Alice Dearing was on the brink of making history. She was poised to be the first Black Briton to represent Great Britain in the 2020 Olympics. In the summer of 2020, Soul Cap, a British company that made swimming caps for textured and afro hair named her an ambassador.
“Her mission is to quash the stereotype that black people can’t swim, something we feel equally passionate about…. A key part of this mission is using her platform to educate people that afro hair doesn’t have to be a barrier to swimming,” captioned Soul Cap’s Instagram post.
A little over a year later, Dearing was named to the British swimming team, fulfilling her goal. But a setback occured within days of celebration. FINA, the international swimming federation appointed to oversee the world’s competitive swimming games, ruled out the use of Soul Caps.
Dearing’s selection and the Soul Cap’s elimination proved to be a rollercoaster week for Black swimmers who were encouraged and discouraged within days of both events.
Soul Cap said that FINA justified their rejection by saying “athletes competing at the International events never used, neither require to use caps of such size and configuration,” and that the shape of the cap does not “follow the natural form of the head.” International outrage pressured FINA to review their decision and it is still underway.
Diversity in Aquatics, an American non-profit, identified coded policy in FICA’s framing of their statement. Coded policies substitute terms describing racial identity with “race-neutral” terms that disguise racial prejudice. “Within the aquatics community, coded policies are a modern-day form of segregation that deny Black and brown bodies equitable participation in aquatic spaces,” said the non-profit. They recognized coded language perpetuating racial bias in these segments: “never used, neither require to use caps of such size and configuration” and caps for textured hair do not “follow the natural form of the head.”
The Black Swimming Association also expressed their criticism of FINA’s decision. “We believe this statement made by FINA confirms what we already know: the lack of diversity in elite swimming and in the higher positions in global aquatics, and the lack of urgency for change.”
Black people’s relation to swimming has historically been a much-debated issue. The root of their long-standing link? Racism and segregation. In the first half of the 20th century, many American pools and beaches banned African Americans from visiting them. “Whites Only” signs were commonplace, and pools were mainly installed in affluent neighborhoods that did not have Black residents.
Swimming World‘s Craig Lord in his article on the sport’s racist history, said: “Some pools were seen as ‘disease breeders’, their planning and building met with resistance from the ruling classes.” He went on: “Around 1910, two years after the foundation of FINA and in the era of Charles Daniels, a pool was proposed for Central Park in New York. The New York Times quoted the Mayor and his fear that ‘if it is used by all classes it will become foul’.”
Jeff Wiltse’s book Contested Waters also spoke of the extent to which Black people were historically excluded from pools. “Middle-class Americans at the time perceived immigrants, laborers and blacks as equally dirty and prone to carry communicable diseases. As a result, they avoided swimming in the same pool with the working classes no matter their race or ethnicity,” he explained. So, systematically and generationally, the community lost out on opportunities to learn how to swim, let alone enjoy pools, which were symbols of luxury living.
Recent figures from Swim England show that 95% of Black adults and 80% of Black children in England do not swim. In the United States, only 1% of almost 400,000 swimmers registered with USA Swimming are African-American, according to the USA Swimming Foundation.
A 2010 BBC report said that the U.S. has almost 3,500 accidental drownings every year, almost 10 a day. “But according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the fatal drowning rate of African-American children aged five-14 is three times that of white children,” it mentioned.
It is important to note that FINA did not ban the use of Soul Caps in recreational swimming or while teaching others to swim. Though Black people are no longer restricted from using pools, this specific clause drives home the idea of settling for less: swim for fun, but not competitively.
Dr. Letisha Brown, an associate professor of Sociology at Virginia Tech, informed Culturas that “the fact that they came out with the decision in the first place shows the continued discrimination that exists within the sport of swimming, particularly at the elite level.” Brown recently voiced her opinion on the politics of Black hair in sports for First and Pen. There, she mentioned: “We ignore the racist legacies that have kept Black Americans from having access, opportunity, and the resources to participate in the sport. Prohibiting Black slaves from learning how to swim, segregated pools, a lack of pools in neighborhoods of color, and prohibitive costs are just a few of the challenges Black swimmers faced and continue to face.”
Brown swims occasionally though she doesn’t call herself a swimmer. But she does not use a cap while swimming and depends on protective hairstyles like braids or twists. “Black hair is personal. It is a form of identity and a source of pride for Black people. To belittle or attack it is to personally violate an individual. Yet it’s an ongoing occurrence, particularly in sports,” she wrote in her essay.
Comments on the Black Swimming Association’s criticism of FINA’s decision impacted not only the competitive athlete with natural hair but also the average Black swimmer. One such individual was Jackie Rosier: “The International Swimming Federation'[s] ban on swimming hats designed for natural Afro hair is a big set back for Black swimmers. My whole family swims. My swim cap falls off all the time. She continued: “Last week my instructor had 2 retrieve my cap out [of] the pool several times. My granddaughter is in the pool now. She has a lot of hair. [As] Soon as she puts her face and head[s] in the pool she will need a cap. The current caps available will fall off and her hair will not be protected by a cap. Do not make a cap another swim barrier. We want to swim too.”
As of last week, FINA released a statement detailing their decision to review the ban. The organization claimed to understand “the importance of inclusivity and representation.” FINA also broached the idea of expanding the use of Soul Caps in their development centers.