From a young age, my mom always made sure that my sister and I could swim. I remember going to YMCA camp every summer and staying in the pool for literally hours.
Yet, my mermaid-rivaling experience doesn’t seem to be communicated when I encounter other people. It’s interesting because for both white and black people, I’m met with equally egregious stereotypes. For some reason, the white people I meet, not you of course, hold on to the century-long stereotype and believe on-sight that I can not swim. And to take it even further, I “can’t swim” because I don’t want to get my hair wet.
One time, I was simply walking outside with a white co-worker and it began to rain. She held a newspaper over her head and I didn’t have any form of coverage. She looked at me in all seriousness and asked, “Are you gonna be alright?” Well, I’m not going to melt if that’s what you’re asking. Of course, walking in the rain and swimming are two different things, but I assure you I am more than capable of doing both.
With water, my hair becomes vivaciously curly, which is apparently like ringing an alarm for an onslaught of questions all asking the same thing: “What are you mixed with?” What’s particularly interesting to me is that most of these inquiries are being produced from black people, or other people of color. I find this disappointing because the knowledge of kinks and curls would be most known, if known at all, among other black people and people of color.
This could just be my experience, but I decided to put both of these ideas in one article because they have overlapping histories. Starting with swimming, originally there were white-only pools in which black swimmers, yes they existed back then, were not allowed to enter. And if we’re being completely honest, it’s likely that the same innocent culprits were being hosed down around the corner for trying to integrate a white-only diner.
Denying black people access to white only pools also extended to “public” beaches, so there were no feasible facilities in which black people could learn how to swim. Therefore, when swimming became recognized as a sport in the 1950s, black people were never able to catch the wave. Fast forward 50 years: if the grandparent never learned to swim, then the parent most likely never learned to swim, which leads to the child becoming aquatically incapacitated. In 2010, USA Swimming commissioned a study conducted by the University of Memphis that reports a startling 68.9% of black children have little to no swim ability, which is indicative of how systemic racism affects generations to come.
Now, flipping the script to curly hair being indicative of mixed descent, its roots (pun intended) are tied to what has been historically seen as the standard of beauty. Ear-length, tight, kinks and curls, formerly referred to as naps, are most often depicted on plantations and in roles of poverty to showcase a lack of education or inferiority in the media. These hairstyles are furthest from the white pre-approved ways to wear hair. However, the loose, shoulder length wave has become common ground for everyone and viewed as a romantic hairstyle. (Mental note: so, wavy, but not kinky or curly? Got it).
This dynamic is important when considering its connection to white people thinking black people can’t swim for what seems to be the sole reason of “they don’t want to get their hair wet”. In all actuality, black people don’t want to face more discrimination for their hair being in its natural state. Of course, it would be naive to think that all black people refrain from swimming because they don’t want to show white people their natural hair, or as an effort to avoid the prejudicial disadvantages that comes along with natural hair. I think there are some black people who know how to swim and just don’t like to; some whose hair is not naturally curly nor kinky; some who have nothing to prove to white people anyways; some who . . . .
Even now, the natural hair movement is long over due and has not reached its full infiltration capacity, especially in corporate America. Unfortunately, white peoples’ history of hate toward traditionally black characteristics, specifically hair, has fueled black people to question curly hair that is not “nappy”, which is why I so often get the question from my own brothers and sisters of, “What are you mixed with?” I am mixed with a stereotype-defying mechanism that can address the inadequate white culture that has wrongfully influenced and misinformed my own’s perception of beauty. I am mixed with naturally curly hair that comes with an allergy to straighteners. I am mixed with a wide nose and iconic smile, which have always opened doors for me. I am mixed with enough to know that black culture is what white culture, steals, commercializes, and sells to make money. Seen Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi commercial lately? Or any white-produced movies that inaccurately depicts the black community? Or Essence, a white-owned entity, marketing to black people by using other black people?
But let’s not get off topic (drops mic).
I don’t think every single black person can swim, just like I don’t believe every single white person can swim. Somehow, only black people have been afforded the unique chance of bearing such an ugly stereotype, which began with segregated pools dictated by the very white people controlling the stereotype. Considering our history with swimming, and the fact that we learned the skill in spite of it, it makes me question what is the excuse white people use when they cannot swim. To the same point, I don’t believe every single black person has naturally curly hair, nor do I believe every single white person has straight hair. Yet, on the spectrum of curls, black people’s somehow do not fall within the “lines of beauty”.
The point is, if there is such an insistence on stereotypes, which there seems to be, it makes the most sense to erase the color barrier and evaluate both sides fairly.