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  • Ayren Jackson-Cannady

The Swimming Stereotype

I don't remember much about my youngest cousin. But I do remember him being unapologetic and fearless. At five years old, he'd jump off of banisters, pick up strange looking spiders, and talk back to our aunties. See, no fear. And even though he couldn't swim, he wasn't afraid of the in-ground pool in his backyard, either. As a moody and shy pre-teen, I envied the grown-up confidence that was bottled up in such a little package. Once, when his father was at work and his mother was napping, my baby cousin marched out ofthe unlocked backdoor and--I imagine--cannon-balled into the pool's deep end. Despite continued prayer and counsel, my little cousin's drowning death had long term affects on many of my family members. But this incident is not an isolated incident. Sadly, youth drownings are an all too familiar occurrence within the African American community. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black children drown at 5.5 times the rate of other children. The Washington Post recently reported that 70 percent of African Americans lack basic swimming skills. And I'm not surprised--while my interest in swimming sparked at a fairly young age--right after my cousin's drowning--my black father can't swim (I don't ever recall him in a pool) and my black mother can't swim either (despite the fact that she retired from the U.S. Navy and lived on boats). My interest ultimately blossomed into me joining a swim team and even competing in the Junior Olympics. However, I know countless other African Americans who never even learned to float...let alone swim across a pool. So where is the disconnect? As much as we, as Christians, try to live in the vein of 1 Timothy 5, by avoiding labels (i.e. black=non-swimmer), I believe projected and internalized stereotypes are what continues to hold the African American community from excelling in the pool. USA Swimming, the nation’s organizing body for the sport, has some 337,000 members — of whom only 1.3 percent are black. Even more telling? Out of 107 historically black colleges and universities, not one has a functioning 50-meter pool. We have to do better than that.

I often wonder what my baby cousin would be like now--if pool safety and swim instruction were "normalized" (rather than "stigmatized") in the lives of his parents, his grandparents, and their parents. What if he was exposed to swim lessons as a toddler? What if he grew up and joined a swim team, won races, and got a swimming scholarship?

I'm sure he'd be the one in the deep end cheering on and teaching my brown children (his second cousins) to swim.


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