Swimming pools: Is fun ever allowed to belong to Black children?
I used to be a 14-year-old black girl that loved to swim.
Fourteen years later, I can’t get the image out of my head of a police officer slamming a young girl who could have been me to the ground for simply wanting to do what most kids want to do in the summer — splash around happily in a pool. Over the coming weeks, there will be a lot of hyperbole surrounding what happened, the cause of it, and whether or not it was justified. But I would like to direct attention toward a key point that is likely to be overlooked.
Swimming pools have been racial battlegrounds for a long time. Perhaps they are one of the last spaces that should be public that are still thought to be areas permitted for Whites only.
You may not know many Black people who can swim, and what happened in Texas is one of the many reasons why. Black exclusion from pools has been fraught with horrific stories, from acid being poured on patrons, to White people fearing that Blacks would contaminate their spaces. What has resulted is that just under 70 percent of Black children are unable to swim. What’s worse is that drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death among children. Black children aged 5 to 14 are over three times more likely to drown.
So what does this have to do with some kids getting roughed up at pool party by a police officer who was supposedly suffering from stress minutes prior?
I learned to swim when I was 3 years old. I loved swimming lessons and The Little Mermaid was my favorite movie. In fact, I swore I was born to be a mermaid. I would spend hours in the pool every summer of my childhood. Something that was pivotal in my development but never had much meaning to me until I was older is that I had Black instructors during my first year of swim lessons at the YMCA where I took lessons, located in what used to be a Black section of Seattle. Even though I was partaking in something that, unknown to me, was thought of as a “White” thing, I and many of my classmates were taught to believe everyone swimming, people of all colors, was normal. That is a privileged lesson to learn early in one’s life and it’s one of the many reasons I didn’t realize what charged spaces swimming pools could be until much later.
I took lessons at the same swimming pool that my father learned to swim in. That YMCA was established because other YMCAs didn’t want Black patrons. In the ’60s, when Black kids were being denied the right to swim elsewhere, a local Zeta Phi Beta chapter donated money to build the pool where I learned to swim and where I learned to believe that swimming was indeed for everyone who wanted to swim. Years later I would go on to become a lifeguard, swim instructor and swim coach. I was always one of, if not the only Black person, in sight.
This used to make me sad and proud, but it mostly filled me with hope, because I knew that my visibility alone helped a lot of Black children feel more comfortable in the pool. I taught hundreds of young people how to swim over the course of seven years in the hopes that they could confidently skip to a pool party, like the one in McKinney, without fear of drowning or not being able to make it to the deep end with their friends.
As I watched the McKinney video in disbelief, I kept thinking about what happens to people who are violently denied their rights to enjoy something that can help and heal communities like swimming has. I became deeply troubled wondering if that young girl would even want to swim again or if she was a good swimmer. In moments like the one in Mckinney, the Police officer wasn’t able to draw on the long-formed system which convinced him that keeping Black girls out of the pool was a just cause. He couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact that he might be discouraging a future Black lifeguard or contributing to the many valid cultural troubles our community has in relation to swimming and water in general. Instead he opted to dehumanize her, and what should concern us most is that maybe he caused her dreams of swimming and loving the water to drown.
I’ve known how to swim all of my life. But I also experienced hostility and glass ceilings for being somewhere that people felt I didn’t belong. Swimming pools show us some of the most sinister parts of racism, the subtle suggestion that something as universal as swimming somehow does not belong to everyone. And it raises a bigger question, is fun ever allowed to belong to Black people and Black children in particular?
While officer Eric Casebolt in McKinney, Texas has since stepped down, swimming is once again being added to a long list of things young Black people are discouraged from doing, which serves on a broader level to subtly dehumanize and discourage full participation in the American experience. Water is symbolic way to express a certain level of freedom for many, and the refusal to let Black children experience the age-old summertime rite of passage is a direct assault on Black children’s ability to be seen and treated as children in the first place. We need to think about the extensive hurt, pain and humiliation one must feel being barely clothed, smashed against the grass, crying out for help when all you wanted to do was have fun with your friends in the water. We need to think about this so we can work toward solutions that ensure these hostile actions become things of the past. I pray for all the future Black swimmers out there, aspiring or otherwise. We must not let bigotry, hate and ignorance take away the ability for Black children to enjoy being young, free and full of hope that they too have the skills and confidence to make it to the deep end safely, without fear of being drowned by those that wish them ill.
Want more content like this? Sign up for our weekly newsletter below.