Deep Water: An Encounter with Whiteness

I love the water but I don’t know how to swim. One of my resolutions this year was to conquer that fear, especially because I want to splash freely with my 8-year-old son in a pool, a lake, and maybe even the ocean someday.

A few weeks ago, I signed up for swim lessons at a local pool. My instructor made me feel at ease immediately. During our lessons, she would perch on the pool deck, and guide me. “Breathe and count to ten when you feel anxious,” she would say. She intuited that my biggest barrier is fear, not ability, and within a few lessons, I have felt not only comfortable in the water, but a sense of peace, expansion, and meditation.

This past weekend, my son and I decided to go for our first swim together. I was eager to show him what I had learned already, and he was eager to “teach” me. We talked to the lifeguard and the pool manager first to understand which lane we could use as very new swimmers. We then gathered our swim boards and fins. All of a sudden, a woman in the water yelled, “Stop! Stop! You can’t do that.” She was apparently a swim instructor teaching two children in a different lane. At first, I thought she was concerned for our safety on the pool deck, and nodded. But then, she proceeded to talk at me for another five minutes with a raised voice. According to her, I hadn’t followed the pool rules and was utilizing “reserved” equipment. I told her that my instructor had encouraged me to use the equipment, but she continued with many “you’re not supposed to” remarks, accompanied with vigorous head shaking. This continued for an unnecessarily extended period of time. There were others in the pool but no one else received similar treatment.

I was agitated because we weren’t disturbing anyone, and yet, she was singling us out in front of everyone. At one point, I said to her, “[y]ou know, it would be great if you could have treated us differently, because there are children present and given what’s going on in this country this week.”

Deep Water (Rosie Kerr|Stock Photo at www.unsplash.com

Refocusing on our time at the pool was hard. At one point, the woman spoke to the pool manager about us, gesturing in our direction (he later came over and apologized for what had happened), and at another point, she came over to take our fins.

Even though this encounter wasn’t racially charged in any visible context, I felt upset, angry, unsafe, and unwelcomed, to the point that I even referred to the country’s racial climate. But why? Obviously, I have dealt with many situations where implicit or explicit racism is clear and present. Most people of color have to deal with these sorts of interactions every single day. But it was especially challenging, and there I was, trying to focus on breathing in the water but feeling like there wasn’t enough air, as my son kept asking, “Should we go? She doesn’t like us.”

Hours later, I realized the subtext behind the pool encounter. Regardless of the absence of any racial animus, the interaction had nevertheless occurred in a racially charged climate and between two people who hold very different positions in this country’s racial hierarchy. Here she was, a white woman berating me publicly for not following a set of rules at a place where I paid membership and additional tuition. Here I was, an immigrant and a woman of color with a brown-skinned boy in tow, aghast by the violence that had just happened in Louisville, Kentucky (where I grew up) and Pittsburgh, and trying to find a measure of solace, belonging and normalcy.

Dominant white culture enables white people to enjoy the luxury of disregarding racial context, history, and dynamics altogether, including when they interact with people of color. But people of color can never do that. For me, the pool encounter was a reminder of how Black people have long been excluded at public pools. It made me think about how people of color are discriminated in every setting imaginable because of rules, practices, and norms. It made me flash back to experiences my immigrant family had in Kentucky where we felt like outsiders. It made me wonder how new immigrants and refugees, who often frequent the pool, might feel if they had a similar encounter. It represented the white gatekeeping that occurs in every context in this country that seeks to keep people of color in their place. It touched the parts of me navigating a sense of displacement, dread, and disorientation as an immigrant and woman of color in this country. All of that coursed through me, well after we left the pool.

Still, I second-guessed myself. Was this even a micro-aggression? Was I over-reacting because of how difficult the environment is right now? Why couldn’t I just brush this off as a “she was just having a bad day” interaction?

Here is the thing: while it is true that each of us is responsible for our actions and responses, it is important to understand context in any given situation, and especially so if we have some measure of power or authority. White people are responsible for how they engage with people of color and immigrants, especially now. We are communities under threat. Whether it is at a pool or a workplace, a classroom or the subway, white people must keep in mind today’s hostile racial environment and the context. People of color are feeling deeply threatened, and for those of us holding additional identities, we feel doubly or triply singled out and targeted. White people must understand this, and must not avoid, deny, or dismiss it.

That is why everyday interactions can have tremendous meaning. How do we treat an immigrant waiter, janitor, or mechanic if we keep in mind that they might be feeling terrified about the attacks on immigrants right now? How do we interact with the people of color on the subway who might be experiencing feelings of dread about the attacks on trans community members? How do we choose our words when we disagree with an immigrant or a woman of color who might be traumatized by the way sexual assault is treated in this country? How do we interact with the Muslim mother in hijab dropping her kids off at school, who might be concerned about school bullying? Each individual interaction can be meaningful, and at a time when everything feels so overwhelming, the small changes we can make with our own words and actions can make a world of difference.

At a structural level, institutions must move beyond diversity, cultural competence and multiculturalism trainings for their staff to ensure that they have an understanding of racial history as well as the effects of the current climate, and tools and language based in principles of anti-racism, inclusion and equity.

How could I relay any of this to my young son? How could I comfort him since he too was feeling like we didn’t belong at the pool? While my son is used to engaging with race and immigration dynamics through books, marches, and conversations, I didn’t have the words to explain while we were in the pool. That would have to wait for another time when I had processed further.

So, I said: “I know this hasn’t been a fun experience so far and we both feel bad. But we have every right to be here. Let’s focus on us.”

He didn’t stop there though. “What did you mean when you said what’s going on in the country this week, Mommy?”

I hesitated.

“You mean, the country is getting ready for Halloween, right?” he went on with a knowing smile.

Looking at his little face with beads of water glistening on it, I couldn’t bear to interrupt the innocence of pre-Halloween weekend and the memory of our first swim together with the realities of our troubled and tired world. Not this time.

“That’s right, my love,” I said. “Now, why don’t you teach me how to blow those bubbles underwater?”

For more on confronting whiteness: Listen to my latest podcast, Solidarity Is This, where white activists break down the effects of white supremacist culture and read the Solidarity Syllabus with resources and readings. Also, check out the Seeing White podcast series.