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By Nathan P.

Considering that all men and women are created equal, the stereotype still exists that black people and water do not mix. It has become a very common misconception, and studies prove that black people are not swimming as much as other races. Tracing these studies gives insight into how this stereotype is true, and tells how this stereotype is the fault of years of racism, slavery, and segregation. In no way was it ever because of someone’s skin color that they were inherently drawn to the ocean or a swimming pool. Recognizing that our societal history is responsible for this perception, can educate Americans on how stereotypes can form, and give a deeper understanding into the cultural formations of different races.

350 years ago, on the central western coast of Africa, the indigenous Africans were dependent on the ocean and very capable swimmers and watermen. It was also during this time that Portuguese, Italian, and other European Explorers were searching for gold along the same African coast. When the two cultures clashed, it was the less technologically advanced Africans who were cast into slavery, and thus the beginning of their departure from water. In the documentary “White Wash”, which explores the struggles of black surfers in America, African historians tell how these slaves would escape slave boats by jumping overboard and swimming to shore. Slave traders would then try to instill a fear of water in the slaves, usually by drowning runaways in front of the other slaves. This fear was passed on through generations while they were held in captivity as slaves were brought to the United States.

As shown in “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America” this fear of water, and no opportunity or contact with recreational water activities was passed on during the formation of America. Highlighting this period of time was the boom of recreational swimming during the 1920’s. Author Jeff Wiltse uses examples from the 1920’s to paint a picture of the segregation faced by black people as they tried to use the public swimming pools and beaches. He reports on police officers turning a blind eye to blacks being tormented by white people at the public pools in Chicago. He tells of blacks being charged for the crime, inciting to riot, after being savagely beaten, just for their mere attempt to enter the Highland Park Public Pool in Pittsburg. This segregation and racism, relatively unspoken, was still very thick. It was abundantly clear that black people were not wanted at the public pools or beaches.

All this is connected to the present day, where nbcnews.com reports that nearly 60 percent of black children can not swim. In their article they acknowledge that the segregation of pools in America up to the 1960’s had a large impact on black people learning to swim, but they don’t delve into the tribulations faced by black people of the early 1900’s to mid 1960’s like Wiltse does. Recently more efforts have been made to encourage children of minorities, and children in lower income areas to learn how to swim. But the old stereotypes still play a role in our society.

The prior generations of black people who never learned to swim are now, not going to all of the sudden take their kids to the pool and make them swim. The perpetuation of the stereotype isn’t only enforced by white people, but by black people. In White Wash, they interview black young adults on a basketball court about, if they would ever surf? Their responses were “isn’t that a white person thing?” and “I don’t think black people do that sort of stuff”. It is sad to think their views are ingrained in them and they don’t even realize it. That the door to learning how to swim or surf, is out of the question because it is believed that that is not something a black person would do. If they chose to partake in these activities they would stand out from their own race, and it would somehow make them different. So the stereotype does perpetuate.

I hope that with the type of information that is being made available to all people, that our understandings of stereotypes can be heightened. That stereotypes exist for a certain reason, it is not because a certain race thinks and acts differently than another, inherently, but because of our history that forms our present day. In the pursuit to dispel racism, I feel like this is a necessary leap we all must make, and our goals or aspirations should know no preset racial boundaries. To understand all people can face and overcome tribulations, and that we all go through them, will help bond our society as one.


Works Cited

"Nearly 60 Percent of Black Children Can't Swim." Msnbc.com. The Associated Press, 5 Jan. 2008. Web. 07 Apr. 2013. <http://www.nbcnews.com/id/24411271/>.

White Wash. Dir. Tedd Woods. Trespass Productions LLC, 2011. DVD.

Wiltse, Jeff. Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2007. Print.