Swimming skills lacking in minority communities | SCNow: "Their hair. Their skin. They weren’t allowed. They can’t. They’re black.This summer, again, I'll be teaching swimming at the Kingsley Association. We'll be making swimmers out of people!
There are many reasons — some stereotypical, others downright untrue — for the disparity between blacks and other cultures when it comes to the ability to swim.
A 2010 study conducted by the University of Memphis found that 70 percent of black children have no or very low swimming abilities compared with 40 percent of white children.
And it’s not only African-Americans. The study shows as many as 58 percent of Hispanic children have little or no swimming abilities.
Not knowing how to swim is not a recreational issue, but one of safety, said Sue Anderson, director of programs and services for USA Swimming, who commissioned the university’s swimming study.
USA Swimming partnered with black Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones to offer the Make A Splash program, which aims to reduce the risk of drowning among minority children.
Statistics show three times more minorities drown than Caucasians, she said.
“Our whole thing is messaging. The first thing is making people aware that this is a huge issue. It’s sort of a silent epidemic,” she said. “Seventy percent — that’s seven out of 10.”
Lack of swimming skills among blacks is well known in the African-American community. But what isn’t widely known are the real reasons why.
Until the 1970s, many public pools were segregated and there were few or no ample facilities for blacks.
“I think we can definitely look back to a time in our history where minorities weren’t welcomed at swimming pools,” Anderson said. “And the best place to learn how to swim is in a pool. I think we have to look back and say, ‘What about all those years minorities weren’t welcomed at swimming pools?’”
Now that there are swimming pools available to everyone, there are still generations within families of people who don’t know how to swim.
Black and Hispanic children are six times more likely to be members of a family with no swimmers, according to the study.
“You can say that’s cultural, but it’s mostly because the parent’s never learned to swim, and so it keeps repeating itself,” Anderson said. “If you don’t teach your children how to swim, your grandchildren are at risk of drowning.”
Children with parents who don’t know how to swim often don’t get enrolled in swimming lessons, she said.
In white communities, it is customary and considered the norm for children to take swimming lessons, Anderson said. This, she said, is one of the reasons for the disparity between the groups.
But there are signs the tide is turning, Anderson said. USA Swimming works with competitive minority teams in Detroit, Anderson said.
Many of the team members have parents who cannot swim, but yet those same parents allow their children to take swimming lessons, she said.
“That was sort of bucking the trend, which is awesome. But I said, ‘You need to go talk to your brothers and sisters and your neighbors and make sure their kids can swim,’” Anderson said. “Parental encouragement is hugely important. Most kids don’t bring themselves to a pool for swimming lessons.”
Florence resident Josie Little doesn’t know how to swim, but has enrolled her 7- and 3-year-old children in swimming lessons at the Florence Family YMCA.
“I’ve tried swimming lessons as a child, but I always feared the water, so when I had my son, I felt the need for him to learn how to swim, just in case there’s a problem and I can’t save him. I want him to be able to take care of himself,” she said.
Statistics show fear is the main reason why many minorities never learn to swim.
“I think about (learning to swim) every summer, I’m looking at my son and I’m really impressed,” Little said. “I don’t know of too many African-Americans that can truly, truly swim in water.”
Anderson said there are other reasons besides fear, such as cost and pool availability and even hair, which many black women said is a huge factor.
In the study, many African-American’s said they never learned to swim because of their hair and skin.
Florence resident Krystle White, an African-American, agrees with the study’s findings.
“For black women, it’s not as easy. When we get our hair wet, it’s a long process … a lot of us don’t like going through that,” White said.
Sherry R. Bess, a hair stylist and cosmetology instructor, said many of her black clients have expressed concerned over swimming and their hair. Many black women choose to use a chemical process, called a relaxer or perm, to straighten their naturally tight curls.
“The chlorine and the relaxer don’t agree,” she said. “It can lead to dryness in the hair and damage.”
Each person’s hair is different, but spending just a few hours in a pool can adversely affect relaxed hair, Bess said. Taking regular swims will most certainly damage hair, she added.
“If you swim every day, you won’t have any hair to worry about,” White said
Bess said many black women believe exposure to water or sweat will cause the relaxer to leave their hair and their curls to return.
“I don’t know where that information comes from. You can’t sweat it out. Once it’s in there, it’s in there,” she said. “Some clients ask me after they get a relaxer when they can shampoo their hair. I tell them you can shampoo your hair today if you like. Your relaxer isn’t going anywhere.“
African-Americans who swim with their natural curls and no chemicals still have their own battle to fight.
Using flat irons and blow dryers daily to straighten curls after a swim is damaging, Bess said.
“I wouldn’t recommend applying heat daily. That’s like sitting out in the sun with no sunscreen. It’s too much heat,” she said.
Many blacks believe their hair is “different” from that of whites and somehow more delicate.
In general, that’s not the case, Bess said.
“Hair is hair. It’s all in how you take care of it,” she said. “If you want your hair to do right by you, you have to do right by your hair.”
Chlorine is no friend to hair, period, no matter the race, and it must be removed as soon as possible after swimming by washing, Bess said.
Many black women find this time-consuming and difficult, as many are in the habit of just washing their hair once a week, she said.
“I have clients who wash their hair every two weeks, and that’s really stretching it,” Best said. “Caucasians wash their hair every day and I recommend that my clients wash their hair twice a week.”
Bottom line, Bess said, if you swim, you must wash the chlorine from your hair, preferably with a shampoo and conditioner designed to remove chlorine.
No matter the reason, it is important for all children and adults to be taught how to swim from a certified swim instructor.
USA Swimming has partnerships with many agencies cross the country to bring reduce-cost swimming lessons to communities.
For more information on swimming safety, visit http://www.poolsafely.gov/ , and for more information on Make a Splash, visit http://www.makeasplash.org/.