“Black people have denser bones.” “They cannot float in water.” “Their bodies are just more prone to short distance running than swimming.”
According to Sport England, in a 2018 study, 95% of black adults and 80% of black children in England do not go swimming at all. Additionally, in 2019, Swim England recorded that there were 73,000 competitive swimmers in the country yet only 668, less than 1%, came from black or mixed-race backgrounds.
Alice Dearing, the only person of colour in Team GB’s swimming team for the Tokyo Olympic Games, BBC Broadcast Journalist Seren Jones, Danielle Obe, inventor of waterproof scarfs tailored to Afro-hair and Ed Accura maker of the film “A Film Called Blacks Can’t Swim” launched the Black Swimming Association in March 2020.
The charity was founded to make swimming more accessible for black and ethnic minority groups in the UK.
So, why don’t black people swim?
For Alice the internalisation of racist stereotypes has been a contributing factor to why black people are deterred from swimming:
“You speak to people now and they’ll be like, “oh I’m black I don’t swim” and that’s enough of a reason to not be able to swim. We have said at BSA that the biggest challenge we are going to have is changing the mindset.”
Seren Jones holds the view that representation is a key reason why people of colour are deterred from the sport:
“Representation matters, people don’t like to do new things if they don’t see themselves reflected. If there were more black people across the board, I am sure swimming would appeal to more people of colour.”
Moreover, according to the government’s 2018 Race Disparity Audit, BAME households are disproportionately low-income earners relative to the overall UK population. For that reason, swimming for many is an unaffordable sport:
“If you are lucky enough to join a competitive team, you have to pay for everything, your swimming gear, your entry fees for competitions and races. I swim regularly at the Olympic pool at Stratford. But when I do swim there you hardly see any people of colour because it costs five pounds per entry. For some families it’s a no brainer when you can easily send your child to a youth club for free,” Seren said.
However, hair is another factor that deters people of colour, in particular, black women from the sport. The Nielsen report in the US in 2018 found that black women spend nine times more than white women on hair and beauty products.
Seren said: “Hair is a fundamental part of black identity, and a lot of money is spent by black people in particular black women on their hair. They invest so much money in it, so can you blame them for not wanting to do a sport that could damage their hair in a short amount of time?”
Accusations of racism towards black sportsman, in particular footballers, is nothing new. However, swimming is not the exception to the rule:
“Initially I never saw it as an issue…then I had a few incidences of racism and that was kind of a wake-up call that people don’t see me the way I see myself. That people obviously see colour…There was a coach who called me a skinny N-word…I was like, oh ok it is really not as rosy and fair as I once thought it was,” Alice said.
Seren also feels that racist stereotypes cause the sport to miss out on an array of talent:
“Look how dominant black people are in sports. We are athletic, we can work as hard as anyone else, there is nothing that we can’t do when we put our minds to it. If we were given the same opportunities and encouraged to participate, we could make waves in the sport. We are losing out on world-class talent at our doorstep and that’s a real shame.”
“Change needs to happen!”
“Swimming is a lifelong skill that can actually save your life,” Seren said. “It is heart-breaking for us at BSA to hear about deaths of BAME people from drowning. We want to make sure that they are less vulnerable when in the water. We want them to know that swimming is enjoyable and extremely rewarding.”
But for Alice being a voice for the black community in the swimming world highlights the amount of work that still needs to be done:
“I don’t want people to be surprised by seeing a black person at a pool. Why should it matter if a black person is swimming? It shouldn’t matter. I wish I didn’t have to do this, to be honest…I wish I didn’t have to use my voice in this way. But I feel like I have a duty to because there is a chance to make a change and change needs to happen.”