I was at a comedy club last week, chatting with a few friends. It wasn’t the best place for conversation, but we were making do, mostly ignoring the blaring audio from the amateur local comedians performing at the front of the room several feet away. Suddenly, a man on stage loudly proclaimed:
BLACK PEOPLE CAN’T SWIM.
My back was to the stage, so I put on my best what the actual fuck expression and turned to see who was behind the mic. It was some hipster looking white guy in his twenties rocking dreads. There were so many problematic attributes coalescing in a single individual, it took a moment for me to properly process the scene. I turned back to my friends, both white, who had momentarily frozen, along with the rest of the mostly white audience. The hipster went on to assure us:
What? This isn’t racist.
Phew. That was a relief to hear, because it had sounded really racist to me until he made it clear that it absolutely wasn’t.
He followed up with this gem:
Has anyone ever seen a black lifeguard?
No one responded.
Exactly! Because black people can’t swim.
Y’all, I honestly considered standing up, rushing the stage, and dropping knowledge about my years on a swim team and the fact that I was a certified SCUBA diver. But, as is usually the case with white folks indulging in casual assed racism masquerading as ‘jokes’, it wasn’t worth it. If I responded that way every time I heard some racist shit, I would never stop fighting, arguing, and jumping up from my seat in outrage.
What’s funny–not so much funny ha ha, as wow that’s fucked up funny–is there’s a nugget of truth hidden deep within the long held stereotype that black people can’t swim, and it’s not because the negro’s bones are just denser than those of white people (see? I have jokes too). What’s the answer to why fewer black folks swim?
Shocker, it’s racism!
Think back to the Jim Crow era south and segregation. We’ve all seen pictures of one water fountain labeled Whites Only and another right next to it labeled Colored Only. If blacks and whites couldn’t even share a fountain, what was the likelihood that they shared a public pool? If you guessed zero, you are correct. Public pools were also labeled Whites Only, but you wouldn’t often find a companion pool nearby marked Colored. That was of the see ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya brand of bad luck for black folks, many of whom had no access to aquatic methods of recreation and had to find diversion elsewhere on land.
If you were born and raised in an environment in which you never learned to swim and never really had access to large bodies of water, what do you think the chances are that you would grow up to teach your own kids how to swim? There’s no genetic defect that affects a black person’s ability to tread water. Many were simply kept from learning the skill for generations because of the color of their skin, and it never became part of their daily lives. As with many other things, what appears to be a deficiency among a specific racial group is actually the direct consequence of a culture rife with deep seated racism, and those effects are far reaching. This long persisting stereotype is the legacy of slavery and segregation, which is why it was so amazing when a black woman finally won an Olympic gold medal for swimming despite this legacy, turning that stereotype on its head before a national audience (go, Simone!).
So, yes, white hipster douchebag with dreads, black people can swim, and it’s racist for you of all people to assert otherwise to earn a few nervous laughs. Also, can we quit with the tired stereotype of the Mexican lawn maintenance worker? Yes, y’all, he went there next and spent several painful minutes beating that racist stereotype into the ground.
I’m sure he has a token black or Latino friend, though, so it’s fine, right?