Learning to Swim


When I tell folks I can’t swim, they’re never that surprised. There’s usually a joke about Black girls not wanting to mess up our hair and laughter. The ones who are shocked ask how I could grow-up in California without practically living in the water. I explain that my days were not spent on the beach and that pretty much ends the conversation. But every year I swear that I’m going to learn how to swim. One year I actually took lessons, but I still wouldn’t consider myself a swimmer. For a while it wasn’t a big deal, then I started thinking about the trips I wanted to take. So many of them included beaches and water activities that I started feeling like my inability to swim was keeping me from some really cool experiences.

I was reminded that I needed to sign up for lessons while reading about Wanda Butts. In 2007 she founded the Joshua Project, an organization named after her late son, which offers low-cost swimming lessons to youth in Toledo, Ohio. After reading about the work Ms. Butts is doing in her community, I decided to look into the stats on black folks and swimming and found the following:

  • Between 2000 and 2007, the fatal unintentional drowning rate for African Americans across all ages was 1.3 times that of whites. For American Indians and Alaskan Natives, this rate was 1.7 times that of whites.
  • Rates of fatal drowning are notably higher among these populations in certain age groups. The fatal drowning rate of African American children ages 5 to 14 is 3.1 times that of white children in the same age range. For American Indian and Alaskan Native children, the fatal drowning rate is 2.3 times higher than for white children.1
  • Factors such as the physical environment (e.g., access to swimming pools) and a combination of social and cultural issues (e.g., wanting to learn how to swim, and choosing recreational water-related activities) may contribute to the racial differences in drowning rates. Current rates are based on population, and not on participation. If rates could be determined by actual participation in water-related activities, disparity in minorities drowning rates compared to whites would be much greater.


Most of the studies focus on children, but they do note that many African-American children don’t learn to swim because their parents either don’t know how to swim or wouldn’t consider themselves great swimmers. This means that if we don’t learn as a child, we’re not very likely to give it a go as an adult. But what is keeping adults from taking lessons? Are we embarrassed? Is it just not that important?

When did you learn to swim and why?

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  • AllisonMG

    Neither I nor my siblings ever really learned to swim, and all three of us are between ages 18-23. Growing up, we just never had the opportunity I guess. My sister had lessons once while really young, but they didn’t help. Though both my parents are great swimmers, I remember going to the pool very rarely. I managed to learn to float on my back.
    Shoot, my neighbor taught me how to ride a bike. Thinking about it, ATL doesn’t really have a lot of water to begin with anyway. YMCA? where?…lol..I’ve always wanted to learn, I love water, but now it seems harder to learn.
    I’ve asked a few of my college friends (all from south florida, practically born in water *rolls eyes*), which resulted, horrifyingly, in me being dunked under in a deep end (I’m only 5’2”). I was furious, refused to continue, and went back to my apartment.
    I just need to find a good, licensed teacher with private lessons.
    or maybe I’m a cat. o_O

  • Sarah

    Wow this is deep and very close to home. I never learned and every summer I say “this is the year”. Thanks for the push! For my kids too!

  • I’m so glad that this article was written. Black people (for the most part) don’t really swim much. I’m currently learning how to swim at the YMCA. It is tough to learn how to swim especially when you don’t have a pool or live near a decent body of water. Neither of my parents swim. Learning how to swim is seen moreso as a hobby than an essential skill. I’m glad that I am learning now at 22 years.

  • child please! i grew up around the river near my house, i got thrown into the deep end when I was 5 and was told to swim.
    I recently went to a office pool party, i look around i was the only black girl in the pool swimming like a fish. Nappy Hair all out, and wallowing in the water!
    I like shattering stereotypes!