When Sadie Clayton attended her first adult swimming lesson at the age of 31, she immediately noticed things she and her fellow classmates had in common. Everyone wanted to hold onto the ledge. Everyone had a reliance on flotation devices. And everyone was a person of colour. “There were six of us, and we were all Black and brown,” she remembers. “I was like, ‘Hang on, what’s going on here?’” Clayton, a London-based artist and TV presenter, imagined she was part of a minority of grown adults fearful of even putting their faces into water, let alone swimming in it. In a broad sense, she was right. In 2016, 88 per cent of British adults said they could swim. But Clayton was also part of a very different majority of people: as of 2022, 95 per cent of Black adults and 80 per cent of Black children in the UK do not swim.
“I’d heard the myth that Black people don’t swim before,” she tells me. “‘Of course I don’t swim, I’m Black’ – it’s like a kind of running joke.” But after noting how many Black people were in her lessons, as well as the social media followers sending her the most encouragement when she posted about being in the water, Clayton was intrigued to find out more. “I started doing my research and I found out how massive that gap is. It’s more than just me, or my Jamaican grandma, or a few of my followers – there’s a real trend here.”
Of Britons who consider themselves regular swimmers, only 2 per cent are Black. Despite being a life-saving skill, swimming is not as ingrained a practice for Black people in the way it is for white people on both sides of the Atlantic. In the US, Black people make up only 8.9 per cent of the country’s swimmers, while 72.8 per cent of regular American swimmers are white. For entire generations of Black people, swimming has often been considered an activity low on the priority list, or something simply “not for us”. While there are plenty who buck this trend, the number of Black people across the diaspora who aren’t confident in the water is too high to be merely coincidental.
In the US, segregated public pools and beaches were a key contributor to this gap. While southern states introduced specific regulations that prevented Black and white people using the same facilities, northern states played their part by only building pools in white neighbourhoods. Some pools had timing mandates that only permitted African-Americans to use the water at the end of the day, and after white people were done with it. And as late as the 1960s, hotel managers poured acid into the building’s pools while Black families were inside – both to frighten them out and discourage them from returning.
Today in the UK, socio-economic factors and a lack of representation in the sport are frequently cited as reasons for the gap. While some white people grow up with swimming lessons and holidays that provide access to pools or the ocean, the same isn’t the case for many Black Britons, who are more likely to have lower disposable income. Other possible explanations are long-standing myths about Black people having heavier bones or higher levels of muscle density, as well as inherited fears and cultural beliefs about the dangers of water, something originating with the countless numbers of Africans who died during the water passage of the slave trade. Then there’s representation – only three Black people have ever swum for Great Britain at the Olympics.
All of these factors go some way to explaining why so many Black people can’t swim. It’s a disappointing state of affairs, and also a dangerous one: Black people drown at alarmingly higher rates than white people, while the rate of fatal drownings in the US is three times higher for African-American children than it is for white children.
Annalize Butler is the founder of the Black Owned Swim School, and first noticed being treated differently in the water when she started working as a lifeguard as a teenager in the Noughties. “Being poolside, you fade into the background and you hear casual remarks from other people that don’t make you feel included,” she recalls. As a casual worker during her breaks from studies, Butler realised that people were often hired through nepotism and prior experience. It meant the number of people of colour working around the pool remained low, with no efforts in place to change it.
There’s a reason why so many Black kids want to be footballers. They see themselves in Marcus Rashford, in [Bukayo] Saka. When there’s no one who looks like you swimming at the pool, or on the TV, you think it’s not a place for you
Ed Accura, Black Swimming Association
Wanting to make change in the swimming world, Butler trained as a swimming teacher, then steadily rose through the ranks to become a trainer of swimming coaches. “I’ve become something like a master trainer, teaching people how to teach for emergency life-saving, baby skills, swimming with disabilities and more,” she says. Not only does Butler find this work more stimulating than lifeguarding, but loves that using her skills in this way has systemic benefits. “With my expertise, I have the leverage and insight to have an effect on the swimming curriculum,” she explains. “If I go to the Houses of Parliament to talk about aquatic safety, I’m one of maybe two people [in those rooms] who aren’t Caucasian. It’s a very difficult political situation to be in as the only one who has lived experience as a Black swimmer, and knows about cultural and hereditary situations that make Black people at risk of harm. A lot of the time, it’s not until things become critical that there’s any urgency to do anything about it.”
Earlier in her career, Butler claims that she was once asked in a job interview whether she’d be uncomfortable teaching people who aren’t Black or of minority ethnic background. It was an odd question in itself but also seemed to suggest that – in the eyes of the swimming authorities, at least – white people were the default when it came to swimming, with no acknowledgement that this was something in need of addressing. In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd and widespread acknowledgement that change needed to occur, Butler founded her own school. Her aim is to “decolonise swimming teaching” and work with government and water safety bodies to instil generational change in the way that swimming is taught.
Butler isn’t alone in wanting to change the face of British swimming. Founded in 2020, the Black Swimming Association seeks to diversify aquatics and lower the rates of Black and Asian people who don’t swim. “A lot of organisations and governmental bodies are reaching out to people who already have an interest in swimming,” co-founder Ed Accura says. “But the people most at risk are people who don’t know what they don’t know. If they’ve never been interested in water, or have always seen it as something irrelevant to their lives, they are most at risk of drowning.”
Since 2018, Accura has released a trilogy of autobiographical documentary films under the title Blacks Can’t Swim. They explore, through humour and historical accounts, the idea of swimming competence and Blackness being at odds with one another. He tells me he wants to show everyday Black people that they have just as much of a right to be in the water as anyone else. “There’s a reason why so many Black kids want to be footballers,” Accura offers. “They see themselves in Marcus Rashford, in [Bukayo] Saka. When there’s no one who looks like you swimming at the pool, or on the TV, you think it’s not a place for you.”
Growing up between Ghana and the UK, Accura was discouraged from taking an interest in learning to swim by parents who preferred he used his free time studying. When he had a child of his own and read about a parent who was unable to save their child from open water as they couldn’t swim themselves, he had an epiphany: “I couldn’t forgive myself if that happened to my daughter.” Accura began lessons five years ago, and while he can confidently swim 50m now, a level of apprehension and fear that comes with being in the water remains.
For his 12-year-old daughter, who has grown up with swimming lessons and playing in the water as a norm, Accura believes she won’t face the same fears that have weighed him down. “Change will be generational,” he says. “Even if I may struggle to get into the water, my daughter has grown up seeing it as a fun activity. When she has kids, they’ll grow up and hopefully feel the same.”
A year after she first decided to try lessons, Clayton now proudly classifies herself as a swimmer, and credits lessons with completely changing her attitude to the water. “I was pushed into the pool once as a child, and I held onto the trauma of nearly drowning for 20 years,” she says. She was so inspired by her transformation that she set about creating a podcast about it. Black People Can’t Swim features conversations with Black people in creative and athletic fields, who talk to Clayton about their relationships with water. “Whether you grew up swimming, or whether you just learned like me, all Black people have a story,” she says. “I missed out on years of opportunities to really engage with water, and the beauty of the sea, while on holiday out of fear – and that’s not right. Black people shouldn’t have to miss out.”
‘Black People Can’t Swim’ is available now