Swimming Against the Current

I stood in my wet, dark blue bathing suit, with my thin goose-bumped arms tightly wrapped around me, rocking back and forth, shaking from a combination of being frightened and freezing, and watched classmate after classmate jump off the high diving board. A few kids chose to jump from the lower diving board, which admittedly looked safer; yet was wholly socially-unacceptable in my 8 year-old mind.

I didn’t unfold my arms until it was my turn to grab the metal handles – that were spread almost as wide as my wingspan – to slowly climb the ladder. After a brief pause, I jumped with my legs and eyes closed tightly. My stomach flipped and my swimming cap slipped off; but we all managed to land in the water within milliseconds of each other. My light-pink puckered swim cap landed last and floated a few inches from me – seemingly unaffected by our accomplishment or by my anger at its betrayal for not sticking with me throughout the journey.

Cute kid posing underwater in pool at the leisure center

With that jump, I had completed the swimming unit taught to every elementary-aged student at Hampton University’s lab school. The instructors didn’t just ensure that I could swim, they ensured that I was a swimmer: guiding me through exhausting reps of the freestyle, backstroke and two other styles that I still find challenging – the breaststroke and the butterfly; timed sessions of treading water; and the final coronation of successfully jumping off the 10-foot high-dive.

That jump was a big deal for me that day; but I realize now that teaching me, my friends, and the countless Brown kids who bravely jumped in those frigid pool waters how to swim was a undoubtedly part of a bigger mission for the school. One major reason for the school’s focus on teaching us, Black children, to swim was that so many, for so long, had said that we couldn’t. It was about disrupting the narrative that Black people could not swim, were incapable of being able to swim, and were inferior.

Portrait of an adorable young boy showing thumbs up during a swimming lesson in an indoor pool

While roughly one-half as many Black people can swim vs. White people, the underlying causes of this disparity are clear. The lack of swimming pools in our communities, the history of discrimination and segregation at public pools, and the white fears about being in swimsuits with Black people are the reasons why we don’t. America has made it that we couldn’t; but it’s not that we can’t.

But Black people are rarely given the opportunity to explain the backstory, the “whys” or the “how comes”. We have been held back; and then ridiculed for being behind. So, instead of trying to explain why we can’t; we just “do.” Our jumps from the diving board weren’t just about learning to swim but about dispeling stereotypes.

Life for me and many Black kids was never about discovering who we were, finding our “purpose”, or chasing our “best life.” It was more about contradicting and countering who people say you are; than about discovering who you actually are. It’s living in a perpetual state of rebuttal as opposed to ever going on the offensive. We must constantly swim against the undercurrent of racist stereotypes just to avoid being swept away.

One Response

  1. I love this story that your school recognized this and put an emphasis on something that everyone should have access to. As a white woman I don’t know what it’s like to walk in your shoes, but I will tell you that I grew up with a parent who felt women couldn’t do much in life (I don’t know why!). So anything I could dream up she would give me a list of why there’s no way I could achieve it. They were very believable reasons too that became ingrained in me for quite some time! As a child I was stuck because without money, transportation, or a parent who would let you – you’re limited. But as a grown up it became a challenge. Almost anything that I felt I couldn’t do became my mission TO ACCOMPLISH.

    This story reminds me of that. If someone thinks for any reason you shouldn’t be in the pool, then dammit that’s exactly where you should be! I don’t understand the mentality that creates the separation, but I think stories like yours and your willingness to share help to heal it (I hope!).

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About Randi B.

Randi is a diversity and inclusion strategist, speaker, trainer and writer, focusing on making connections and cultivating empathy in this diverse world one trip, speech, article, book and conversation at a time.

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