Black people, swimming and other outdoor activities

Black people, and many ethnic minorities, and groups who face prejudice and discrimination, often feel or are made to feel unwelcome in the countryside or taking part in outdoor activities or in swimming (indoors and outdoors). This is a short article. I write as a white person wishing to be an ally, and have used quotes from and links to writings from others more eloquent and who are speaking from their own experience, and in more detail – see the links.

There have been a number of studies and articles showing that swimming and outdoor activities are seen as being white dominated and elitist, and not inclusive of the whole range of the community.

Many black people have written about feeling or being unwelcome in many groups or locations for these activities (see Links and stories below). In relation to black people this springs partly from specific stereotypes about swimming which are rooted in long-standing and deliberately created prejudices which persist today, as explained by Ed Accura and others, https://outdoorswimmer.com/news/ed-accura-releases-new-feature-film-documentary-a-film-called-blacks-cant-swim.

There is a self-perpetuating cycle of exclusion. If you are made to feel unwelcome or don’t feel welcome you won’t go to the countryside, if people that look like you are not often seen in the countryside and when you go there or join outdoor activity organisations at the very least your presence is remarked on as surprising, and sometimes this is done in unfavourable terms. If families don’t introduce young people to the countryside or swimming, they are less likely to feel it is for them.

These patterns of exclusion apply to all groups that are not part of the majority white population.

As this article describes, “the Landscapes Review found that both ethnic minorities and white people saw the countryside as very much a ‘white’ environment“, https://www.tgomagazine.co.uk/news/the-spirit-of-the-kinder-trespass-why-we-need-to-rethink-the-right-to-roam/?fbclid=IwAR2KzkKDslJYd2Jpt5O6Pmbmwbl-fteaXLzbr0ZSoBcKhShCAyk4Z6nErKo

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people (GRT), the largest ethnic minority in the UK, face a wide range of issues and discrimination – which range from hurtful remarks to material issues affecting all aspects of life.

Stereotypes and prejudices have come to the fore at times of tensions in rural areas, especially at popular places where people swim and enjoy the outdoors. That has been especially true this summer when numbers were higher than usual and some behaved antisocially with negative impacts. Some have expressed concern in a way that seemed to blame certain parts of the community, including Gypsy, Roma and Traveller, young people, working-class people, and people coming into the countryside from urban areas.

A group of people who share a love of open water swimming and a commitment to standing up against racism have set up a fundraising and solidarity swim event for the GRT community. More information on the event and on the issues facing GRT people in this article, https://www.imogensriverswims.co.uk/blog/solidarity-with-gypsy-roma-and-traveller-people/.

Links and stories

The 2019 Landscapes Review of England’s National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (link downloads 6.5mb PDF), https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/833726/landscapes-review-final-report.pdf?utm_content=link4&utm_campaign=articles_id_12881&utm_medium=articles_post&utm_source=ukclimbing

Several organisations including Black Girls Hike and Black2Nature , Outward Bound Trust and the Mosaic National Network are working to encourage ethnic minorities, women and underprivileged children to engage with nature.

Maxwell Ayamba set up a walking group focusing on physical and mental health, but found that a group of black men walking in the British countryside is also a political act. “Back home in Ghana, nature is just part of our lives. Notions related to space in England are especially contested,” he said. Other walkers they met were friendly but there was real surprise at seeing a minority group outside the city –the countryside was seen as white territory.  ‘Sheffield walking group take steps to reclaim black people’s place in British history’, The Star, https://www.thestar.co.uk/heritage-and-retro/retro/sheffield-walking-group-take-steps-reclaim-black-peoples-place-british-history-2895714

Obviously, the black community are not a monolith. Many of the barriers black people face are the same barriers everyone faces: access, time, resources and safe spaces. But a lot of people do see the outdoors as a white domain, a space where there is, unfortunately, always the threat of racism and prejudice,” says Rhiane Fatinikun, who founded Black Girls Hike. ‘Black girls hiking: how the outdoors is becoming more diverse’, https://www.tgomagazine.co.uk/news/black-girls-hiking-how-the-outdoors-is-becoming-more-diverse/

To grow the number of people from black, Asian and ethnic minorities (BAME) who engage with the Outdoors (National Parks and the natural environment), delivering quality of life, health, environmental and educational benefits ”, Mosaic Outdoors: Connecting BAME Communities with the Outdoors, https://mosaic-outdoors.org/

I set up [Black2Nature] when I was 14 years old and is Visible Minority Ethnic (VME) led.  We campaign for equal access to nature for all, especially VME communities who are currently excluded from the countryside. We run nature camps,  arrange nature activities, organise race equality in nature conferences and campaign to make the nature conservation and environmental sectors ethnically diverse“, Mya-Rose Craig, @BirdgirlUK, “fighting racism & for equality in nature & environment”, http://www.birdgirluk.com/2020/01/black2nature.html

Mya-Rose Craig, aka Birdgirl talks to Zakiya Mckenzie about increasing diversity outdoors.

‘One to One’, BBC Radio 4, 29 Sep 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000mzmc?s=03

Forestry England selected Zakiya Mckenzie as a writer in residence in 2019 to celebrate their centenary year. In an article reflecting this experience she said: “I am not the stereotypical naturalist in the English sense, so it was an honour to reflect on the forest from my point of view. … I’m a black woman, the typical naturist in England is not, but I hope to have showed that this very closed idea of who appreciates and interacts with the environment is wrong. … Removing the barriers, so that more and more people learn to love and thus be invested in protecting [our one planet], is my vision of the future.”  https://www.forestryengland.uk/blog/zakiya-mckenzies-reflections-writing-the-forest?utm_source=social&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=blog&utm_content=national&s=03

Throughout aquatics people of colour and ethnic minority communities are consistently precluded. These barriers are often entrenched and complex, which often leaves these communities without the necessary education in water safety and drowning prevention. Because of this, in England:

    95% of Black adults and 80% of Black children do not swim.

    The risk of drowning being higher among “minority ethnic” communities.

    1 in 4 children in leave primary school unable to swim.

The BSA’s mission is to change that.” The Black Swimming Association https://www.thebsa.co.uk/

Swimming while black is myself and my brother being the only non-white swimmers in our swimming class. It’s been constantly told that black people can’t swim, despite being evidence that this wasn’t true.” ‘Swimming while black: stories from the community’, https://outdoorswimmer.com/blogs/swimming-while-black-stories-from-the-community

The film highlights some of the most popular myths,” says Ed Accura. “Some of the reasons we hear include social issues, such as generational fear, lack of accessibility, aquaphobia, historic fear of drowning, hair and the one that keeps on coming up, bone density.” ‘Ed Accura releases new feature film documentary: A Film Called Blacks Can’t Swim’, https://outdoorswimmer.com/news/ed-accura-releases-new-feature-film-documentary-a-film-called-blacks-cant-swim

I like to think I represent black competitive swimmers in the UK who may often feel out of place – as I sometimes did during my early years,” says Alice Dearing, ‘Team GB’s only black swimmer: “I understand why girls would quit over their hair” ‘, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-49247624

 On racism generally

One wide-ranging article for young people, begins

Racism is where someone treats another person differently because their skin colour is not the same as theirs, they speak a different language or have different religious beliefs, for example.

In this guide, you’re going to find out what racism is, where it comes from and what you can do if you see or suffer from racism.”

‘What is racism – and what can be done about it?’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/52965984

…I’m lucky enough to never have faced suspicions, to have been disregarded or sneered at just because of where I was born or the colour of my skin. …is it enough to simply keep a check on your own behaviour when, after so, so many years, this problem refuses to go away, and in some parts of the world is possibly even intensifying? I don’t think it is. I think that every single one of us needs to look at what we can do to wipe out what, according to some, remains the ‘worst disease society is fighting right now’.” David Powles, local newspaper article in June 2020 asking what we can all do to challenge racism, ‘Black Lives Matter Racism and racial discrimination in Norfolk and Suffolk’, Norwich Evening News, https://www.eveningnews24.co.uk/views/what-we-can-do-to-tackle-racism-and-racial-discrimination-in-norfolk-and-suffolk-1-6691958.