The Subtle Racism of a Pool Safety Poster

This week, my 14 month-old and I finished our session of parent and child swimming lessons. I think it’s important to introduce water safety at an early age, and I’m all for infographics that communicate rules to kids. However, when those images have racist undertones, their removal is certainly warranted.

The poster in question, eventually popping up all over social media, was first brought to the spotlight by Margaret Sawyer, who saw it at a pool in Salida, Colorado. The Red Cross safety poster, entitled Be Cool, Follow The Rules, features several children playing in a pool. Two white children are labeled as “Cool” for their pool behavior, while children of color are branded as “Not Cool” for dangerous behaviors such as running and pushing. (You can see the image at http://cdn0.lostateminor.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/red-cross-805x604.jpg). Lest you think this was just some unfortunate vestige of the past, the poster was created in 2014.

I’m sure the Red Cross intended to make a poster about pool safety that featured children of many backgrounds, but you know what they say about good intentions (the road to hell and whatnot). They clearly missed the mark here. Instead of perpetuating a message of inclusiveness for aquatics, they’ve reinforced negative stereotypes. The organization quickly issued an apology, stopped production of the poster, removed the image from its website, and instructed all partner facilities to take it down.

Some have argued that the response was an overreaction, but I disagree. We all know the power of images (after all, a picture is worth a thousand words). I’ve written before about the importance of children seeing themselves reflected in text and images; let me reiterate that it needs to be a positive representation (I hate that this needs to be said). Educators know about the self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s not a stretch to say that children who are expected to misbehave are more likely to do so. Posters like this one also serve to confirm adults’ unconscious biases against children of color. Black and Latino students are already subject to high rates of discipline as they’re shuffled along the School to Prison Pipeline, and this poster exacerbates the problem.

Black children in particular may already feel like the pool is not a place for them, due to a history of discrimination. Having been barred from public pools and beaches for decades, Black youth are much less likely to take up swimming, diving, and other water sports as an extracurricular activity. Furthermore, less expensive splash pads are more common than full-size pools in Black neighborhoods, making it more difficult for children to learn to swim. The USA Swimming Foundation found that 70% of African American children have little to no swim ability compared to 40% of White children. They’re also about five and a half times more likely to drown, according to the CDC. The Red Cross, which prides itself on serving diverse populations, would be well served by partnering with organizations like Black Kids Swim, which is committed increasing opportunities for Black children in the sport. They might also consider replacing those posters with images of Lia Neal and Simone Manuel, who are making history as the first two Black women to compete on a U.S. Olympic swim team at the same time.

Adults need to do a much better job evaluating materials that will be seen and read by children. Louise Derman-Sparks, author of Anti-Bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children, offers Ten Quick Ways to Analyze Children’s Books for Sexism and Racism: http://www.teachingforchange.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/ec_tenquickways_english.pdf. Since we can’t (and shouldn’t) censor everything that our children come in contact with, we also need to teach them to evaluate text and images for bias on their own. Teaching Tolerance has an excellent series that teaches older students to “read” photographs and think critically about them (http://www.tolerance.org/lesson/using-photographs-teach-social-justice) and another for younger children that analyzes stereotypes in advertising (http://www.tolerance.org/lesson/reading-ads-social-justice-lens). The hope is that if kids can learn to identify bias in media, they can then apply that skill to other areas of their lives. From a purely academic standpoint, critical thinking and analysis are the lifeblood of the Common Core State Standards and are also essential skills for success in higher education and the workplace.

So thank you for saying something, Margaret Sawyer. That poster needed to be removed. The Red Cross can do better. And so can the rest of us.