This So-Called Post-Post-Racial Life

July 20, 2009

Tighten Up On That Backstroke

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — pprscribe @ 2:20 pm

My two delightful brown “babies” swim competitively. They have been taking lessons since they were toddlers, but this summer is the first year they have participated on a swim team. On their own team, and at most meets with other teams, they are the only (or only two of a handful of other) brown children in the sparkling blue waters. As other parents ask each other “Which one is yours?” few need to have me point out my own offspring from the horde of dripping Speedo-clad children.

"Backstroke." PPR_Scribe

"Backstroke." PPR_Scribe

I have been thinking a lot about my daughters’ experience in this sport the past few days since the story broke out about the day camp full of minority kids being sent packing from a majority White private swim club. The case has been written about—and written about well—a number of different places in the blogosphere (here, here, and here for example). Instead of adding to the analysis of that particular case, I am going to provide a few personal insights and experiences.

Continuing a Family Tradition

My daughters became interested in swimming as a sport because of the example set by their teen-aged uncles, my little brothers. Both swam competitively on the same suburban team that my kids are now on, and both excelled there and on into their high school team. Back when they swam in the league, my father and stepmother, too, rarely had to pick out their sons for fellow swim moms and dads. People generally figured out that the two tall, extremely athletic brown skinned boys belonged to them.

Competitive swimming is an extremely “White” sport.

Any child interested in competitive swimming is advantaged by the natural fun most young kids have playing and splashing in water. There is something very basic, core, elemental about water that most of us are (initially, at least) drawn to. We are born into fluid; our bodies are composed of water and fluids; our little blue planet is mostly water. Some of our first soothing, intimate moments are spent being cooed at and caressed by caregivers giving us baths. Some of us undergo religious conversion by being dipped in water.

In the water we experience our bodies in a way that is unlike most of our waking moments. We are buoyant, free, unhampered by faulty knees or extra pounds. All of this makes swimming a perfect match for most kids.

However, any child interested in competitive swimming is disadvantaged by the sport’s relative lack of visibility. Most Americans probably only see swimming on TV when the Olympics roll around. There may only be two or three swimmers who folks know by name. Swimming as a sport necessarily means access to a pool and to instructors/coaches with knowledge of proper stroke technique and rules.

Most inner city kids of any race, as well as minority kids of any socioeconomic class, are further disadvantaged by not having role models in their immediate circle who swim competitively.

Black Folk Can’t Swim?

It is something most Blacks living in majority White suburbs of majority White cities have to deal with over and over. The service worker—lawn care guy, HVAC repair team, the carpet installers—does a quick (but highly apparent) double take and cognitive restructuring to deal with the fact that the homeowner who has just answered the door is not White, as expected, but Black. Most recover momentarily and are able to go about their business with some degree of professionalism.

But some just cannot seem to let go of their dissonance. They must make comments. Or observations. The rare service professional may even ask questions.

So it was one time for my brothers’ mother.

The service worker was shown to the faulty furnace in the basement, passing my brothers’ many swim ribbons, certificates, championship photos, and trophies on display.

“Your sons swim?”



(Looking at the same first place blue ribbons the service worker was looking at.) Yes.

“Well, you know, that is really out of the ordinary. See, usually Black people can’t swim. It’s true. I was in the Navy and we did studies. It is because of your higher bone density. But this is really something. Two Black swimmers. Imagine that!”

I’ll leave aside the notion of US Navy-financed studies on the bone density of its Black recruits and sailors and whether or not Blacks can not swim. But I do know it is true that many Black adults and children do not swim.

The reasons are many:

Historical—As Jeff Wiltse wrote in Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, swimming pools became a particularly problematic space for desegregation efforts. The fallout from this history is many faceted.

Cultural—Covering everything from Black women’s concerns about getting their chemically processed or heat straightened hair wet to some ancestral memory of our troubled transatlantic ocean crossing, cultural theories of Blacks’ aversion to swimming abound. Two documented facts that stand out in all this supposition: almost 60% of Black children do not know how to swim, and Black children die from drowning at three times the overall rate.

"Posing with Cullen." PPR_Scribe

"Posing with Cullen." PPR_Scribe

Changing the Complexion of Swimming

It was the first time I had ever seen the USA Swimming booth at Indiana Black Expo and I was extremely pleased. All of the information on display at the booth, however, was about water safety and learning to swim. Nothing on the sport of swimming.

The USA Swimming rep at the booth is handing my daughters booklets—10 reasons why Swimming is Fun and Making a Splash for Pool Safety or somesuch. My daughters’ eyes, however, are drawn to the giant poster of Cullen Jones hanging in the booth. They had just seen, and posed in front of, a bigger version of that same poster a few days ago.

(Noticing their interest.) “Do you know who that is.” the rep asked.

“Yes, that’s Cullen Jones.”

(Surprised.) “Oh! You know who Cullen Jones is! Have you ever seen him swim?”

“Just on TV. He wasn’t there when we went [to the USA Swimming National Championship trials].”

(Pleased.) “Oh, so you went to the trials!”

“Yeah. But we didn’t see Michael Phelps swim either. We did get his autograph, though.”

(Tickled pink.) “Wow! I don’t even have Michael Phelps’ autograph! So you swim on a team? What’s your best stroke?”

“Um, probably breast and back.”

“For me, probably freestyle.”

"Phelps Signing Autographs." PPR_Scribe

"Phelps Signing Autographs." PPR_Scribe

(The rep is simply bubbling, gifting me with USA Swimming membership brochures and extra freebies from a box in the back of the booth.)

All children need to learn how to swim. It should not be an option. It is a safety issue as important as bike helmets and car seats, antibiotic abuse and sex education. Parents need to let go of whatever fears and biases they may have and make sure their children learn to swim. (They might take lessons themselves while they’re at it.) Some folks need to join the rest of us here in 2009 and get over the idea of the black washing off of delightful brown swimming babies like mine and staining their own babies.

Changing the Attitudes about Black Girls

The elderly couple sitting next to me poolside had come to see their grandchildren swim at the meet. We exchanged glances and smiles and pleasantries, even though the kids we had come to see were on opposing teams. We commented on the marathon nature of swim meets—this, about two and a half hours into the four-hour-plus meet. We commented on the heat of the mid-July early evening.

As the meet was drawing to a close, signified by the start of the exciting freestyle medley relay races, the grandfather ventured into a conversation that I am sure he had been itching to start.

“You know,” he said to me, “I just have to tell you. I have the most adorable little Black granddaughter.”

Oh really? Well that’s…wonderful.

“Yes, my son and daughter-in-law picked her up from Florida when she was only a few days old. They already had a son of their own, but they always wanted a girl. They tried and tried but could never get pregnant again. So they adopted this adorable little girl. She’s two now.”

Well…I’m sure she keeps you young….

“Well,” laughing, “I don’t know about that! But she sure does keep us on our toes! Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that. I’m just looking at your two lovely daughters and I can’t help thinking about my granddaughter…”

OK…well…that’s just wonderful…

I was without many useful and meaningful words. So many things were going through my mind, not least of which was whether or not I should commence with my standard Adoption 101 lesson. But I decided against that, as it was clear that this gentleman was working through a different lesson of his own. I do not know what part I may have played in helping him through that lesson, and really was too worn out from the heat and the cheering to reflect much on it. I should have asked him if she, too, was a swimmer. But I did not.

"Starting Blocks." PPR_Scribe

"Starting Blocks." PPR_Scribe

I was glad that the day before this meet I had bitten the bullet and began taking my girls to a professional hair stylist to deep condition and braid their hair in preparation for daily swimming. I was glad that I had found a product that was a combination leave-in hair moisturizer and skin conditioner that they could spritz themselves with between events. My normally gorgeous brown babies looked fiercely radiant, like two goddesses risen from Atlantis or something. They strutted around the pool as if they owned the place. They swam their hardest no matter which heat they were in or how fast they touched the finish wall.

You couldn’t miss them. They were the only brown babies at the pool that day. And they were fabulous in every way.

At the Starting Blocks

At the end-of-swim-season party, both of my daughters earned awards for most improved swimmers in their sex-age group in their favorite events. They also, along with everyone else on the team, got trophies. They proudly displayed their certificates and trophies to their big uncles, swimming champs extraordinaire, who fist-bumped and high-fived them for several minutes. My daughters are hooked on the sport of swimming. And I must contend with learning to be a Swim Parent.

Swim Parents—like many sports parents—are an interesting bunch. An involved bunch. A knowledgeable bunch. An extremely, incredibly committed bunch. Swim meets are as much for the parents as for the kids. They are highly social events—as well as professional networking opportunities. The swim meets were very challenging for someone like me: new to the whole sports parenting thing with a generally introverted personality. At the first meet I brought my folding chair and a book. I am still suffering trauma from the appalled stares I received from the other parents. I learned after that. I learned to be a timekeeper and a ribbon writer and a finish judge and a snack bar vendor. I learned names of kids and names of parents and the order of events.

If my kids are committed to helping to change the complexion of the sport, then I am committed to changing the complexion of the parent gallery and extensive parent volunteer force.

I do not look forward to the early mornings heading to the pool before school in the dead of winter, when most sane parents are catching that precious last two hours of sleep before work. But I do look forward to my daughters continuing to improve their strokes, their times, their understanding and enjoyment of the sport.

I also look forward to hope. The hope of seeing more Black and other kids of color becoming involved in the sport.

At one of the meets there was a little Black girl, there with her White parents and older White siblings. She was probably a couple years older than the child of the grandfather I had met a few weeks earlier. She was not swimming, but had come to watch her siblings swim. Back and forth to the snack bar, to the baby wading pool, to her parents to get a sip of water or a cheese cracker. At one point she noticed my daughters, getting in line for the 9/10 year old girls’ breast stroke event. The little girl stopped for a moment. One daughter noticed her, smiled and waved. The little girl giggled and ran back to the wading pool.


  1. Great post!

    I have to comment on the whole momma-fan-mothers-cheering section thing. Being a sports parent is a JOB. Swimming meets are like track meets,in some cases they last all day. A parent must learn how to plan their day. There’s a lot of down time. Like you said, the parents become a whole new family group and that’s a job.

    I am laughing at the thought of your parent group’s competition with the other parent groups. Oh yeah, there will be times when your group will be required to cheer louder than any parent group in the world *smile*. It may be civil now, but look out.

    Oh lord, can you see yourself riding on a bus with a bunch of teenage kids — for 7 hrs or more.

    This was a great post. At least you don’t have to worry about hearing getto cheers. “Go Saneka, don’t let’em sink ya”. I am laughing because I’ve been there. I had to tell my parents to tone it down. This one really messed up the opposing team and parents ….”911 a joke in yo’town, get get get get get-down”. When they broke out with this one I knew it was time to shut it down ….”Self destruction/ you’re heading for self destruction”. PPrscribe, you shouldn’t say that while bumping booties and passing greasy chicken. But they did and I eat some of the chicken.

    You’re in for a ride and I wish I could do it all over again.

    Comment by careycarey — July 20, 2009 @ 6:07 pm

  2. Both of my sons know how to swim and love it. They know how because I made a point of making sure they learned before they got old and stubborn and didn’t want to be bothered.

    I don’t know how, and will probably die a happy death without learning. Me and Pools and Chlorine and stuff JUST dont get along.

    Great Post.

    Comment by inkognegro — July 21, 2009 @ 9:21 am

  3. Carey, I am learning. It has been a challenge, but I’ll get there. Back when I was in band and debate and writing workshops, there were no parent cheering sections and I liked that just fine. But all this is so new to me! LOL

    Good for your sons, Inkognegro! Sure there is no chance of Dad jumping in and learning to swim?

    Comment by pprscribe — July 23, 2009 @ 11:52 am

  4. Thanks for this post. You sound like a terrific mother and I admire your dedication to the early morning practices and forced socializing. I, too, am an introvert unfamiliar with this scene, but I’d bet money that my little one will be some kind of athlete so…sigh…I’ll be following in your footsteps in a few years.

    On another note, I am intrigued by your comment about your standard Adoption 101 lesson. I’d love to hear it, perhaps in a future post?

    Comment by Julia — July 23, 2009 @ 12:50 pm

  5. Loved this post! And reading about your swimmingly fabulous young ladies made me tear up a bit.

    My eldest daughter is a classical piano major. She got started at her school when we lived overseas, and fell in love iwht it. When she was in high school, I took her every Saturday to a music academy some distance from our house. She was the only African American student there. When people find out she plays piano and sings, they always – ALWAYS – assume she is a jazz musician. People can’t get their heads around her singing an a cappella Renaissance piece in another language, or busting out with a Chopin ballade. She was an intern for the Seattle opera one year, and boy did that turn the opera crowd on its head.

    It is hard when your child’s passion and talent is an an area where some folks might think they don’t belong. But … as you felt while watching your two little athletes tear up that pool, it sure makes me proud seeing my daughter giving ’em hell and doing her thing.

    My other two were the sports kids: daughter, high jump and cheer (for wrestling, not for football/b-ball because “those girls are snottyassed bitches) and my son, wrestling, track, and football.

    Even on the track team though, I could tell other high-jump parents didn’t expect my daughter to be there. They expected her to be a sprinter.

    In wrestling, my son is one of the few AA kids. One thing I have noticed at tournaments especially is that white parents and kids are “intimidated” by the AA wrestlers. They don’t mention race, but you’ll hear the comments, “Uh oh … look at that guy, dude, he’s gonna take you DOWN!” Once a similar comment came from one of my son’s teammates, and I asked, “Oh, why do say that?” The kid was just, “Well, you know … he looks … buff.”

    I loved what you wrote about being a swim parent. It’s a lot of fun, but it can get rough sometimes. I usually didn’t feel I fit in with the other sports parents. Or the classical music parents, for that matter, since I don’t know my Baroque from my Classical. (Me: Isn’t ALL classical? I mean, it’s “classical music”, right? Daughter, age 13: (sighs) No Anyu, classical is a period, like Renaissance, Romantic, Contemporary … like that. Me: Oh. Well whatever.)

    Anyway, kudos to your girls and to you too. Good for them! Go girls!

    Comment by more cowbell — July 30, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

  6. Julia: Sorry to be so long responding. Thank you for your comment and visit to the blog. I have been researching the area of adoption for some years now and generally have several versions of a speech I use when folks do things like use adoption-insensitive language (e.g., “real” parents). I hope to write a post specific to adoption soon and/or post one of my entries on the topic from my previous bog.

    MC: Thank you for the support via the tales of your own fabulous daughter and her music talent. I agree that people have preconceived notions about what activities different children should be interested in/good at. On one hand I am very glad that my girls are helping to break those misconceptions. On the other hand I want to be sure that the sport is always *for them* and not some political thing for me!

    Comment by pprscribe — July 30, 2009 @ 11:27 pm

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