February 20, 2024

“Black People Can Swim”: Navigating the Waters of Black Representation and Resilience in the Swimming Community

By Demetris Chambliss

Throughout American history, it has been well-documented, although occasionally under-exaggerated, that black people have faced numerous instances of discrimination, prejudice, and racism. Diving into the depths of this pervasive issue, this blog post delves into the challenging waters surrounding the accessibility of swimming within black communities. As we navigate the historical currents and contemporary realities, we’ll explore the intricate web of factors that have contributed to this disparity, shedding light on the barriers that have often left black individuals and communities disproportionately distant from the poolside experience.

On February 12, 2024, I met with three MIT students who are on the Varsity Swimming and Diving Team: Stella Shipps, Jalen Evans, and Tobe Obochi, along with the Assistant Coach, Aaron Green (AJ), to discuss their experiences as black individuals in the world of swimming. Join us on this exploration of the intersection between history, culture, and accessibility as we seek to understand and address the disparities that persist in the world of swimming.

Seen here at the Zesiger Center pool (left to right): Jalen Evans, Tobe Obochi, Demetris Chambliss, Stella Shipps, and Coach Aaron Green

Before diving deep into my conversation with these four exceptional swimmers, here is some information about my background within the swimming realm. I, an African American man, grew up in an aquatic-oriented family, where learning how to swim was a big priority. Although never having the opportunity to swim competitively, swimming has been, still is, and will always be a big part of my life. I started working in aquatics at 16 years old, and since then, water safety has been a significant part of my platform, especially within BIPOC communities. At this point in my career, I can say I have worked in four different areas—New Orleans, La., Prince George’s County, Md., Washington, DC, and now Cambridge, Mass.,—fulfilling my mission.

My commitment to imparting water competencies has become even more evident to me, having been associated with two universities that prioritize swimming for their students. At my Alma Mater, Howard University, the requirement for undergraduate students to take a swimming class at a Historically Black University/College felt so unconventional. However, I deeply appreciate this initiative as it not only breaks taboos but also delivers a valuable skill and service to a demographic that has historically lacked access. Now, working at MIT, where every undergraduate student is required to successfully complete a nonstop 100-yard swim, this dedication to aquatic proficiency continues to be a significant aspect of my professional journey.

In the world of competitive swimming, where diversity has long been a challenge, the MIT Varsity Swimming and Diving team stands out with these three exceptional black students and the assistant coach. Their stories not only highlight their achievements but also shed light on the barriers faced by black individuals in swimming and the positive impact of embracing their blackness in the aquatic world.

Despite their unique paths and reasons for choosing MIT, it is evident that swimming played a significant role in influencing each of their decisions. For each of them, swimming has been a significant and indispensable part of their life’s journey, a passion that they deemed essential to pursue. You might wonder, why is this the case? Well, I am here to tell you!

Most people in predominantly black communities don’t know how to swim, and it is common knowledge that people within these communities don’t have access, or knowledge that they have access, to pools and aquatic programs. Fortunately for Jalen, Stella, Tobe, and AJ, they grew up in areas where swimming was accessible, and their parents found it important for them to learn and master. Tobe even mentioned that his parents felt it was of the utmost importance for him to learn because they never did. As a swim instructor, it brightens my spirit to hear when black families see the importance of teaching their kids how to swim. I believe swimming is a necessary skill for safety but also, you never know where it will take you. Take AJ, for instance, who now holds the position of assistant swim coach at a renowned institution that draws student-athletes from all corners of the globe. He was drawn to MIT, and institutions alike, by the potential to open doors for people like himself, Stella, Jalen, and Tobe. His passion for swimming and its transformative impact fueled his decision to contribute to the team as a coach. He always thinks back to his experiences, like when he would go to the Black History Swim Meet, that had such a huge impact on his life.

Navigating Diversity at MIT

Looking at the racial make-up of MIT, a prestigious institution that consists predominantly of white and Asian individuals, black students make up 4% of the student population, and those of two or more races constitute 5%. While Jalen, Stella, and Tobe acknowledge the lack of representation across campus and on the team, they also emphasize the importance of being trailblazers for future generations. Jalen goes on to say that the lack of representation fueled him to work even harder so that he can show others that although it may be hard, it isn’t impossible. Tobe echoed a similar sentiment, revealing that his upbringing and racial background instilled in him the belief to be seen he had to stand out and to stand out he had to put in ten times the effort. Now it is important to note that black is not a monolith, meaning there is no one way to be black or to connect with your blackness. For example, the lack of diversity wasn’t a huge driving force for Stella when it came to being the best. She was raised mainly by her Cambodian mother, and she mentioned that her mother raised her to be great in whatever she chooses to pursue. While Stella’s motivation to excel doesn’t hinge on the color of her skin, she acknowledges that her presence in these spaces not only contributes to increased representation but also actively dismantles stigmas associated with black individuals and swimming. Stella doesn’t take this responsibility lightly; she recognizes the importance of her role in breaking down barriers.

In addition to breaking down barriers, AJ pointed out the significance of creating a more appealing environment. Drawing from personal experiences, he underscores the significance of creating a sense of community among black students. During his time at Widener University, a predominantly white institution, he saw the disconnect between the black community and swimming community. To help bridge that gap, he hosted pool parties and created spaces for his black friends and his teammates to commune together. Even as a coach, AJ aims to ensure members experience the transformative power of swimming without any racial barriers. Being a black swim coach at the university level, he acknowledges the importance of representation. Recognizing that many swimmers may never have had a black coach. One thing he’s done in the past is show teams the 2007 film “Pride,” to help unpack and dismantle potential stereotypes and biases they may have towards black swimmers.

As we continued our conversation, I asked the group what DAPER (MIT’s Department of Athletics, Physical Education, and Recreation) can do to attract more black individuals to the swim team and water sports. The consensus was to better publicize the swim meets and to make swimming “cool.” Now, let me clarify that all parties involved in this conversation firmly believe that swimming is one of the coolest sports there is, but for some reason, many people in black communities are drawn to stereotypical sports like basketball, football, soccer, etc. Tobe highlighted one potential reason is the limited exposure to swimming, emphasizing that for many, the sport only takes center stage every four years during the Olympics. Tobe goes on to say that the swim team at MIT stands out as arguably one of the most accomplished among all of the teams at the institution. So why not publicize a winning team? If you ask me, winning is probably the coolest thing one can do!

Another reason could be the widespread misconception, perpetuated through generations, that stems from a lack of understanding of one’s ancestral history. The idea that “black people don’t swim,” a belief rooted in generational trauma, is a statement that has no real basis once you look at the lives of black African people before they were captured and enslaved by the West. Along with generational trauma, there is a systemic component to it. Jalen highlights a crucial historical perspective, noting that during segregation, black pools suffered from inadequate funding and almost nonexistent upkeep, rendering them highly inaccessible. Additionally, the subsequent shift to private pools by white individuals following desegregation led further to the defunding of the “white-only pools.” The lack of swimming spaces for black people intensified the disconnect, creating a significant gap in accessibility to the skill.

The ongoing creation of barriers for black individuals remains evident. A common reason cited for a reluctance to be in water is the impact on black hair. In response, a swim cap tailored for black hair is developed, only to face another setback as its usage is subsequently banned within swim teams. When asked about the controversial ban on afro swim caps, the unanimous opinion is that it lacks justification. The athletes emphasize that banning a cap designed to accommodate natural hair is not only disrespectful but adds another unnecessary barrier for black swimmers. They argue that swimming’s standardization has led to resistance against anything deviating from the status quo.

In conclusion, the stories of Stella Shipps, Jalen Evans, Tobe Obochi, and Coach Aaron Green demonstrate resilience, passion, and the ability to break through barriers. For these athletes, staying connected to their blackness is crucial. From embracing cultural practices, wearing traditional fashion, and enjoying family time, to actively participating in BIPOC groups on campus, they stress the importance of not hiding their black identity. By doing so, they contribute to creating a more inclusive and culturally diverse environment within the MIT swimming community. Theirexperiences at MIT serve as an inspiration for future generations of black swimmers, encouraging them to embrace their cultural identity and contribute to the transformation of the swimming world into a more inclusive space.

Happy Black History Month!!!