When Margaret Sawyer first noticed the Red Cross safety poster at a pool in Salida, Colo., she thought she was looking at an unfortunate relic of the past.
When she saw it a second time at an entirely different pool in the central Colorado town, she was shocked, according to NBC affiliate KUSA.
“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,’” she said.
Not only were the poster’s designers not hitting the mark, Sawyer thought, they had created an image that was racist. Sawyer complained to a lifeguard at the first facility and penned a letter to management asking for the poster’s removal, she told KUSA.
After seeing the poster a second time, she posted an image of it online.
“I felt really angry,” she said.
The poster — titled “Be Cool, Follow The Rules” — depicts various children playing at the pool. But white children are labeled as behaving in a “cool” way while children of color who are depicted defying pool rules are labeled “not cool.”
KUSA discovered that the poster was from a safe-swimming campaign in 2014.
The Red Cross apologized for the “Be Cool” posters in a statement that was posted online Monday:
The American Red Cross appreciates and is sensitive to the concerns raised regarding one of the water safety posters we produced. We deeply apologize for any misunderstanding, as it was absolutely not our intent to offend anyone. As one of the nation’s oldest and largest humanitarian organizations, we are committed to diversity and inclusion in all that we do, every day.
To this end, we have removed the poster from our website and Swim App and have discontinued production. We have notified all of our partner aquatic facilities requesting they take down the poster. Our organization has emphasized to our partners and on social media that it was absolutely not our intent to offend anyone and apologized for this inadvertent action. We are currently in the process of completing a formal agreement with a diversity advocacy organization for their guidance moving forward.
(Read the full statement here.)
But others wondered how a racially insensitive poster could have been published by the Red Cross in the first place.
Ebony Rosemond heads a Maryland-based organization called Black Kids Swim, which is dedicated to helping young African Americans to become swimmers. Rosemond told The Washington Post that black children face a legacy of discrimination at public pools and beaches that makes them less likely to take up swimming as a recreational activity or sport.
For decades, she noted, black swimmers were denied swimming lessons or barred from public pools, forcing them to swim in more dangerous locations. Stories about drownings imprinted on a generation of African Americans a fear of the water that has not subsided, she said.
Even now, Rosemond said, it’s often more difficult to find regulation-size pools for swimming and diving in black neighborhoods. Many other communities have turned to splash parks as a cheaper alternative to maintaining pools, which means many children never get a chance to truly swim, she said.
“The current state of affairs is unfortunate, and images like the one created and circulated by the Red Cross make things worse,” Rosemond told The Post. “In connection with the lack of images showing African Americans excelling in swimming, the poster doesn’t make you feel welcome — it suggests to a black child that you’re not welcome here.”
Rosemond said she wondered how an organization like the Red Cross, which prides itself on working with diverse populations, could allow material like the poster to be widely circulated, and she believes an apology is not enough.
“We are aware that the Red Cross has put out a statement,” she said. “We want to restate that that apology is insufficient, and their system for creating and evaluating material needs to be looked at, and they need to be extremely diligent to make sure that every poster is taken down.”
Sawyer, who spotted the posters, agreed and told KUSA that the incident reveals that the Red Cross probably needs to reimagine itself and its constituency.
“I’m just a citizen, I’m not an organization; but I would want the Red Cross to collaborate and build relationships with Black Kids Swim and other organizations that do advocacy around this so that this doesn’t happen again,” said Sawyer, the former executive director of the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project.
“Clearly, they’re thinking of themselves as only having one constituency, and that’s not true.”