 2002 became the first black female swimmer to break an American record and the first female black swimmer to make it onto the U.S. Olympic team.  How’s that for non swimming Black folk!

Yet even with examples like these the myth still exists that we as a people can’t, don’t or won’t swim.  I think the myth is so ingrained in us that many don’t even try to learn how because they figure that it’s something “we” don’t do.  No while I have no fear of the water and will gladly cliff dive any day of the week into a crystal clear ocean, I must say that I am tired of being one of the people who can’t swim.  So this year I plan to take action and get my butt in the water the proper way, starting with some swimming lessons, preferably in a foreign country (Hey if I’m going to learn why not do it on vacation!). Before this year is out I plan to be a Black person who does swim and I can’t wait! In the meantime, let’s help break the “Black people don”t swim myth”?

Do you believe the myth?  Can you swim and if not are you willing to learn?

  • Common Sense

    How utterly ridiculous, every black person I know, including me knows how to swim. I don’t know where that myth came from!!!!

  • Tallulah Belle

    You cannot be serious that there is a reality show about Black people swimming? Is there no end to this ridiculous madness? Sounds like somebody needs to open a book and give the tv a rest for a moment.

  • Tallulah Belle

    Exactly.

  • Aimz

    I’ve been swimming since I was about…six or seven years old. I have six siblings and my father taught all of us to swim. I love it!

  • http://Clutch SL

    Well, I swim – and taught myself – just like my dad and uncles. My mom, sister and aunts don’t swim. My husband swims and so does our daughter – we started her in the pool when she was between 10-12mos. Most of my male cousins swim with several of them having medaled in HS and college. Not all white people swim :-).

  • Anon

    THANK YOU!!! I grew up near the water, and not having your children not know how to swim was considered a BASIC safety hazard. http://www.fourhourbody.com/immersion This is a link to Total Immersion, Freestyle made easy. There is no excuse to not learn how to do a basic life-saving stroke.

  • DK

    Minorities typically don’t know how to swim because POC were banned from white pools and kids are less likely to learn if their parents never did. It’s racism, not an inability or unwillingness to learn.

  • Anon

    You ain’t never lied.

  • http://sdeyeonmusic.tumblr.com YoYo Marie

    Out of all my friends and family, I’m one of the very few who doesn’t know how to swim well and having been in the Navy, I always catch flack for it. BUT that doesn’t stop me from getting into a pool. I can float at least lol.

    But I really hate that “Black people don’t do…” thing because I like to do a LOT of stuff that I just consider fun, I didn’t think a certain race had to be associated with it to be fun.

  • march pisces

    i learned how to swim about five or so years ago b/c i was looking to mix up my workout routine. love it!!! best total body workout you will every get.

  • march pisces

    tallulah, its not just black people. it’s a show with celeberties like dancing with the stars. although i do agree more books need to be opened and tv’s off.

  • Nikster

    I hope more Black people swim. For a while I was swimming at my schools lap pool and I was the only Black person. I taught myself how to correctly do the freestyle watching online videos. Such a great work out. The myth is kind of true though. Cullen Jones, Black Olympic Swimmer, has been an advocate for promoting swimming in the Black community since Blacks disproportionately die from drownings relative to other groups: According to research on the issue 70% of black children don’t know how to swim compared to 40% of Black children. They are also more likely to die from drowning compared to their white counterparts. http://thegrio.com/2012/07/25/olympic-swimmer-cullen-jones-aims-to-reduce-black-drowning-deaths/. Most Blacks, not all, don’t swim. Lack of community pools, money to pay for lessons, and the stereotype that we don’t swim has played a major role.

  • Wow

    I didn’t know that black people didn’t swim until someone black told me that black people don’t swim.

  • ConsciousWoman

    I wish the writer would have done a little more research before writing this article. Historically black people did not learn to swim because of location – urban areas (less access to pools) and being banned from white pools during historical times. From there the emphasis was not put on swimming as a basic necessity for survival.

  • YB

    I’ve always found this stereotype to be ridiculous and stupid. When generalizing many people tend to repeat ignorance instead of taking the time to think.

    Depending on geography, some people are more likely to know how to swim than others. My brothers and sister where born in L.A. We all know how to swim. My mom was born in Chicago. She can’t swim. My dad is from Lagos, and lived in Victoria Island for a number of years. He can swim. Many black people living on the West Coast, Caribbean and on the coast of Africa can swim. Many black people living in Central African and the Midwest, and South can’t.

    Some black people can’t swim, not because of our hair, our because the melanin in our skin makes us sink (I’ve actually heard that shit), but because our geographical location. It’s that simple.

  • CCN

    One of my parents was born on an island in West Africa and didn’t learn how to swim until adulthood. However, they grew up further inland and were not exposed to large bodies of water, not even a swimming pool. There work lakes and rivers, but they were shallow. I think that slaves where discouraged from swimming as it created a flight risk (reasoning for what had been the reason most blacks couldn’t swim). I almost drowned as a kid, then took classes to learn as a result. But, I still have a phobia of water, and still find myself panicking/forgetting when I do go swimming, which is once every blue moon.

  • The Moon in the Sky

    One cannot repeat ignorance. However, one can repeat misinformation due to ignorance of the facts or what is logical.

  • MommieDearest

    Meh. I learned to swim when I was 8. Also it just so happens that I signed my son up for swimming lessons today.

  • The Moon in the Sky

    I cannot swim. It’s not because ‘Black people don’t swim’, but because I didn’t have access to a pool as some others may have. When I was elementary school age and went to summer camp for a few summers, we went to the pool, but I don’t remember there being swimming lessons offered. When we moved to the suburbs, I actually lost access to the pool because the area where we moved to only had pools where one has to be a resident of that development. Our development doesn’t have a pool, so the very few times I went to the pool were if someone’s friend snuck us in by pretending we lived in the complex.

    Anyway.

    I would certainly learn now.

  • http://gravatar.com/nolakiss16 binks

    Agreed! I most definitely think it is a location thing mixed with historical references on why some don’t do this activity as a whole. Personally, I’ am from New Orleans though we have lakes, swamps and the Gulf I can’t swim (oddly I love the water so I need to learn…lol) nor can my mother or brothers but my dad can because he was in the Navy. Furthermore, it depends on whether the parents put emphasis on swimming as an activity. My mom hates water (she almost drowned) so when we go somewhere vacation/fun wise it is most likely doesn’t include water so it was a skill we learned. But lol at this reality show, but if it inspires some hey…a win is a win.

  • Yvette

    That’s ridiculous. I am 47 years old and I learned to swim in the south (Augusta, GA). I took lessons at 3 different swimming pools with children of all races and ethnicities. Racism did not keep me or my children out of a pool.

  • Casey13

    It’s not a show about black people swimming. It’s a show about celebrities learning how to dive.

  • Anon

    I’m with you Yvette. There wasn’t a large number of black pools when my parents were growing up (Deep South), but there were bodies of water so EVERYONE was taught how to swim by my grandparents, who also knew how to swim. You can’t go fishing, crabbing, on a boat, etc… if you can’t swim. Heck, it is dangerous to go to a BEACH if you can’t swim. I could maybe buy the can’t swim/no access thing if you were a minority in an inner city from the 70′s (I’ll give the early 80′s as a late option) and before, but after that… ummmm, nope. Not buying it.

    Swimming is a basic life skill. Everyone should at least know how not to drown.

  • http://www.urbanexpressive.com J. Nicole

    Yea pretty much…

    And like many people said, its about location amongst other things. When I went to the pool and saw ALL of those people there, I got grossed out & never wanted to learn. The next time I tried there were numerous stories about people getting sucked into the drain. My nerves just wont let me do it, however my siblings, nieces & nephews swim. My other family members who do not live in NYC, nor share my phobias swim. I thought this stereotype died about 35 years ago.

  • Joy

    Tall: Yeah ALL people need to open up a book (more often). Actually only about 6%% of society reads a book on a regular basis. The other 94% rarely if ever reads a book.

  • Joy

    Kerry Washington was swimming like a fish last night on Scandal. And it was real…..not a stunt person

  • Rakel

    IA with the comments, I think location matters. It’s funny because my parents grew up near water and didn’t learn how to swim. My dad learned in America as an adult, and my mom doesn’t care too. I learned how to swim in high school because I was a lifeguard.

  • http://gravatar.com/frankfurt2008 A.W.

    Black People DO swim! I however was late to learn learner. My father could swim, so I never understood why I never learned. I will say this, older generations from the south were not ALLOWED access to public swimming pools, so the option didn’t exist unless it was ocean, lake or creek swimming. It’s never too late to learn. I took lessons for 2 years and eventually learned to swim the total immersion technique, eventually competing in several triathlons. It’s the most fun way to exercise!

  • Tallulah Belle

    I learned to swim in “white people’s pools” in the country clubs of New Jersey in the 1970′s. And, there were a few black people in my neighborhood who also had their very own backyard pools. Black and white, we all learned to swim together. Lots of black folk can swim. The concept is simply ridiculous.

  • GlowBelle

    This is the stupidest myth. I had my cousins tell me that same crap, along with their reasoning why…and it was because they didn’t want to mess up their hair….-_-

    I used to not know how to swim, but I’ve always loved the water and going to the beach and I was determined to learn so I did. I picked swimming back up again last year to do something different for my exercise routine (swimming is the BEST for all-over-body workout, FYI!) and since the apartment where I now live has a pool, so I’ve been sort of re-teaching myself. I agree that access/location and even money (I had to stop lessons as a kid for that reason alone) has a lot to do with why Black people carry this myth, but it’s still a myth and I wish it would go away.

  • dirtychai

    I think people have taken that stereotype, as well as the one about hair and exercise, and internalized it so much to make true when it really isn’t. I didn’t learn to swim well until I got to college and it was a requirement for graduation. I wasn’t because I’m Black, but because unlike most of my other Black friends, I lived in a rural area and didn’t have access to a pool or any other water that was safe to swim in.

  • Tallulah Belle

    Historically, that is just plain inaccurate. My parents are nearly 80 years-old and they and all of their friends can swim. There were plenty of “Black Only” or “Colored Only” pools in the US before desegregation. Just like there were plenty of Black folk beaches — specifically, Atlantic City was known as “Chicken Bone Beach” in the 40′s and 50′s. Once again, I emphasize reading your history books. It’s all in there. You all need to open one on the subject, focus and read. Sheeesh!

  • cookiechica

    Tallulah, it wasn’t all of Atlantic City that was called “Chicken Bone Beach”, but one stretch of it, specifically Missouri Ave Beach(my grandparents went to that beach often when they were dating back in the day). I bought a beautiful vintage reproduction photo from the historical society museum on the Boardwalk in A.C. years ago of Black lifeguards–both men and women–posing on that beach, and it looks like it’s from the late 20′s-early 30′s from the looks of the bathing suits and hairstyles(the ladies had stockings on!).

  • Tallulah Belle

    @cookiechica

    Beautiful. I have some very lovely sepia originals from that era of my mother and father as children with their parents, as well. The date is about 1948. I too love that era, and yes, you are so right! “Chicken Bone Beach” was in that area. Thank you thank you thank you for your well-informed comment!! The history of Black America is being lost when we do not educate ourselves about its richness, power and breath-taking contribution to the country in which we all live today. And failing to educate ourselves is costing our community, ENORMOUSLY. Do not let other people re-create our history by failing to study it.

  • zena

    I’m a black woman and I swim. I’ll swim in a pool, lake, ocean, I don’t care. Swimming is so fun. I learned at the Butler Street YMCA Atlanta in the 70′s at 5 years old. It’s funny that I hardly ever see any other black people swim and when I do go swimming I feel like a sideshow freak because everyone is staring.

  • cookiechica

    @Tallulah
    I agree 1000%, and it’s not only the major, important leaders and facts people need to know, they should look at the everyday heroes and sheroes both past and present (lifeguards needed for segregated Chicken Bone Beach in the 30′s, lifeguards need to know how to swim to save lives, they were Black…Blacks do SWIM!!)that did things we, “weren’t/aren’t supposed to do or know about” .

  • London

    That’s still a horrible premise for a show. Even for reality tv that sounds dumb. These tv executives aren’t even trying anymore.

  • Me

    The plural of anecdote is not data.

    Are you guys that unaware? Of course some black people can swim but it’s more of an issue of economics in terms of access to pools in rural/poor urban areas. Poor of people any race are less likely to know how to swim it just so happens that overall in the black community a large proportion of people are disadvantaged. Some people would have loved to learn how to swim before college,myself included, but between none of my schools actually having pools and not being able to afford the YMCA lessons, my only choice have been to brave the rough dirty waters at the beach and try to teach myself because my parents couldn’t swim either.

  • Me

    Nice to see that readers at Clutch are so economically prejudiced

  • ChaCha1

    I try to swim, but I go under, think I’m doing my thing, and then when I come up a minute later, I’m only 3 feet away from my starting point. What the hell? I’m horrible…but at least I’m not afraid to try! I learned swim a little bit when I was 15, but I sort of forgot. I plan on re-learning this summer.

  • Gell0h0h

    I was born and raised in Philadelphia. However, my mother would take us to visit my aunt who lived in Miami just about every summer. We would go to the beach just about everyday. Oddly enough, a 4 year old little girl taught me how to swim and I was about 9 years old. I was deeply scared of the water and was highly embarrassed at first, but after a while, I challenged myself to get over my fear of the water. Recently on an internship to Louisiana, I lived with a woman and her host family. When I found out she had a pool, the next day I came home from work, got into a bathing suit and just dove into the deep side without any reservation, the woman I was living with just about had a heart attack! LOL. Swimming depends upon a lot: historical context, community access, location and a willingness to learn and an ability to overcome your fear of the water. African Americans do swim.

  • E.M.S.

    I used to get swimming lessons, but for some reason, I never picked it up. In addition, I’ve nearly drowned about three times so I fear deep water and tend to stay away from it. But that doesn’t stop me from dangling my feet in a pool or walking on the beach.

    Much respect to anyone who can and will swim, because it’s not me (but I have a legitimate reason). I am curious how she keeps her hair healthy though because chlorine is a very harsh chemical for the scalp! I wonder if she’ll reveal any tips in her series if you do want to swim on a regular basis!

  • Nic

    Yeah, a lot of swimming is just about access. And I think in cities at least, there were YMCAs in black neighborhoods so kids swam.
    I think a lot of rural people who can’t access pools don’t swim, and my parents, from rural Alabama, didn’t get to take lessons until adulthood, but I was surprised in college how many black people didn’t know how to swim.

    I kind of think maybe we’ve had a dip b/c a lot of public pools that black people had access to have been closed, and that when the choice was made between closing the pools in black vs. white neighborhoods, the black people always lost.

    Without public pools, people either need to have them in their backyards, or live in neighborhoods or belong to clubs that have them, which black people are less likely to do.

    If you live in the right place, pool access is a given. I think a lot of black people just don’t live close to one. My parents nixed a backyard pool b/c we had a nice neighborhood one, and lived close to a really nice Y. So we didn’t need another pool.

  • Nic

    Bryant Gumbel had a really good segment on Real Sports featuring Cullen Jones talking about this. One big factor (in addition to pool access) is the role that fear plays. Parents who can’t swim and fear water wont’ let their kids in the pool either. My parents couldn’t swim but made sure we were in the pool learning as toddlers. And while they never got to be good swimmers, they did take lessons as adults.

    Cullen apparently learned to swim after nearly drowning, but that is also the kind of situation that can make parents of kids scared about water, even though it is precisely why you should learn.

    Black children drown much more than children of other races b/c of this fear of the water and higher numbers of kids who can’t swim. B/c unfortunately, not being able to swim doesn’t keep people away from water (b/c not all non-swimmers are afraid and I don’t think water safety is taught unless you learn to swim).

    They had some parents of children/teenagers who had drowned and they all said that they didn’t take their kids to swim lessons b/c they were afraid of the water themselves.

    We do need to break the cycle and I think Cullen works with black kids to get more of them swimming.

  • Nic

    Yeah, even though my parents, raised in the Jim Crow south, never had access to pools or lessons, I didn’t learn the stereotype until college, but it is true that a lot of black people never learn, and a lot more drown as a result.

  • Nic

    Thanks…I have a friend whose family is a few generations deep in Chicago and her family used to go to a popular black vacation town on Lake Michigan (on the Michigan side). I dislike the myopia I see in a lot of writing from millenials who think that the reasons they don’t do things are the “historical” reasons for them.
    There is so much information at their disposal and yet they are too lazy to do the research.

    And I love my friends’ old family photos b/c they have pics that show nothing but black people in the 40′s at the beach and swimming.

  • Nic

    Well, she didn’t grow up poor so I’d be really surprised if she didn’t know how. If you go to private school, you’ll probably have swimming in gym class if your parents don’t get your lessons on your own.

  • Anon

    Girl please. Half of my family came from sharecroppers. And they all knew how to swim. Swimming is not a luxury activity, it is a basic life skill. If it takes shame to teach a family how not to drown, I’m all for it.

  • Anon

    Applause for your post. And so any parents reading this, please consider the YMCA for swimming lessons for both you and your child. Also, the Total Immersion series. It is NEVER to late to learn. Also, it is a great workout and really relaxing. If you have joint issues, an injury etc… swimming is gentle on your joints and builds good lung capacity.

  • Kaeli

    Not buying this argument. I swim at a city pool in an black neighborhood and it cost $20 a year to use the pool. I never have issues getting a lane because the people in the community don’t use the facility. Maybe historically access was the issue but it isn’t now. I would say its vanity, ignorance, and fear that keep black people away from swimming. So terribly sad and limiting.

  • Me

    It is a life skill. But again, not everyone has adequate and safe access to learn. It’s not that simple. I don’t understand why people think it’s not possible for someone to not be able to do something.

  • Kam

    It’s not a reality show about Black people swimming. It’s a reality show about celebrities learning diving and it will be shown in the UK. It’s inspired by the London Olympics hence why it’s shown in the UK. Kinda like Dancing with the Stars but with an Olympic sport.

  • Anon

    Then why the title of “Black People Don’t Swim”? I’m from the Gulf Coast and not knowing how to swim was a safety hazard. Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, I’ll even throw Florida in the mix, have some of the highest percentages of black people in the nation. I don’t recall knowning any kids at pools or beaches who couldn’t at least do some sort of a freestyle stroke. What’s next, black people own bikinis, news at 11?

    You never went to a pool before college? I’ve been to backwater areas and inner cities around the country, and MOST places (outside of OK that I’ve seen) have access to a community pool, or a lake/river/beach.

    This just reminds me of that “Black women work out too!” video. Uh, duh. We always have. I wasn’t the only black kid in the babysitting room at the gym in the 80′s. You can look to Olympic track teams from before desegregation to see that. People are tired of BW writers turning their personal experiences into EVERYONE’S experiences, instead of denoting a variety.

  • Anon

    Oh please. One side of my family grew up poor, and they all knew how to swim. Can poor people have life skills too?

  • Apple

    I took swimming lessons 3 different times and I still neve learned :-( idk why I can’t learn it

  • NCR

    Me too. My mother made sure me and my four siblings took swimming lessons but I could never quite get the hang of it? I don’t know why.

  • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com Val

    “Now statistically speaking it is true, plenty of black people, and minorities in general, don’t know how to swim…”

    What stats? Where are they? I’m not saying they don’t exist but if they do why not include them in the post. Otherwise this is all based on anecdotal evidence.

  • Anon

    So proclaiming black people don’t swim helps anything? I’m tired of “black people don’t… ______. What makes us so different? Black people sand opera and are/were leaders in it (Marion Anderson if we want to go back to the 1920′s, too many to name if we’re talking the 2000′s and up. Why not start with “Inner city black people don’t… and even that doesn’t hold water, Cullen Jones is from the Bronx, and he’s an OLYMPIC champion! Jeez, I guess black people don’t do yoga (even though I’ve had black and even latino yoga instructors), black people don’t belly dance or do ballet (even though I’ve had instrutors who were black women in those arts too), black women don’t paint (black teachers as well there also). At what point in time are writers here going to do a series on “I” didn’t have acess to these things vs. ALL black people that I spend time with? Alvin Aiely didn’t come from nowhere. Obviously, ole’ dude took lessons from someone.

  • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com Val

    @Apple

    I used to teach kids to learn to swim and the key is being relaxed. If you are afraid and nervous then it’s really difficult to learn. Find someone you trust and try again. You’ll learn. It’s not hard at all.

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