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Perspective | Rewriting my own narrative as I watch my Black son learn to swim

It’s been almost two years since Miles started swimming lessons, and it has been one of the best things I could do for my son. There were so many things I had to unlearn while learning about water safety, swim techniques, and what it means to be a swim mom. Myths about the pool and large bodies of water continue to be shattered as my son becomes better at swimming.

As I began to process these feelings, I realized that I’d transferred my fear of the water onto Miles. Before Miles started lessons, we never went to the pool without our puddle jumpers and life vests. I would stay in the shallow end because I was afraid of drowning and didn’t want to get my hair wet.

There were so many things I was told growing up about swimming as a Black girl. Here are a few:

  • “You shouldn’t swim if you have a relaxer because your hair will fall out.”
  • “Black people don’t swim.”
  • “Don’t walk too close to the edge because if you fall in nobody will be there to save you.”
  • “Don’t jump off the diving board because you could break your neck.”
  • “When you go to the beach, the water will swallow you up.”
  • “They are racist at that pool.”

Granted, some of these sayings have a bit of truth to them. But I took them all literally and avoided the water altogether — and maybe even passed some of these along to Miles. Why are Black people less likely to swim? I did a little research and found some useful information from this YMCA blog post by Lindsay Mondick, senior manager of aquatics at the YMCA of the USA.

“According to a recent national study conducted at Ys by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis:

• 64 percent of Black/African-American children cannot swim

• Only 40 percent of Caucasian children cannot swim

Equally concerning, 87 percent of non-swimmer youth plan to visit a beach or pool at least once during the summer months, and 34 percent plan to go swimming at least ten times.”

The piece goes on to explain some cultural and historical reasons why children of color are at a higher risk of drowning, like institutional racism, myths and stereotypes, and an inherited fear of drowning.

Most swimming lessons are private and have excluded people of color. “A painful legacy of racial segregation and violent strife surrounds the history of municipal swimming pools,” Mondick writes.

Lack of representation in media depictions and professional sports also contributes to lower participation rates by families of color. Myths and fears like the ones I inherited also play a role.

The same study shows there is a 13% chance that a child will learn to swim whose parent does not know how to.

When I read facts like these, it all makes sense. How often do we, as parents, shape our children’s narratives based on our experiences? Miles has been enjoying lessons for almost two years and is one level from being on the swim team. I have seen a difference in his confidence, technique, and overall attitude towards the water.

We are looking forward to this summer practicing our water safety tips, exercising our skills, and enjoying the pool and beach. Miles has shattered so many stereotypes and I love that he is rewriting the narrative and helping me do the same. 

Kiara Ruth

Kiara Ruth is a wife, boy-mom of a public school student, and writer for The Banana Moon lifestyle blog.