© 2024 WKNO FM
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Learning To Swim As A Grown Up After Cultural Stigma And Fear Weighed Him Down


Summer is here. And for many of us, that means vacations at the beach or endless days splashing around at the pool. But for people who don't know how to swim, kids and adults alike, summers by large bodies of water can be threatening, if not downright dangerous.

A sobering statistic from the Centers for Disease Control says that 10 people drown in this country every single day. And the risk is higher for minorities. Sixty percent of Hispanic kids and 70 percent of African-American children cannot swim. Dave Schilling was one of those kids. Dave is a writer-at-large for The Guardian newspaper. And he recently wrote an essay about the trials and tribulations of learning to swim as a grown-up and what kept him from the water as a kid. Dave Schilling joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us, Dave.

DAVE SCHILLING: You're very welcome. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: What was your relationship like with water when you were growing up?

SCHILLING: Well, besides, I guess, the water in the toilet and in the sink, not much. You know, it was not really encouraged in my house. I took classes. But I expressed my own fear and trepidation about doing it. And they said OK. My parents said you don't have to do this anymore.

MARTIN: So you did take classes?

SCHILLING: I did. And I think I mentioned that in the piece - that I took classes and I was just too, you know, afraid of drowning. The fear of drowning was overwhelming for me. But a lot of people that weren't as lucky as I was to be able to afford classes, you know, especially African-American and Hispanic children - they don't even get to find out if they're afraid of the water. And that was what was really most disturbing to me when I started digging into this situation.

MARTIN: And you said in you piece that when you were growing up, it was just not something you thought you deserved to be able to do, that there was some kind of associated privilege attached to swimming.

SCHILLING: Absolutely because, you know, you hear all the stereotypes of - well, you know, black people swim. I heard your skin's too heavy (laughter) for whatever reason.

MARTIN: Which is crazy.

SCHILLING: With insane.

MARTIN: You wrote about this in the essay. But this was someone in your family who said this to you.

SCHILLING: It was actually a friend of my mother-in-law who was over at my in-laws' house. And she was like, you know, I heard black people don't swim because their skin is denser.

MARTIN: To which he replied what?

SCHILLING: I said, well, I haven't weighed my skin recently, but maybe that is the case. I don't know. And it's, you know, very difficult to weigh your skin, obviously. But I was used to it because you hear that kind of stuff all the time from people who don't really understand the cultural reasons why people don't swim in that community.

MARTIN: You married into a swimming family, though, sounds like.

SCHILLING: I did. My father-in-law and my sister-in-law's husband are both surfers. And being in the water is a big deal for them. And so I always feel kind of left out of that world because I don't have that in common. So they're talking about, you know, waves and swells and things that just sound like another language to me.

MARTIN: What are you afraid of?

SCHILLING: Most things.


SCHILLING: The one thing I'm not afraid of is being on the radio. This is lovely.

MARTIN: But in terms of swimming, is it - you really think you're going to drown, or are you just - it's just uncomfortable to be - have your face in the water?

SCHILLING: Just to go back to the whole idea of me being denser than white people, I feel like I don't float. I think it's mostly just because I'm weighing myself down from just tension.

MARTIN: The psychological burden, yeah.

SCHILLING: Psychological burdens, of which I have many.

MARTIN: What was the first swimming lesson like?

SCHILLING: The first thing that I learned because of my fear of drowning was breathing exercises underneath the water, how to try to make myself float and how to breathe comfortably. And then I learned rudimentary paddling moves like the dog paddle and the - whatever the other one is called.


SCHILLING: I don't remember already.

MARTIN: The front stroke?

SCHILLING: There was definitely one of those in there, yeah.

MARTIN: The crawl, yeah.

SCHILLING: So that was really it - was just getting me comfortable being underneath the water and being able to not have a panic attack, basically - not to start flailing my arms around and splashing everywhere.

MARTIN: Are the reasons you didn't learn to swim as a kid - do you think they are changing at all?

SCHILLING: I don't think so because I don't did we talk about this stuff very much. You know, at first, I didn't learn how to swim because I was afraid. And then I never got myself to a point where I would accept that I needed to learn because I had this excuse, this sort of racist notion that black people are physically different. And so I was perpetuating this thing without even knowing that I was doing it. And until we start talking about this and until we started giving people who don't have that access the chance to learn, it's not going to get any better.

MARTIN: Are you going surfing with your family anytime soon?

SCHILLING: (Laughter) Only if they tie me to the board.

MARTIN: (Laughter) That sound scarier.

SCHILLING: Actually, you're right. I would probably sink and drown because I'm attaching the board. The answer then is no.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

SCHILLING: I will not be surfing. There are sharks in the ocean.

MARTIN: Oh, yeah, that's another thing to be afraid of, yeah. It's a different fear conversation. Dave Schiller, U.S. writer-at-large for The Guardian newspaper. Thanks so much for talking with us.

SCHILLING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.