Swimming at the intersection of race and gender identity

I have always loved being in the water, but I never learned to properly swim as a child.

That was partially due to the gender dysphoria of having to wear a girl’s swimsuit and the unspoken message that non-white people were not welcome at pools and beaches in the communities in which I grew up. Folx, however, often “complimented” me on how well my skin would tan in the sun.

So I “played” in the water, stopping as the waterline reached my shoulders. The anxiety and fear of drowning showed up without fail.

I broke and lost countless nose clips, often watching them sink out of sight not far off the shores of Lake Michigan. But even without my coveted nose clip, I would persist in the water – clinging to an inner tube and knowing not to let go.

Mimi Jones

In the summer of 1964, Mimi Jones, a Black woman from Georgia, also wanted to swim and loved being in the water. Yet, like me, she did not know how. However, she was not “complimented” for how dark her skin was – as her darker skin was not a result of the sun.

She headed to St. Augustine, Fla., where a group of white civil rights activists rented rooms at a segregated motel. Mimi, along with several Black activists, joined them as their guests to swim in the motel pool at a time when segregation was everywhere, including pools and beaches.

The motel manager poured muriatic acid into the water where the activists were swimming, stating he was “cleaning the pool.” Mimi shared: “All of a sudden, the water in front of my face started to bubble up like a volcanic eruption. I could barely breathe. It was entering my nose and my eyes.”

Instead of receiving medical attention, the activists were arrested, including Mimi. The next day, President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Discrimination and privilege

In 1989, Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw used the term “intersectionality” as a way of explaining how aspects of any one individual’s identities combine, creating discrimination and privilege. Intersectionality identifies advantages and disadvantages that people feel. The fact that many of our social justice problems, like racism and sexism, often overlap creates multiple levels of social injustice. And, we persist.

At the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Summer Olympics, Simone Manual became the first Black person to win a gold medal in an individual swimming event. Simone knows that 64 percent of Black children have little to no swimming ability and drowning is the second leading cause of death for kids under the age of 13, so she kicked off USA Swimming Foundation’s Make A Splash tour and #GogglesOn campaign in the summer of 2019. In her role as a USA Swimming Foundation ambassador, she would like to change these statistics.

She wanted to quit swimming at age 12 due to the racism she was experiencing but decided to push through. She is grateful for Mimi’s activism that helped open the lane for her.

A few days before she died on July 26, 2020, Mimi shared: “I never saw social change happen in this country without a battle, but I think there is a renewed awakening.”

Creating spaces for discussion

Alongside the breakthrough strokes of Simone, aspiring swimmers like Mimi and me are reminders to create spaces and opportunities for our communities to openly discuss intersectionalities. Ask yourself, your circles, your communities: “Who is and who is not present?” “Has it always been this way?” “How may the values and perceptions of people different from yourself inform membership and the feeling of belonging in our communities?” “When have I recognized and invited marginalized folx into spaces in which I exist in freely?” “Do I understand and recognize what multiple intersectional identities others carry? And, “Do I know how to swim?”

You can learn more about intersectionality by watching Crenshaw’s TedTalk, “The Urgency of Intersectionality

Kiku Johnson is Rainbow Community Center’s executive director. As a man of color and trans experience, Kiku has invested his life engaging and elevating youth and adult voices of marginalized intersectional identities. Send ­questions and comments to kiku@rainbowcc.org.

1 thought on “Swimming at the intersection of race and gender identity

Comments are closed.