Kimberly Seals Allers: I have a swimming pool at my house -- a big ol' 18 x 38 in-ground pool that's eight feet deep on the far end and has a diving board to boot. And I don't know how to swim. Well, I won't drown (though I've never tested that theory), but I'm certainly no Olympic hopeful.
The pool was my ex-husband's domain. He is a fish. I'm a black woman with hair issues. And now that he's gone, I'm here alone with the big pool and his fish-like progeny. That means that every summer brings on the anxiety of supervising my kids in the pool. Don't get me wrong: I've taken every swim-safety course I can find and keep all sorts of rescue tools nearby. Most importantly, when spring hits I put both of my children in swim lessons long before swimming season starts, just to refresh their skills. When my budget allows, I also have a certified swim instructor come to the house.
Still, I'm haunted by the statistics. Black children are three times more likely to drown. Seventy percent of African-American children and 58 percent of Hispanic children have low or no swimming ability, compared to 40 percent of Caucasian children. That puts them at a greater risk of drowning, according to a new report by USA Swimming, which works to lower minority drowning rates and draw more blacks to the sport.
For years, the media have wanted to point to financial concerns or lack of pool access as the major reasons for the "swimming gap" between Caucasian kids and kids of other ethnicities. But a new study rips the lid off these ideas and shows that key cultural factors are at the root of the gap: parental fear, lack of parental encouragement (attributed to the fact that many parents have no to low swim ability themselves) and concerns of physical appearance (i.e., chlorine's effect on ethnic hair and skin).
While financial factors do come into play for some families, the study found that fear trumps finance in every group tested. Even if lessons were free, many parents would still not put their kids in the pool. As one mom in a Detroit focus group said, "You're already uncomfortable and scared. You're like, 'I'm paying them so I can have heart palpitations on the sidelines. It's not worth it. It really isn't. Why should I have to pay money to be afraid?"
Recently, I had the pleasure of talking with Olympic-swimming gold medalist and world-record holder Cullen Jones. Cullen nearly drowned as a child, but his mom used that experience to get him in the pool more, not less. Today, Cullen is a world-class swimmer and the second African-American to win an Olympic gold medal in the sport. Now he serves as a spokesperson for the "Make a Splash" initiative, which aims to help close the swimming gap and get more blacks and Latinos in the pool.
But the onus lies clearly with parents. I admit to my swimming fears, but I used those to put my children in the water more and to make sure they were not without swimming skills, instead of using my own fears as a reason to keep them away from swimming.
P.S. African-Americans' fear of water could be based on historical factors, too, such as segregated pools that sought to keep blacks out. Last year, 60 black and Latino campers were kicked out of a private Philadelphia swim club they'd contracted to use for the summer because there was concern they would alter the "complexion" and "atmosphere" of the club. Cullen Jones said he was "appalled" by the incident.