A Burkini in Brooklyn
A diverse scene at a Red Hook pool speaks to what really makes this country great
Trying make the most of the last days of summer, I’ve been visiting the Red Hook community pool, which turns out to be the better public pools in New York City. This weekend, among a couple of hundred people there, three Muslim women splashed in the Olympic-sized pool with their daughters. All three wore “burkinis,” which covered them from head to toe with sleeves which reached down to their hands. They played with the two younger girls without comment or interruption from anyone around them.
I might not even have noted this blissful little scene, but it came in the wake of a week or two of stories from France where some cities made had made the burkini illegal. The French High Court reversed the rulings, saying they were an obvious infringement on freedom and that “there is no evidence that there were any risks that public order was disturbed by people’s choice of bathing garment.” An appropriate response to that might be, “No duh.”
Nonetheless, burkini-related stories permeated our news cycle, no doubt due to our own ongoing irrational discomfit with the presence of Muslims in our society, as well as some of the more unhinged fears of “creeping sharia” in certain quarters here. So this scene at the Red Hook pool turns out to be a great metaphor for how these United States, how New York specifically, can be a model for integration and the assimilation.
Which made me think: If you want to make America “great,” Donald Trump, take a look around the city you live in. Hop on a train (or a limo, more likely) to Brooklyn or Queens or the Bronx or even the Lower East Side and take a gander at the neighborhoods, at the medley of people living side by side. Take a drive down Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn towards Coney Island where you can pass through alternating Hasidic and Muslim neighborhoods. Look, I’m not suggesting New York is a perfect paragon of racial and religious harmony: There are hate crimes here, yes, against people, sadly for their religious beliefs and their sexual orientations, too. But largely, day by day, this city does provide a working model for both diversity and assimilation.
Some might argue that the sight of these women in a pool wearing their distinct and discreet garments runs counter to the idea of assimilation, but assimilation doesn’t have to mean a complete abandonment of one’s culture and beliefs. And those beliefs vary. It only takes a quick search to find advice for Muslim women that swimming in public pools “frequented by men and women, this is a great evil.” Of course, you can also find advice that wearing a hijab while swimming is an acceptable solution for women wanting to swim with their families at mixed-gender beaches. In other words, interpretations of the Muslim faith vary as much as interpretations of Christianity do. (And you can easily find Christians who don’t believe in mixed bathing in the United States, too.) You could simply reach this conclusion, though: The burkini encourages integration, as it allows Muslim women to participate in activities they otherwise couldn’t in a more secular society.
In fact, that’s what the inventor of the burkini hoped. Designer Aheda Zanetti, a Lebanese-Australian, first devised the “hijood,” which Muslim girls could wear to play sports, such as netball. Writing in The Guardian, she says, “When I invented the burkini in early 2004, it was to give women freedom, not to take it away.” The word “burkini” conceivably could reinforce misunderstandings of Muslim culture, since a burqua is quite distinct from a hijab, the former arguably being more severe than the latter, as it completely covers a woman’s face. Zanetti, however, is apparently Muslim herself, though she didn’t start wearing a veil until after she began designing these outfits with her niece in mind. When she began designing swimwear for Muslim women, she simply found the fusion of the two words “burqa” and “bikini” irresistible. Her creation has been enormously successful. Now, she says, 40 percent of burkini sales are actually to non-Muslims. And sales have spiked since the French ban. (A reader points out that Zanetti didn’t invent Islamic swimwear for women, though her specific, trademarked design has captured the public imagination.)
One might also argue the entire concept of wearing hijab or burqa is oppressive. But freedom means not just preventing women from wearing such an outfit but also allowing them to decide whether they want to wear it or not. I might hope that those young girls at the Red Hook pool grow up feeling free to abandon the hijab or the burkini. Beyond that, it’s none of my business. In contrast, those most fearful of immigrant diversity would undermine this experiment in nurturing both freedom and diversity and attempt to homogenize our culture to ensure their own feelings of safety.
You might imagine that exposure to this sort of metropolitan diversity would be helpful in allaying people’s fears and in undermining bigotry and xenophobia. On the flipside, some of the most vocal opponents of diversity fear and actively avoid this type of scene. We can joke that they may be fearful of living in an environment where they are now the minority and that this fear projects their tacit understanding of just how badly minorities fare in our culture. But we also know that we have treated minorities this way not just for decades but for hundreds of years. So it is that Irish immigrants and Jewish immigrants and Italian immigrants — none of these were considered “white” upon arriving here. And all were treated with the same suspicion Trump has leveled at undocumented immigrants — painting them as thieves, rapists and murderers and various other pejoratives. So Trump and the alt-right (alt-white?) movement and Breitbart and the rest represent nothing new. Nothing new at all. They simply represent our oldest and most primal fears. Our innate sense of tribalism, which by definition we have to shrug off like a tattered, moldering snakeskin in order to pursue a diverse and integrated civilization.
So if New York isn’t perfect, it still holds promise, an antidote to tribalism. In many ways, the city is a City of Refuge, not just for religious immigrants, but also for LGBTQ+ people and for many others whose religious and personal beliefs simply don’t allow them to blend in in many pockets of the U.S.A. Ironically, some of the city’s most severe critics (Hello, Ted Cruz!) despise New York for the very reasons that make it safe for so many deeply religious people. We can argue forever about whether United States is great now or has ever has been great, but it’s these principles of diversity, tolerance and, more importantly, acceptance which can make America a great model at least for places where such values are not the norm. Even if we’re still pursuing those values ourselves.
Back to Brooklyn then and something else that might bother Trump and Milo and Breitbart and the rest of the alt-right crowd. The Red Hook area is home to many African-American and Hispanic residents and that’s reflected in the attendance at the pool. It makes for as wonderful vignette of the diversity as you can find anywhere in the United States but especially in New York City. As a white man, I was far and away in the minority there. As such, I imagine being there would highlight the alt-right’s worst fear: Fear of becoming a minority in their own country.
Think that’s a stretch?
Amazingly, while writing this piece, I happened across a tweet from the @_AltRight_ twitter account, which currently boasts about 16,000 followers. It underscores this common but irrational fear: “#AltRightMeans it’s time to oppose HUD/Section8 housing moving blacks into the suburbs. Save our White neighborhoods.” It’s accompanied by this image of a lily-white male surrounded by a pool filled with young black people. (An image search reveals the photo itself may be innocent in its origin: If this Imgur post is accurate, it may simply depict a young man’s trip to Senegal, Africa.)
The irony? The writer of this tweet can’t put himself or herself in the place of the solitary African Americans who first stepped into a pool surrounded by the majority white population — their oppressors. It’s worse than that, though, when you look at the broader history of African Americans and public swimming pools in the United States.
For example, contrast the relatively pastoral image above with this infamous one of Florida hotel owner James Brock tossing muriatic acid (a type of pool cleaner) into a white’s only pool to scare away black protestors in 1964:
The alt-right bleating about whites getting crowded out of their community pools seems rather pathetic now, doesn’t it? Black people had to fight to even get into the pool. And to do so they survived getting arrested and endured violent attacks with rocks and clubs.
Is this really what these white nationalists fear? Discrimination? Violent reprisals? There’s no evidence any of that is coming. In the meantime, it’s safe to assume they’re merely afraid of being outnumbered. They’re afraid they’re culture is changing in ways they don’t understand and they don’t feel comfortable swimming against what they see as a tide of cultural differences.
To these people, I say, there’s no need for fear.
Come on in. The water’s fine.