Do black people swim? Of course they do. I am black and I can swim. Myth busted.
Not so fast.
A 2008 multi-phase study out of the University of Memphis revealed that 58% of black children could not swim, they drowned at 3-times the rate of their white peers and that simply being black reduced your rate of participation in the sport by almost 60% (MSNBC, 2008).
Phase I of the study entitled, The Mythology of Swimming: Are Myths Impacting Minority Youth Participation?, was commissioned by USA Swimming and spearheaded by Richard Irwin (2008), a professor from the Department of Health and Sport Science. One predominating myth influencing participation that was addressed was the idea that, ‘black women don’t want to get their hair wet’, and although Irwin believes they proved the relation between hair and swimming to be negligible, I beg to differ (p.12) While these studies have been lauded as a landmark investigation of minority swimming participation and a wake-up call to recognize swimming proficiency as a major public health concern, I am left unimpressed as I feel they fall short of understanding this crucial cultural phenomenon.
Currently USA Swimming has made many attempts to put a giant band-aid on the entire situation by commissioning a mixed-methods study, developing diversity-focused initiatives and creating public forums for coping with cultural barriers. However, none of these initiatives truly address the complex cultural barriers to swimming participation and have proved ineffective. Quantitative research such as Irwin’s only scratches the surface and doesn’t allow for a wholistic understanding and radical contextualization that makes the lack of minority participation intelligible. I am choosing to enter this discussion from a black feminist framework which I feel will be most productive in understanding the interplay of constructions of race and gender that are at work in black participation in swimming. By engaging with a corpus of black feminist literature on hair, as well as cultural identity and social history, I will expose the shortcoming of the current research and expand on future possibilities for minority swimming participation.
Water, in its elemental form, has functioned as liquid oppression in the lives of black Americans. From the violent and contested desegregation of public pools during the early twentieth century to the fire hoses in Birmingham, AL on May 3, 1963, black Americans have had a public experience with water that is overwhelmingly negative (Wiltse, 2007; BCRI, 2010). Furthermore, black women have their own specific experiences, likening water to kryptonite with the power to ruin their hair on contact. The politics of dominant feminine representations influence black females because there are consequences in the performance of one’s racial identity and, “hairstyles are often the means others use to determine whether we are wearing a right or wrong racial identity”(p. 280). Our identities are always in process but they are rooted in a collective past, and for black Americans and the swimming pool, the past is rooted in a history of struggles over access to civic swimming spaces and the politics of representation.
In Phase I of the studies, Irwin’s team surveyed almost 2,000, non-white 4-17 year olds who participated in physical activity programs at 6 metropolitan area YMCA’s in low-socioeconomic areas (p.13). Their survey asked questions surrounding the areas they felt were indicative of low sport participation: financial means to participate, access to facilities, interest in the sport and issues of personal appearance. In regards to black girls and their hair, they found that 85% of the minority participants disagreed that their participation had anything to do with getting their hair wet, and although black girls responded at a slightly higher rate that it was an issue, the results were taken to dispel that myth in its entirety. They even went so far as to dismiss the hair myth as, “institutionalized cultural heresy” (p. 21). However, in Phase II, 12 focus groups revealed extensive discussion by both the mothers and fathers on how ‘hair issues’ become a barrier to their daughter’s swimming participation. What was seemingly a non-existent issue in survey form became a richly expressive documentation of cultural experiences and values during Phase II.
The parents acknowledged the cultural norms that governed hairstyles and covered a range of topics such as the challenges of hair care and swimming, the time and money spent on hair, as well as their own legacies of fear that hold them back from participating (Irwin et al., 2010, p. 8). Bell hooks(1996) offers insight on the cultural representations of dominant feminine ideologies which shape the mothers’ black hair performances and locate swimming participation as oppositional because it poses a challenge to maintaining straight hair:
Real good hair is straight hair, hair like White folk’s hair. Yet no one says your hair is beautiful, so nice, because it is like White folks hair. We pretend that the standards we measure our beauty by are our own invention. (p. 91, emphasis added)
In this discussion of hair, bell hooks locates the formation of identity within the context of dominant white ideologies of beauty, which has the power to devalue other identities. In an attempt to gain value and power, performances of black femininity, such as hair care, are constantly being defined against these dominant societal values. The value of hair is further evidenced in the normalization of beauty practices expressed by mothers in Irwin’s (2010) study:
I like the pool, I like to be in the water but me and the hair issues, no! Having to do my hair over and over again, and with the chlorine (laughing). To be truthful, that’s why I don’t swim” (p.8)
Another mother affirmed this concern with hair care by explaining how she navigated her daughters’ situation:
I braid their hair for the whole week. They have swimming on Thursdays. On Fridays, I wash their hair for the whole week, and then I do it (braid hair) every weekend. On Sundays, don’t call me, don’t talk to me. I have two girls that I have to take care of. And I want to do it. You have to have a set of mind of that’s what you want (p. 9).
Surprisingly, even the fathers acknowledge the time and money spent on the upkeep of representations of femininity:
You are talking hours, it takes hours. You are talking about the time in the pool but then after the pool the hours that you have to spend getting hair ready for the next day. And, you are paying $80 or $90 to get it done (p. 9)
Yet another salient issue is a legacy of fear in the black community of swimming, which is brought to light by one mother stating that, “a lot of parents are scared and afraid so they make their kids afraid or they don’t feel comfortable taking their kids to a pool” (p.11). In Contested Waters, Jeff Wiltse (2007) speaks to how social history can help us to understand where a fear of swimming initiated and leads to the production of cultural values oppositional to swimming participation. Wiltse documents the history of the swimming pool as a site of racial tension. Starting with the segregated pools in Northern cities of the 1920s, Wiltse uncovers how, “the visual and physical intimacy that accompanied swimming, made municipal pools intensely contested civic spaces” (p. 3). There are stories of black children being drowned by their white peers and in one instance a young boy was only allowed in the pool if all of the white patrons got out and he was pushed in a raft by a lifeguard who warned him not to touch the water (Elliot, 2007). Given this legacy of public struggle with the swimming environment, it is not surprising that adults and children only one to two generations removed from those who directly experienced this struggle have internalized and reproduced an aversion to the pool.
Where do we go from here?
USA Swimming’s other attempts to increase, “a vision of success” on the diversity front, is just that- a vision, not a reality (USA, 2010). Their membership currently consists of 250,000 members and 92.5% of those members identify as white, while only 1.7% identify as black (Irwin et al., 2008, p. 12). Of that 1.7%, they choose 32 individuals, who meet the exceptionally fast time standards, to participate in an exclusive 3-day swim camp in the Olympic training facility as a way to promote their quest for minority involvement. This so-called opportunity places the participating swimmers in a problematic position. When diversity is used in this manner and solely seen as an expression of an essentialized racial category, the individuals representing the diversity initiative embody both the problem and the solution. It is my thought that this swimming initiative holds little opportunity for change because it does not address the main concern of basic swimming abilities and produces a process of exclusion within an already small community of black swimmers.
At Hampton University, the Director of Aquatics, Jodi Jensen, speaks highly of her mandatory swimming program that teaches water safety and awareness skills to college students, making it a one-of-a-kind program (Block, 2007). Jensen discusses the challenges she has seen her students face in the water and addresses how many women cope with issues about hair. While some refuse to get their head wet for fear of ruining a style, she had a few students who wrapped their hair in saran wrap and then put on a swimming cap so that there hair would stay dry. In another instance, a swim coach solicited information about hair care to offer to young black swimmers so that they could better navigate participation (Irwin et al., 2010).
What seems to be a unifying discourse in the discussion of hair is that the only possibility for black female swimmers is to search for new and better ways to cope with their situation. Women partake in discussions of styling techniques, certain hair tools that will make styling after swimming easier, scheduling considerations that can ease the burden and even wrapping a head in saran wrap for protection. However, we cannot begin to move forward unless we acknowledge how the relationship between dominant (white) cultural values and representations of blackness supports further exploitation and oppression, consequently shaping how we see and experience ourselves as ‘other’ (hooks, 1992, p.2).
In Black Looks, bell hooks(1992) challenges us to, “break with the hegemonic modes of seeing, thinking, and being that block our capacity to see ourselves oppositionally, to imagine, describe and invent ourselves in ways that are liberatory” (p. 2). A liberatory practice would be mothers getting in the pool to learn to swim with their daughters, exemplifying that safety and fitness should not come second to representations of beauty. It is the embracing of a new way of seeing ourselves-loving our blacknesss and valuing individual representations of self, a shift in the consciousness of black women and girls, that I believe will make a difference in female swimming participation. While this essay only begins to address one specific area that poses a barrier to minority swimming participation, it is evidence for the necessity to complicate and problematized issues of race and sport, rather than to reduce and simplify as Irwin did in his studies for USA Swimming (2008, 2010). It is my hope that, for the future of the sport and the safety of generations of children to come, that USA Swimming begins to engage with new ways of understanding minority identities so that they can find productive ways to grow the competitiveness of the sport and the cause of water safety.
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