Updated: Jun 20
Outdoor swimming ought to be so inclusive. Its benefits are for everyone and anyone regardless of sex, race and ability. So, why is the face of outdoor swimming so white, and how can we change that?
For as long as I have been involved in outdoor swimming, I have noticed that there is a 'type'. And that made me wonder: as a welcoming, friendly, sociable activity that pretty much anybody can do, why are the faces I'm seeing so alike? It also made me wonder if my perception of outdoor swimming as a welcoming, friendly, sociable activity that pretty much anybody can do would be different if my face didn't fit the type.
So, I started to think about how I could change this. First of all, I looked at fattism. This was easy; I'm no skinny bean so I could speak from experience, and outdoor swimming seemed to attract people who didn't fit the impossible standards set by the beauty industry, so it was easy to encourage people of all shapes and sizes to join in. Next, I looked at disability, writing an article about accessible swimming and engaging with people who considered themselves disabled (there's still much more to do here).
But I didn't tackle race. Why not? Because, like a lot of people, I didn't know how and I was too timid. I didn't want to be accused of 'whitesplaining' racism, and it was an issue beyond my experience. But, while I feel that those reasons were valid, I have now realised that my inaction was not. The Black Lives Matter campaign has helped give me the courage to change that.
Like attracts like
It is well-known that people take part in activities in which they can see themselves. Think about a sport that you've not tried because its image isn't you. I've never tried CrossFit, for example, because I see younger, skinnier women and muscle-bound men and it doesn't appear to be my kind of sport, or, more accurately, I feel that I would stick out like a slightly overweight, middle-aged thumb.
Swimming and outdoor swimming (and outdoor pursuits in general) have an image problem. Websites, organisations, shops, and social media present predominately white faces. And that means that they attract more white people, encouraging them to dip into these activities. Does this lack of representation mean people of colour don't swim, cycle, mountaineer, rock climb, etc? No, of course, it doesn't. But it does mean they are not encouraged, or that they are actively discouraged, to try them out.
This underrepresentation continues right up to the highest level of the sport: Only 668 out of more than 73,000 competitive swimmers who are registered with Swim England are black or mixed-race, and only two have represented Team GB.
By recognising this problem and thinking about how they present themselves, influencers and organisations can help to not just say, but also to show people of colour that swimming is for them, too. For my part, I have bought stock images to use on my website so that I show a more diverse range of faces.
Social or science?
Another huge issue in swimming is the myth that black people can't swim. When I first trained as a swimming teacher in 2009, the (white) man who trained us told us that black people have more dense bones and therefore they sink, and that's why there are so few black swimmers at a competitive level.
It sounds fishy because it is. This kind of racism is a social construct, in other words, it's made up but widely accepted to be true. This particular myth about swimming is so deeply ingrained that it is believed to be fact not only by white people, but also by people of colour.
'Scientific racism' was invented by the Victorians. Author Emma Dabiri explains it very well. She says: "Scientific racism established the idea that empirical 'scientific' evidence could be used to demonstrate that black people were an entirely distinct species." This concept was denounced in 1950 by Unesco, but scientists, geneticists and researchers still use race in their work. "We now know that while they have social meanings which have a huge impact on the realities of people's lives, they have absolutely no biological meaning at all."
Here's a stat for you: 80% of young black people and children in England do not swim. That rises to 95% for black adults in England.
Why is this? In this article, Seren Jones, one of the founding members of the Black Swimming Association explains why underrepresentation, fake science, and systemic and historic racism prevents people of colour from taking to the water, and why that's so dangerous.
You've probably heard this phrase over the past couple of weeks. How does it make you feel? If you're white, it might make you feel under attack or criticised, especially if you believe that racism is wrong and should be eradicated.
But it's an important concept to accept; vital in the fight against racism. Why? Because when white people accept that the colour of their skin has given them an unfair advantage, it helps them listen and learn from non-white peers, colleagues, friends and spokespeople. It helps them understand that while they can't speak for people of colour, they can support them and become anti-racist allies.
Diversify your influences
In outdoor swimming, white voices dominate the airwaves in every regard. Look at Instagram, look at the Outdoor Swimming Society, look at your own swimming venue; who is leading, who is speaking and who is represented?
If you find that your spheres are majority white, it's time to help change that. Diversify your social media feeds, read, listen, watch and learn. Listen to a variety of voices because (and this might seem obvious, but it's a real issue) race isn't binary; it's not a simple case of black or white. Recognise racism and call it out when you see it.
Here are some resources to get you started: They include swimmers and swimming organisations to follow, films to watch and charities that you can support.
Black Girls Don't Swim (documentary)
Blacks Can't Swim (Film: on Amazon Prime from June 26th 2020)
That Alice Dearing is the first black woman to swim for TeamGB at the Olympics speaks volumes about the racism inherent in swimming and outdoor sports. But it also shows that the tides are starting to turn, or at least the discussion about race and swimming is gaining traction. I hope that we can all help this to happen whatever the colour of our skin.