Paulana Lamonier jokes that her Haitian grandmother doesn’t have a clue what she does for a living.
Lamonier had been working as a swimming instructor for nine years in New York before she decided to launch her own company, Black People Will Swim (BPWS). The woman-owned and operated swimming initiative is on a mission to “smash” the racist stereotype that Black people don’t swim.
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Historically, this idea couldn’t be further from the truth. Literary documents from the 6th and 7th centuries reference how West African populations swam very well, particularly groups who grew up along riverbanks or near the ocean. The article, “Enslaved Swimmers and Divers in the Atlantic World,” even suggests that “when carried to the Americas, slaves brought this ability [to swim] with them, where it helped shape generations of … occupational and leisure activities.”
Prior to the Civil War, more Black people knew how to swim than white people in America. But the skillset proved threatening to a lot of slave masters, so the stereotype was introduced and continues to come up even today.
“Let’s go back to slavery,” Lamonier explained to In The Know. “Black people were not allowed to swim simply because we would escape — we would find a way if there was a will.”
During the Jim Crow years, segregation prevented Black people from visiting public pools and beaches and riots ensued.
Author Jeff Wiltse expanded upon this violence in a 2008 conversation with NPR. Wiltse explained that police and city officials would prevent Black Americans from entering these spaces and, in some places like in Pittsburgh where there technically weren’t official policies of racial segregation, they allowed white swimmers to “literally beat” Black swimmers out of the water “as a means of intimidating them from trying to access pools.”
“[There is also] the false stereotype where we were told that our bones are too dense,” Lamonier continued. “That’s why we ‘couldn’t swim.’ We would ‘sink.'”
Segregation and racist stereotypes caused a ripple effect that impacts why a lot of Black people don’t want to swim today. According to a 2017 study by the USA Swimming Foundation, only 1 percent of almost 400,000 swimmers registered with USA Swimming were Black. That same report found that 64 percent of Black children surveyed from ages 4 to 18 said they had “no or low swimming ability.”
Although Lamonier took swimming classes growing up, there were certain points where she stopped enjoying it.
“There were a number of things that held me back from swimming,” she said. “My body, my shape. I’m a curvy woman, and I’m a plus-sized athlete as well. And then, also my hair … It was a catch-22, like, do I do a protective hairstyle to protect my hair? But if I do this protective hairstyle, will it prevent me from swimming competitively?”
This is a common concern among Black women. BBC reported that out of people surveyed, Black respondents were far more likely than white or Hispanic respondents to be concerned about the effect chlorinated water would have on their hair.
For Black women, hair is a point of pride, self-expression and heritage. Swim caps, which are designed to keep your hair packed up and out of the way, don’t factor Black women into consideration.
“One thing that’s often overlooked is that swim caps aren’t designed to protect common hairstyles among black women, adding yet another barrier to their participation in swimming,” the Atlantic wrote in 2018.
But for the most part, Lamonier feels blessed to have had a positive experience with swimming. Her sister is a certified lifeguard and like Lamonier, a swim coach — a career path that both sisters acknowledge is rare for Black women.
“That’s not something we take lightly because a lot of Black people, you know, they don’t have that experience,” she said. “Being Black is not monolithic … So I know that swimming is a privilege for me.”
Lamonier started BPWS with the goal of teaching 30 people to swim in one summer. She said she posted about it on Twitter and “everybody from everywhere” reached out. She added that while it was exciting to hear everyone’s motivations for learning to swim, that summer also made her even more aware of the effects of systemic racism.
“I had a client of mine tell me that they were really scared and didn’t know how to swim because her bones were too dense,” she said. “I thought, ‘Well, if she believes that, how many other people will take that false narrative as their truth?’ And this is why I started it to smash through.”
Social media helped BPWS to spread like wildfire. Lamonier said several of her swimmers didn’t even know that their fears were rooted in racism and lies.
“Black People Will Swim is my life’s work,” she said. “I really feel like my job here is done because people are now understanding and realizing that not only is it important to learn how to swim, but that this is a life skill.”
The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that the fatal drowning rate of African-American children between ages five to 14 is three times that of white children. The U.S. has almost 3,500 accidental drownings every year.
“It’s a racism issue. It’s an income issue. It’s a location issue. It’s an issue all across the board,” Lamonier said. “We really want to change the game.”
BPWS’s goal is to teach 2,020 Black people to swim within the first three years of business.
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