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Aquatics as White Space

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There is a love affair between the American people and water proclaimed Hertig (as cited in Clayton & Thomas, 1989). According to numerous sources, aquatics has always been one of the most popular recreation and leisure activities attracting millions each year. Many are introduced to swimming at one of the ten million plus residential pools. Others learn to swim at summer camp or elementary school. Aquatic programs are available for anyone between six months and ninety-nine years. Some colleges with physical education requirements specifically have a swimming requirement. Basic aquatic skills are required for (most of) those entering the military. Even the Boy Scouts have a swimming requirement to achieve Eagle Scout. This love affair has been almost entirely restricted to white communities in the United States. Numerous structural and social practices have proven to continue the white popularity of aquatic recreation, but not substantially change participation of black Americans. African Americans have been historically, and continue to be underrepresented in the positive aspects of aquatics. Once learning the extent of the violent racist history of aquatics it is easily recognized that aquatics has always been white space. This space is not welcoming to people of color. Swimming gained significant popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The first public beach, Revere Beach in Massachusetts, was established in 1895. Swimming was included in the first modern Olympics in 1896. The movement known as Physical Christianity started in England in the mid 19th century and by the 1900’s spread to the United States. Cities were expanding public transportation systems that allowed the working class to visit beaches and parks. Under Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Civil Conservation Corp built hundreds of public swimming pools across the United States. According to Wiltse (2004), these pools were situated in predominantly white neighborhoods. The few facilities built in black neighborhoods were much smaller and usually had little to no deep water. The Great Migration was underway; African Americans were hopeful of less hostile environments when they left the South. Towards the end of this era was a great economic expansion that saw the emergence of suburbs. White flight ensued from the 1950’s onward. As the tax base decreased so did support for public swimming pools. Recreation and leisure pursuits are influenced by multiple factors from many aspects of life and evolve throughout one’s life. In 1964, with the passage of the Civil Rights Law, blacks were legally entitled to enter white recreation spaces as public accommodation… participation changed, but not that much. Scholars began to investigate the tremendous differences in leisure pursuits between whites and blacks. At first, the obvious perspective was to look at the historical lack of access as a predictor of non-participation.

Lee (1972) was able to document that certain forms of recreation and leisure were widely recognized as ‘ black ‘ or ‘ white ‘ arenas. Next the socioeconomic perspective was considered. Both of these factors impact leisure choices, but there is much more to the story. Focusing primarily on outdoor recreation and leisure, Washburne (1978), developed an alternative perspective, the ethnicity hypothesis, stating that differences in recreation and leisure were better explained by culturally based values & socialization. This includes knowledge passed on through storytelling and significant parental influence. This was a precursor to racialization theories. While black participation in white recreation space slowly crept upward, there was little research to support and grow this important body of work. West (1989), highlighted the “cognitive tyranny of the dominant paradigms’ (p. 12) which largely ignored the obvious racial differences in leisure as though they were unimportant. Since this type of work was not valued, it was often shunned and its pursuit sometimes even proved detrimental to one’s career. Similarly, undervaluing diversity and social justice scholarship continues to this day: diversity scholars are perceived as “less than”, report more hostile environments, and are sometimes punished professionally for publicizing the truth. Racism in sport & recreation is lacking large-scale data sets, which hampers forward progress.

So much of racism happens well below the professional sports level. There has been no national agenda to address the impact of racism in sport & recreation. Lack of participation in aquatics, as well as other forms of recreation by African Americans, has been under-documented. As a public health issue, there has been data available regarding one aspect of aquatic recreation, drowning. Because of this, “drowning while black” has been well documented for more than 50 years. At least one study every decade scholars have discussed the racial disparities of unintentional drowning. Dietz & Baker (1974) highlighted this. Gullard (1982), reported in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report that blacks drown at twice the rate of whites. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported similarly on the drowning disparities from 1971-1988. The data also revealed that the toddler age group was most at risk. Brenner (1994) highlighted the need for water safety education and prevention for toddlers and infants. In 1999 it was Masel who sounded the alarm that blacks drown at 2-3 times the rate as their white peers. Masel also correlated the significant differences in drowning rates as parallel to differences in swimming ability. (Fletemeyer & Freas, 1999, p.43-44). In 2006 The American Journal of Public Health reported results from a three-year study in the US that 47% of pool drowning victims were black… that drowning rates were highest among black males…. and more than half of these young black men drowned in public pools. The conclusions included a call for targeted interventions to reduce drowning among people of color (Saluja et. al. 2006, 728-733). Waller and Norwood (2011) demonstrated that black children drown at a rate almost three times the overall rate, and advocated that strategies to address the problem be developed. Gilchrist and Parker (2014) reported that for the first decade of the 21st century, drowning remained one of the top three causes of death for persons less than 29 years of age. The report highlighted that black males 5-19 years of age are 5.5 times more likely to drown in a lifeguard supervised swimming pool than whites in the same age group. Looking at available data, the race-drowning gap appears to be increasing.

Some variability can be attributed to better data availability and analysis. But that is not the whole story. Modern Racism McConahy (1986) developed the ‘modern racism scale’. This investigates the cognitive components of racism. McConahy reported on the prevalence of “white ambivalence”, where white people hold both negative and positive beliefs about blacks. Dovidio throughout the 90s described “aversive racism” as the most prominent form of racism in the US where white people feel ‘uncomfortable ‘, around blacks or in black space. The white solution is often to avoid these situations and move within the white arena (white privilege). African Americans do not have the choice to avoid white space for it is pervasive. Another aspect of aversive racism is when a white person realizes their bias or stereotype and tries to suppress or ignore it, rather than explore it. Hartman (2000), described the “Golden Ghetto”; black athletes were recruited or invited into white university space, but nobody would talk to or interact with them precisely because they were black. Many people of color in various environments report situations in which they experience this. While many individual whites claim not to be hostile towards black coworkers, they do not befriend blacks. The whites claim they are afraid that they will say the wrong thing. Because networking and relationships are so critical to career advancement, African Americans are hampered by this social ghetto. Michel Foucault has described how knowledge is formed by and for the group with the greatest social power.

The dominant group uses this power to advance or maintain control. When whites maintain space between the races, they perpetuate the status quo. Although much has been done to mask or hide racism in sport and leisure, adults recognize the existence of white space in these settings. Phillip (1998), reported that one-half of African American adults reported recent incidents of racial discrimination in leisure places (p.392). This work surveyed 300 adults, both black and white, regarding how welcome blacks are in twenty leisure activities. It is not surprising that there were significant differences between whites and blacks regarding the degree of openness to blacks in activities. Noticeably, both groups agreed that African Americans were welcome in four of the twenty activities (basketball, mall, dancing, and fishing). Both groups agreed that blacks were most unwelcome at country clubs, but also unwelcome in hunting, beach going, symphony, camping, and boating (Phillip, 1998, p.395). Swimming itself was not listed. Country clubs and beaches figure prominently in aquatic recreation. While race and socioeconomic status both impact recreation choices, they are not the same. The government has a long tradition of providing some recreation services to the poor, in an effort to inculcate white cultural values. Institutional racism has been recognized as a factor influencing leisure participation (Lee, Scott, Floyd, 2001). Industry and political leaders have been much less inclined to recognize the role that race and racism play in this milieu. Additionally, until very recently, the white academy has not been responsive to research on racism, limiting the available data. Henderson (2014) described the imperative of leisure justice research. The right to leisure has been offered as a value to majority communities for more than a century. While many whites ascribe to an ideal that sport & recreation can bring about social progress, racial integration, and opportunity, the reality is not as rosy. The 2010 US Census reported that approximately thirteen percent of the US population, 39 million identified as black alone.

The lack of black executives in professional sports has been debated for many years. The lack of African Americans in leadership roles in Aquatics has been reported by several studies. The 2000 Aquatic Director Job Analysis (Benton, 2000) reported less than one percent of respondents identified as black or African American. In the 2015 article “Comparing Swimming Practices of United States Versus a Global Model”, Smolianov et al, a surveyed 350 swim coaches, only 1% of respondents self-identified in a category other than white. None identified as black or African American. The NCAA demographic report indicated that of the 22,383 collegiate swimmers during the 2016-2017 academic year, only 379, or 1% identified as black. Disparities in aquatic participation, employment, and drowning have all been thoroughly documented. Documenting differences does little to change the issue at hand. A starting point would be to acknowledge that there are multiple races, ethnicities, cultures existing simultaneously, and each worthy of consideration. In the white privilege realm, white is the understood as the normal and anything else is other or anomaly. What are the expectations of whiteness? Powerful, competent, educated… if that is the norm what are the expectations of the others, the different ones? ** elaborate white privilege** In 2005 DW Sue described racial microaggressions as insidious, damaging, and harmful forms of racism that are … everyday unintentional and unconscious are perpetuated by ordinary citizens who believe they are doing right” (DW Sue in Wong et al 2014, p.108).

The research on microaggressions has continued to evolve. In 2010, Torres et Al. determined that underestimation of personal ability microaggressions are significantly detrimental to one’s health. Racial microaggressions are often committed by self-described liberals who may even speak the egregious statements … i.e. I do not see color, color does not matter, I am not racist. White privilege, being the dominant, the norm, allows people to deny that they are actors in a racist society. There is a plethora of research available addressing microaggressions along with tools to identify and overcome these deficits. Critical Race Theory Bell and Freeman have been hailed as the authors of Critical Race Theory. Critical Race Theory started in the 80’s in legal studies and expanded to education in the 90’s. According to Bell, white people are interested or advocate for racial justice when they see personal gain, a tendency termed Alignment. One difference of Critical Race Theory is that it is not focused on whites perceptions of blacks. Previous works on race and disparities have focused on how whites see blacks. Race is a social construct. According to Critical Race Theory, that construct solidified the system of white supremacy, which continues today. The school to prison pipeline and continued criminalization of black men, in particular, are seen as necessary tools for continued supersizing of financial profits. The hallmarks of Critical Race Theory include that racism is normal in the US. Racism is embedded in all aspects of the American Culture. It is intricately woven into the fabric so as to not stand out. (Delgado & Stefanic, 2001, p.37)

For instance, higher education has moved away from considering race as a factor for admission, all the while continuing the legacy admission perk. Some other attributes such as musical, artistic, special talent have been introduced. These talents are developed by exposure to the arts and private instruction, activities requiring a financial investment. Aquatic facilities that severely restrict swimwear can set an unwelcome tone for Muslim women, or patrons who cannot afford a specific swimsuit. Racism is the system of the United States. Every one of us navigates that system. As one navigates the system one can choose to explore or challenge tenets presented as truth or “commonly understood”. There is no neutral in the plague of racism, inaction, indifference, and ignoring it all serves to perpetuate the racist system. Swim clubs or country clubs that require member sponsor for application, higher entrance fees for new families, unadvertised membership drives, all serve to reproduce the status quo. Aquatic Managers who rely on current staff to recruit the next

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