Studies have shown that African American children are drowning at a rate of 5.5 times more than the average white child. By exposing the immoral barriers that the African American community has and is currently facing, The Black Race, which is a critical design work created by Lafayette Doty, viscerally unmasks why "Black people can't swim".
Masters of Industrial Design thesis, at the University of Illinois at Chicago, 2021
Water is the most essential element on this planet. Without it we as a human race would not be here. No plants. No food. No existing. We long to thirst for water as our affinity for it comes out of the evolution of humans and the continual biophilic connection to water. Alan Watts a British Philosopher stated “you didn’t come into this world. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here.” Being a stranger to water though is exactly how the majority of African Americans feel. Water for the African American community has been a physical obstacle, political issue, and spiritual journey.
There are stigmas chained to water and the Black narrative that has only caused harm to those without a voice, to those without access, and to those without power. These stigmas flow through sport, health, and psychology. The stereotype that “Black people can't swim” is deadly. Reinforcing that stereotype has nefariously led to the statistic that African American children are drowning at a rate 5.5 times more than the average white child. We must openly and honestly address this statistic through wide-spread education about why African Americans are drowning at such a disturbing rate. We must destigmatize the negative connotation of the Black narrative and cultivate water safety for all.
Photo Credit: Screenshot from Youtube
For African Americans, the activity of swimming is tainted by a long history of racism which denied African Americans from entering pools. African Americans all too often sit outside being physically and verbally abused at public pools, while white people swim freely enjoying the freedom of water and mastering the skills necessary to work it. This is not just a 1950’s issue, something that took place only during segregation. This is happening now. In the summer of 2015 in McKinney, Texas police were called to respond to “multiple juveniles...who don't live in the area”. This set off a response by racist cops who then physically slammed and verbally abused young Black men and women for no reason other than their apparently unwanted presence. All of this was caught on camera. Just the presence of being Black in aquatic spaces floods our white counterparts with fear.
The most radical thing that African Americans can do is to live because the society into which we are born is designed to kill us every day. We can not drive while being Black. We can not run while being Black. We can not swim while being Black. As a Black individual, simply enjoying physical activity, is a charged act of resistance against a wide front of oppression.
In that sense, We, the Black community, can use physical activity as an outlet to take up “white oxygen” in spaces that are not built for us. That means creating programs that praise inclusivity and put forth a positive Black narrative. The hard work of advocating for inclusivity and freedom to access and master the most elemental of spaces on this planet, water, is already underway. The change we seek is enormous and it requires action at all levels of society from 1) direct community outreach, to 2) a retooling of the messages and goals of role models, to 3) the creation and elevation of artistic works which both unearth the history underpinning this stigma and provide society's collective imagination with images of improved future we all deserve.
Photo Credit: Black People Will Swim
An example of direct community outreach can be seen with the organization in New York called “Black People Will Swim” whose sole mission is plain and simple: it’s smashing the stereotype that Black people don’t swim. They recently crowdfunded over $40,000 to combat that stereotype. They plan on using the money for facility fees, hiring and certifying people of color, providing equipment to swimmers, and scholarships for students who excel in the pool and classroom. Once we rewrite our narrative for positive change, work gets done. Stereotypes and prejudices will still be prevalent but not taking our oxygen, our story, or our lives.
Cullen Jones, Lia Neal, Simone Manuel, Jacob Pebley, and other high-profile swimmers are doing tremendous strokes to bring awareness to the lack of swimming knowledge in the African American community. From discussion forums and fundraising organizations such as Swimmers for Change or Make A Splash, these athletes are doing their part in hopes of gaining higher engagement in swimming. Swimmers for Change co-founded by Neal and Pebley raised over $15,000 during their 12 straight days of virtual fundraising. During those 12 days, the organization employed the use of their high-level friends to talk about and understand racism as well as give swimming tips. They averaged roughly 500-600 viewers per conversation of which Pebley noted: “he didn't know if anyone would watch”. This proves that there is a market for this discussion. Make A Splash tours the United States with Team USA Swimming ambassadors to educate children, parents, and communities on the importance of swimming. With representation in instructors and role models at the national level, we can begin to shift the conversation from reinforcing negative stereotypes to saving young African American lives.
Photo Credit: Swimmers for Change
Where we need more action is in the creation and dissemination of cultural works that directly challenge the stigma of Black swimming. That is why I am creating The Black Race, a film that juxtaposes societal inequities with the environment of an Olympic tournament. My hope is that through film, animation, art, music, theater, and all kinds of cultural works, designers and creative individuals can both call attention to the situation and also reveal images of the equitable future we need to create. If that future is to be a goal for all of society, we need to make it visible and in some sense tangible, before it can become a reality.
As a fitness enthusiast, designer, and young African American, I feel compelled to expose the immoral barriers that the African American community has and is currently suffering. According to USA Swimming, formal swimming lessons reduce the likelihood of childhood drowning by 88%. By educating the general public and African American families we can not only save lives, but we can also enrich them by sharing the joy, peace, and love of swimming. Just as the deepest waters are yet unexplored, the potential for education on this issue holds great depth. Using design as an intervention on this lethal stereotype that “Black people can’t swim”, The Black Race will educate and give form to structural racist practices around swimming.