Can You Spot What's Wrong With This Pool Safety Poster?

June 28th 2016

Tricia Tongco

Can you spot what's wrong with this American Red Cross poster on pool safety?

According to labels of "cool" and "not cool," a disproportionate number of black, brown and non-white children are depicted as not following the rules at the pool while the only people shown as examples of appropriate pool behavior are white. 

Margaret Sawyer, the former executive director of the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project and one of the poster's most vocal critics, told KUSA:

"I thought 'It must be really outdated. This can't possibly be a recent poster'...I saw this one and I just kept thinking 'It looks like they're trying to do something here that shows all kids together of all different backgrounds but they're clearly not hitting the mark.'"

On Monday,The American Red Cross apologized for the poster and said that they have ceased distribution of the poster and removed it from its website and mobile app. 

Public pools have been at the center of racial discrimination throughout America's history. 

In June 2015, a video was released of a white police officer in McKinney, Texas breaking up a pool party by pointing his gun at black teens and pinning a black teenage girl to the ground.  

During the same month, after a minor breach of pool rules regarding proper swimming attire, Ohio police pepper sprayed a young black girl, and a 12-year-old girl claimed an officer fractured her jaw and broke her ribs in the altercation.

After the McKinney incident, Jeff Witse, an associate professor of history at the University of Montana and author of the book "Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pool in America," wrote in an essay for the Washington Post:

We do not see this type of behavior in other public spaces such as parks. Why do swimming pools bring out the worst in people?

Part of the answer has to do with the uniqueness of swimming pools as physical spaces. They are visually and socially intimate. Swimmers gaze upon one another’s nearly naked bodies, lie in the sun next to one another, navigate through crowded water and flirt. This type of contact and interaction piques social anxieties and exposes the lack of trust and understanding between people of different social classes...

Swimming with others in a pool means accepting them as part of the same community precisely because the interaction is so intimate and sociable. Conversely, excluding someone or some group from a pool effectively defines them as social others—as excluded from the community.

The racist stereotyping present in the Red Cross poster extend far beyond the space of a public pool – Stanford research has shown that teachers are more likely to label black students as troublemakers.

While the poster has been removed from physical and online spaces, the fact that the poster was even distributed in the first place reveals the unconscious racist bias that people associate with children of color, pool or no pool, and all the dangerous consequences that come with it.