Can Black People Swim? Yes, No and Maybe
Baratunde Thurston is a politically-active, technology-loving comedian from the future. He co-founded the black political blog, Jack and Jill Politics and serves as Director of Digital for The Onion. He has written for Vanity Fair and the UK Independent, hosted Popular Science’s Future Of on Discovery Science and appears on cable news regularly to say smart things in funny ways. Then-candidate Barack Obama called him "someone I need to know." Baratunde travels the world speaking and advising and performs standup regularly in NYC. He resides in Brooklyn, lives on Twitter and has over 30 years experience being black. His first book, How To Be Black, was published in February 2012 by Harper Collins.
On the question of whether or not black people can swim the answer is yes, no and maybe. I asked the question in my book of a very special panel. I call them the black panel and I asked them "Can you swim?" and it was meant as a tongue in cheek joke because there is certainly a lower preponderance of swimming ability within the U.S. black community and there are historical reasons for that. Access to pools is one of them. Discrimination like whites only being allowed at pools had a big cultural impact. There is also, especially for black women, a concern about hair. There is a particular way to do your hair and the pool really undoes that and it’s just not easy to kind of wash it out and rinse. You’ve got to take a lot more time with it and then there this has become within the culture a less popular thing to do. There is a larger fear of water for some strange reasons.
A fellow comedian friend of mine, he couldn’t swim, but he blamed it on growing up in New York City, not on being black. But for the people who could, they all still had fun stories—and when I say fun I often mean traumatic and horrific. I use the word fun like the word smurf, it can kind of cover anything. Another story involved a woman who grew up on the eastern shore of Maryland and she noticed that a lot of her peers didn’t want to swim, were afraid of getting their hair wet, afraid of getting in the water, but it was also pressure from the outside. This one white kid made a joke that the grease in her hair would ruin the Chesapeake Bay. And she’s like, "that’s what it’s going to be like to be black for a while." Like that’s just a little weird and a little racist.
For my part, I learned how to swim very early on at the YMCA in Washington D.C. It was a traumatic experience because we kind of practiced swimming with floaties, which I don’t consider to be swimming. I consider it to be playing with floaties in the water and then one day we showed up and they threw us in the deep end of the pool. They literally tossed little children in ten feet of water and said "Swim!" and I was like, "but you haven’t taught me how to swim yet!" and the point was that you actually already knew how to swim, you just had to be thrown into the environment, so trial by fire, but in this case water.
I personally love swimming. People should know how to swim. It’s a survival skill and if nothing else, look, global warming is here and it’s coming. Sea levels are rising. Swimming is going to become more necessary. I saw Water World. There is water everywhere. Learn how to swim!
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