"Black girls can swim," says Serena from London. "That narrative saying Black girls don't swim — that's a fat lie."
We've all heard the stereotypical phrase that Black people can't swim because "our bones are too dense" and we'd "sink in the water". While these tropes are steeped in deep-rooted racism, there's another issue facing Black communities. According to recent figures from Sport England, 95% of Black adults and 80% of Black children do not go swimming, and a lot of that comes down to haircare.
Alice Dearing, who is one of the top female marathon swimmers in the UK, wants to change that. The 23-year-old, who has represented Great Britain at three World Championships, three European Championships and has her eyes set on Tokyo 2021, has joined forces with Black-owned specialist swimming brand SOULCAP, to challenge stereotypes facing Black communities in the world of swimming.
Their new campaign, #BlackGirlsDontSwim, invited Black swimmers to share their own positive and negative experiences using the hashtag. Their real life stories form the basis of a two-minute short film called Black Girls Don't Swim, which was released on Instagram this month.
We hear from 9-year-old Analah, a contributor to the film, who says: "People used to say I couldn't be a professional swimmer because of my hair," while Madison Freeland notes the negative comments made towards Black women athletes. "Growing up as a Black female swimmer in a predominantly white sport, there was a bunch of talk in the stands," she says. "[They would say] 'those girls have to be on steroids. They're probably swimming 80 hours a week just to swim that fast.' Why couldn't we just be talented swimmers?"
Dearing admits that her experience of being a minority in the water has had its challenges. "But I've always believed that there's a way around them," she says. "We're turning this stereotype upside down, to show people that Black girls can and do swim."
The freestyler also told Sky Sports this week that she co-founded the Black Swimming Association (BSA) alongside journalist Seren Jones, inventor Danielle Obe and musician and filmmaker Ed Accura earlier this year. They hope to bridge the gap between swimming and the Black community by reaching out to schools and swimming clubs.
Dearing and SOULCAP also have plans in place to host a series of coaching workshops for swimmers in local clubs around the UK, where swimmers from all backgrounds will have the opportunity to train and learn from Dearing herself. However, the workshops have been postponed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
"It doesn't matter if you're an experienced swimmer, or someone who is just starting out," says Toks Ahmed-Salawudeen, director at SOULCAP. "These stereotypes affect us all. And with your help, we can start to make swimming more accessible for everyone."