Alice Dearing is a thick-headed woman with a thick afro. It’s nearly impossible to cover in swimming caps because of its volume. If her hair gets wet, it shrinks. The chlorine? Pool chemicals can cause serious damage that will require a lot of time and money to fix.
The first Black female swimmer on Britain’s Olympic team uses the the Soul Cap, an extra-large silicone covering designed specifically to protect dreadlocks, weaves, hair extensions, braids, and thick and curly hair. Dearing was forbidden to wear the cap during her Olympic debut in the women’s marathon swim 10k.
FINA, the international swimming competitions body, has rejected the application of Soul Cap makers from Britain for the Tokyo Games. It cited no prior instance where swimmers had needed “caps such as these sizes and configurations” and also wondered if it could give an advantage in that the water flow is disrupted.
The outcry on social media and within Black swimming circles was swift. Conversations continued for days. The Change.org petition was launched, and Dearing, co-founder of Black Swimming Association and ambassador for the cap, publicly expressed dismay.
This was more than just a ban on swimming caps for people of color. It was another injustice to ignore it.
Five years have passed since the Rio Games when Simone Manuel, an American woman and the first Black woman to win Olympic gold. There has not been much progress in the number of elite-level swimmers of color since then.
Dearing is also a Black swimmer. Donta Katai from Zimbabwe was the first Black to represent her country. At almost every international meet, there are very few swimmers of color. Only two U.S. females are black, Natalie Hinds and Manuel Hinds.
People who are familiar with the situation claim that the causes of the shortage and the racism behind them run deep into history.
Manuel and Hinds don’t understand the disqualification of the Soul Cap. The sponsorship of other companies to make caps for their hair was provided by both Americans. However, they were disappointed to learn that the Soul Cap was made specifically for Black-owned businesses to help swimmers of color was banned.
Manuel stated that “it doesn’t do well for inclusion in the sport.”
The relationship between water and Black people goes back a long time. In the United States during segregation, Black swimmers were prohibited from swimming in pools. Those that allowed swimmers of color were often uninsured and ignored.
Claire Sisco King is an associate professor of communication studies at Vanderbilt University. She is also the editor of Women’s Studies in Communication.
King points out that access to public swimming pools is one barrier. Wealth inequality also makes a sport such as swimming difficult. She stated that the ban on the Soul Cap “risks perpetuating a racist assumption that Black swimmers don’t belong in the sport.”
According to the USA Swimming Foundation, 64% of Black children do not know how to swim compared to 40% of white American children. 79% of American children who earn less than $50,000 per year don’t know how to swim.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between 1999 and 2010, the fatal unintentional drowning rate for Blacks was significantly higher than white swimmers; for every white child between 5 and 18 years old who drowned, 5.5 Black children drowned.
Danielle Obe co-founded, with Dearing, the Black Swimming Association not long after the 2019 Christmas Eve drowning of a father and two children while on holiday in Spain.
Obe stated, “We just thought, there’s something we can do for our community.” She discovered that 95% of Black London adults don’t swim, and that 80% of Black children drop out of primary school because they aren’t able to swim.
Obe said: “We believed the only way to increase the number of Alice Dearings in our pool, Alice being Black, and among the 5%, was to reduce the 95% that were not in the water.”