I posted this over the summer when my kids were competing for the first time. Now they are on an area—not just neighborhood—swim team. Official times are kept at meets and everything. Already they have each moved up in their heats to groupings of faster swimmers. They are swimming longer events. It is kind of a big deal.
Recently they swam at a major meet. The best part of this meet was that it included inner city swim teams. I almost missed my daughters’ events from counting all of the brown bodies at the pool! However, even though my children were not The Only Ones, the kids of color (Black and other minorities) swimming only totaled about 20 or so out of more than a thousand. Clearly there is more work to be done.
My father (who you may have met in this post) cheers—literally—when he sees kids of color swimming at meets, even when they are on the opposite teams. His White peers, observing this, ask him “Now that isn’t your child, too, is it?”
My father says, “No. But I cheer for all the Black swimmers. You should, too.”
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.
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.
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.”
(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.
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.