David Matthews is a writer whose work has appeared in The Sunday Times, The Mail on Sunday and the Observer, and on the BBC and Channel 4. He is the author of several books, including Voices of the Windrush Generation. Follow him on Twitter @mrdavematthews.
Docudrama Blacks Can’t Swim: The Sequel, dives into why it is black people don’t much care for the water. Having lived in the UK and Barbados, I can say that it isn’t racism stopping us, we’re just, generally, not that into it.
Women can’t parallel park. Gays are fastidiously neat and tidy. White men can’t dance. Ordinarily, airing such dubious stereotypes in public, even under the free speech auspices of RT, would get me cancelled faster than Jordan Peterson doing stand-up at a transgender comedy show. But working the cultural cliché shill game sometimes has a purpose, in this case, the notion that “black people can’t swim.”
As un-PC, anti-woke or just plain “wrong” as this may sound, there’s more than a little anecdotal, and personal experience, to give credence to the claim. For one, as a 10-year-old I nearly drowned off the coast of Dorset in the west of England during a rare family summer holiday. I’d badgered my father to get me one of those cheap Day-Glo rubber dinghies, the like of which are probably banned these days, for health and safety reasons, and eventually he caved in.
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Towards the end of one typically overcast day of the vacation, my father, sister and niece sauntered down to the local beach, ostensibly to humour me for a few minutes of splashing about in the waves with my new acquisition. I set off in the dinghy waving to my family on the beach. Within a matter of minutes, I was in deep, choppy water. And I couldn’t swim. Realising I was literally out of my depth I hopped out of the death trap dinghy only to find an absence of seabed underfoot. I panicked, started thrashing about, and was consumed by the cold, unforgiving water. They say that when you drown you see your life flash in front of you. As a 10-year-old, all I saw was silt and seaweed.
My father, who had been a fisherman as a young man in Guyana, South America, laboured to come out to save me. I could see flashes of him wading out and my sister screaming as the current carried me further out to sea. And then, an old man with a grey beard who looked like Santa on a weekend break appeared, grabbed me and swam me back to shore. That man saved my life. I don’t know his name. We never saw him again. That was over 40 years ago, and still the fear of water persists despite the fact I live on a Caribbean island in a house with a pool.
Every time I hear of a drowning, a boat accident or shark attack, my stomach churns – and it’s not just from personal experience. Years before we went to Dorset my parents and I went to Guyana. This was the first time I’d been abroad or flown on a plane. It was Christmas, 1974. I met my grandmother, extended family and got a sense of the culture I’d been born into, albeit remotely, coming as I did from the East End of London. But what was meant to be a homecoming, the adventure of a lifetime, at least for a child, quickly turned into a nightmare. Two of my father’s cousins, a father and a son, drowned in a fishing accident off the coast in the desolate Atlantic. A black cloud lay over the family from then on.
Such is the power of the sea and fear of water, not just for me, but for the majority of black people I know that the “black people can’t swim” stereotype is beyond a stereotype. It’s a truth. A white ex-Metropolitan Police copper I know of the ‘Life on Mars’ generation once told me that he and his equally white colleagues used to use “non-swimmers” as canteen culture code for black suspects.
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Recently, while sipping mango daiquiris at my members only swanky beach club with an old pal from Brixton and his 22-year-old cousin, Marcus, I asked how often he went to such places after soon sensing his uneasiness with the surroundings.
“I never come to places like this,” Marcus said.
“Really?” This came as no surprise. At three thousand bucks a year in membership fees it’s beyond the realm of most bourgie expats, let alone ordinary locals. Besides, access to WTA grade tennis courts and PGA standard golf courses notwithstanding, the location is no less idyllic than anywhere else on the island.
“So, how often do you go to the beach, then?”
“Oh, about four times…,” Marcus said.
“A week?” I interjected, thinking, well, you’re young, knock yourself out.
“No, a year.”
That, I did find surprising – as well as a mark of my latent bourgeois sensibilities. Marcus then went on to break down a key reason why in many parts of the Caribbean black people don’t swim, despite having access to the most amazing golden beaches, azure waters and diverse aquatic life in the world.
“Other than holidays, I don’t have time for the beach,” Marcus said. “It’s more of a tourist thing. They want to have fun, get a tan. I don’t need a tan, so why go to the beach, especially if most hotels and bars catering to tourists and foreigners make you feel unwelcome?”
What Marcus was getting at is a contentious notion that’s at the heart of director Ed Accura’s indie docudrama film, ‘Blacks Can’t Swim: The Sequel’ – namely we don’t do the water because, like skiing, bungee jumping or wearing tweed, swimming and water sports are achingly Eurocentric and thus something everyday black folk aren’t into. As one of the film’s characters says during a comedic home studio grime session: “Bro, concentrate on the music fam and we’ll be back, fam. For that swimming ting? Just don’t go near water and you’ll be good, fam. Anyway, that’s a white man’s ting, fam.”
Blacks Can’t Swim: The Sequel © YouTube
Accura, who’s co-founder of the Black Swimming Association (BSA), only learned to swim aged 53 out of a fear that he wouldn’t be able to save his young daughter from drowning if the situation ever arose. According to Swim England, swimming’s governing body, 95% of black adults and 80% of black children in England don’t swim, and only 2% of regular swimmers are black, a disparity that led Accura to coin the phrase Bl-aquaphobia – a uniquely Afrocentric fear of water, which his film sets out to explore, with a varying degree of success.
While Accura’s use of documentary interviews and dramatic sequences is hammy at times, and at over an hour-and-a-half the film feels overstretched, set mainly in London with a primarily black and overwhelmingly African-British cast, the narrative does offer an intriguing and detailed psychological account of why so many black people can’t or don’t swim in the UK. From near-death experiences with water to losing loved ones to drowning, to claiming a lack of role models or marketing of swimming to black people is to blame, a plethora of reasons, and excuses, are conjured up, which fascinate and frustrate by turns.
On the role model issue, for instance, having been born, raised and lived most of my life in the UK where 87% of the population is white and, I can say with a straight face, that “some of my best friends are white” I’ve never had a sense that white people swim in their droves because every four years a handful of people who look like fish win gold medals at the Olympics. If there’s one sport that no one ever watches outside of the Olympiad jamboree, it’s swimming. I don’t buy that a Lewis Hamilton or Tiger Woods of swimming needs to emerge to get black people into pools. Why? Because, sat as I am looking out at the Caribbean watching only a handful of black people splashing about, despite it being a country where 90% of the population is black, colour has as much to do with why black people aren’t swimming here as they aren’t swimming in the UK.
This is where Accura’s deliberately provocative title is of course misleading – and sets up a series of frustrating encounters, which a cynic might accuse of bellyaching, especially as some pretty hokey statements go unchallenged. On a holiday to Florida, for example, British Nigerian Maryam says she went to the beach, “but I didn’t want to swim, because of my hair…” We don’t hear her elaborate, but the implication is, well, black women and their hair, eh? Another contributor complains that the chlorine in swimming pool water wreaks havoc with his moisturising regime, moisturiser being as critical to black health as oxygen is to anyone else. (Pro tip dear white people: that whole “black don’t crack” thing isn’t down to genetics, it’s down to obsessive moisturising.)
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Subjects in the film also talk about everything from major anxiety, to feeling out of place, to body dysmorphia as reasons why they don’t swim. But if the interviewees and my own “lived experience” is anything to go by, black people over-intellectualise their relationship to the water and swimming, whereas white people, quite literally, dive right in.
It’s not that black people’s bones are heavy, and even if they were, we don’t sink to the bottom as soon as we get into the water; the issue is one about class and cultural norms. White people swim, regardless of class, for fun because swimming and water-based leisure activities, like leisure and sport, period, have been commodified by white people over hundreds of years. Black people see the water, like much of nature, as a resource to be used for practical reasons first and foremost, and arguably feared and respected because of its power. Some years ago, while working in the Great Lakes region in East Africa I met many people who told tales of children and old people drowning or being stolen away by alligators while simply collecting water. I often hear people on my local beaches talking about currents, undertows and crashing waves with hushed reverence. The last thing on their mind is grabbing a board, hitting the surf and getting “barrelled.”
Culturally, the majority of the world that isn’t European doesn’t prioritise swimming in the way white people do, particularly where water is seen as a “white space.” Growing up in the East End, my mother actively discouraged me from going to the local “baths” as she saw it as a hotbed of disease, degeneracy and sexual impropriety. This was as much a legacy of her colonial past as it was of her Windrush generation’s presence. For her generation, viewing the English aquatic space as “a white man’s ting” was a way of protecting me from contact with a breed of people who weren’t to be trusted. But in doing so, and not being encouraged to swim regularly, my parents put me in harm’s way when dealing with water. This irony is lost in Accura’s film because the voices of the Windrush generation, and their contemporaries, are absent. Instead, we hear young people talking about why they can’t or won’t swim with very little cultural or historical insight.
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Accura says that black children are three times more likely to drown than white children. This, I can well believe given my own experiences and the triggering stories I hear of drownings, particularly involving black people. Publicised drownings of black people often have a social mobility subtext to them: it’s London pastor Gabriel Diya and two of his children Comfort and Praise-Emmanuel who died in a pool on the Costa Del Sol on Christmas Eve, 2019; it’s Derrick Andrew Otim, the Nottingham Forest academy player who died last July on a boating trip in South Carolina; it’s Folajimi ‘Jimi’ Olubunmi-Adewole, the college graduate who drowned on his way home from work when he dived into the Thames to save a woman in distress.
There’s always been a racial or even racist stereotype to the reasons why black people have an aversion to the water. But the same can be said of almost any ethnic group. In fact, I’ve met Indian and Arab fishermen who can’t swim. Maybe there’s a question missing in all of this that can tell us something very different about the changing nature of cosmopolitanism: Why do white people swim? Hmm… I might just make a film about that.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.