The shocking surge in hate crimes since the election is impacting how parents protect and support black children. As the founder of Black Kids Swim (blackkidsswim.com), I talk to parents of black children every day. One swim dad's sons attend Pyle Middle School in Bethesda; the school was recently vandalized with a spray-painted swastika. Another swim dad's son attends Bushy Park Elementary School in Glenwood; the boy recently was told by a classmate to "go back to Africa."
These young black swimmers not only face hate in school, but also during daily practices for a sport that is historically all white.
The Southern Poverty Law Center collected 701 reports of hateful intimidation and harassment between Nov. 9 and 16. A high proportion of these hateful incidents were directed toward African Americans and carried out at schools.
Whether we as parents want to admit it or not, our children are part of a social justice movement. Our young swimmers are integrating a space that has historically been closed to black people. And this exclusion led to fear and avoidance; today 70 percent of African Americans cannot swim, according to a national research study by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis.
USA Swimming, the national governing body of the sport, has 337,084 members, just 1.3 percent of whom are African American. Black swimmers are changing the world of swimming, and they are doing it during a racially charged time when white supremacists are actually encouraged to make anyone who is not white feel unwelcome and unsafe.
Our children are experiencing a level of racially based bullying not seen since the first days of integration. They need our support and direction right now. We must teach children the meaning behind hateful slogans and symbols, coach them on self-affirming responses, and ensure they are prepared if a classmate or teammate harasses them. I encourage parents to reach out to grandparents and older relatives who may have experienced intimidation firsthand during the civil rights movement, for advice.
We have to explain to our children that these symbols are displayed with the intention of scaring people of color. We have to empower our children to counter these acts of hate with truth. They should know that a swastika is ancient Sanskrit and means good fortune and well-being. It is a positive symbol created by people of color: the Hindus, Buddhists and Jains of Asia. The swastika doesn't belong to white supremacists. Hitler perverted the symbol into something hateful that encouraged a nation to oppress and kill others simply because they looked and worshipped differently.
Tell your children that the Confederate flag was a symbol of pride for a society dependent on oppressing black people for survival. That society was defeated by the Union and, without free labor, it died. Tell your children that the intent of those flying the Confederate flag or spray painting the swastika on schools and churches today is to distract and intimidate black children and other children of color. Because if our children are scared maybe they won't want to go to school, maybe they won't perform well in school, and maybe they won't be successful. And we cannot let that happen. Success is the best way to silence ignorance
Since Black Kids Swim was founded in 2015, swim parents across the country have reached out to us to locate black or diverse swim teams they believe will be more welcoming to their children. Young black swimmers have been bullied and physically threatened by teammates; in some unfortunate cases, coaches did nothing to discourage the hateful behavior. This cannot continue — in schools or swimming pools. Our children will have the opportunity to develop into educated adults and competitive swimmers in safe and supportive environments. We as swim parents cannot respond in fear, choosing to avoid difficult conversations and places. We have to face this head on by talking to our children, explaining what hate crimes are and encouraging them to continue to excel in class and in the pool. Continuing in the sport of swimming will ensure our children develop a life-saving skill and life-long habits of physical fitness, mental discipline, goal setting, confidence and leadership. Gains in these areas can lead to academic, professional and life success.
If our children are not prepared to respond in a way that will mirror their self-respect and protect their drive to succeed, then we the parents are to blame.