Column: Our Swimsuits, Ourselves

Just us Caucasians hanging out at the beach

We went to Pickerel Lake on a Thursday morning because my wife wanted to swim across a lake, and Pickerel is the only jet-ski-free body of water in the area. When we arrived at the tiny shingle of beach, an old man was already there, sitting in a folding chair in his straw hat, towels draped over shoulders and lap.

We exchanged simple “hellos,” and I noticed he had an accent – maybe British or Continental, maybe Wealthy New England, hard to tell with just one word. Another family – a woman with two daughters bracketing our toddler’s age – arrived. My wife got in the water. Our three-year-old and I began digging in the muck, he in a zip-up bathing suit with built-in life vest, me in pants and a button down shirt. I don’t swim.

When I heard the old man talking with the other mother, I looked up to see him wearing an absurd swimming costume: Some sort of homemade mustard-yellow G-string, a banana-sling with two thin cords, one around his waist, the other up his butt. He was facing away, so his stringy, pale hams were to me.

And then he turned.

“Crap!” I panicked. “The boy’s gonna see this and say something!” And then it dawned on me that the old man’s swimming costume was actually a best-case scenario, as it left no doubt as to whether or not “this guy have a penis” – a popular question at the time. The man drifted into the water without commentary from our son.

A bit past noon other visitors arrived, and the old German left. I started talking to the other mom – who, it turned out, was married to someone from the same Detroit-area synagogue as me. She’d seemed to know the old cocker, so I asked her what was up with his swimsuit. She said she’d met him the summer before: He came on weekdays – like her – specifically because he didn’t want his suit to freak people out. [By early afternoon there were almost 20 people on that mucky little spit of beach; it must be packed on a balmy Saturday].

I asked again, “So, what’s the deal with the suit?” and she laughed and admitted she didn’t know, but “he’s German, so maybe he’s … a nudist? … or something?” She smiled and trailed off, and I realized that we were basically giving the guy a pass because he was old and had an accent.

The other mom was wearing a practical black two-piece, a bit like my wife’s triathlon suit. And her elder daughter was in a similar rig, while the younger [two years old] was naked – which is to say that one daughter was wearing 100% less fabric than the old cocker, and the other 700% more.

A pair of middle-aged women and a tattooed young man – all smokers – arrived, followed by a group of three Muslim women with two girls, both a little younger than my son, and a third about his age. The older girl was in a pink bikini, and the other two were naked. One was dark and curly haired, like an adorably explicit gingerbread girl illustration from an old Little Golden Book. Two of the Muslim women were swimming, and were decked out in swim burquas – blue or black lycra bodysuits with matching, semi-form fitting hijabs, and over it all a squarish, colorful three-quarter length smock cut from swimsuit material.

Although these only appeared in stores a few years ago [marketed under names like the "burqini" or "vielkini" – this latter invented by a company headquartered in Canton, Mich.] they’ve quickly become commonplace. If you’ve ever seen traditional Muslim women swim, you’d know why: Wading out in a heavy, flowing cotton robe, laughing and pulled by every current like a bailed pilot tangled in his chute; it’s a drowning risk second only to hip-waders on a drunk.

Prior to the introduction of these modest swimsuits, conspicuous Muslims were conspicuously absent from Michigan’s pools and beaches, water parks and swim parties. In a state surrounded by water, where boating and canoeing and fishing and jet-skies and pools and lawn sprinklers and squirt guns dominate summer leisure, a fashion edict that renders full-immersion a mortal risk probably did more to separate Muslim-Americans from their neighbors than any dietary proscriptions or theological differences. Since the advent of the concealing burqini, the ethno-racial mix in our metroparks has gotten much closer to that of the metro area.

What strikes me – especially now, when Eid ul-Fitr [the celebrated close of the the Muslim holy month of Ramadan] happens to fall in the midst of the Jewish holy week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and in the wake of Glenn Beck’s bizarre “Taking America Back” Christian rally at the Lincoln Memorial, and as the congregates of the evangelical Christian Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla. prepare for their public Quran burning, in the season of 9/11 – what strikes me is that according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there was nothing at this beach but white people.

The U.S. Census Bureau defines “white” as “A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa. It includes people who indicate their race as ‘White’ or report entries such as Irish, German, Italian, Lebanese, Near Easterner, Arab, or Polish.”

This is how southeast Michigan came out of the 2000 census rated among the most segregated places in America, even though we have what is arguably the largest Muslim population in the Western Hemisphere:  A significant portion of our diversity gets silently folded up into amorphous “Caucasians.” Even just within our Muslim population there is stunning diversity, with thriving communities hailing from nations as disparate as Lebanon, Iran, Somalia, and Bosnia – and these are well-established populations: The first purpose-built mosque built in the United States was built in Detroit in 1921. But we lose sight of this aspect of our Caucasian population, because that antique moniker most easily conjures white men in khakis and blue button-downs, not young mothers swimming in unitards and headscarves.

In the last month, various media outlets [FOX and TIME jump to mind] have reported that “Americans” increasingly distrust “Muslims” – the latest figure I’ve seen pegs it at 53% of Americans voicing such misgivings. But what any of these terms could possibly mean is a mystery: Does the mom in the burqini distrust the non-swimming mom in jeans and a headscarf? Was the tattooed smoker a Mohammedan? The old German nudist? Would he have known I was or wasn’t unless he’d overheard me telling the mother in the practical two-piece that I go to the same temple as her husband’s family?

According to the census, me and the smokers and the swimming Muslims and the old German in his thong, my boy, my wife, we’re all One Thing: Just us Caucasians hanging out at the beach; nothing to see here, ma’am.

And in this holy season, in this new year, I guess that’s what I want you to feel, too, my fellow citizens: That we’re all One, that it’s just like the eagle on the dollar says – our Pluribus is nothin’ but Unum, all the way down. L’shana Tova. Amen.

About the writer: David Erik Nelson writes the business column for Current magazine. He’s a co-working colleague of The Ann Arbor Chronicle at the Workantile Exchange.


  1. By Sara
    September 10, 2010 at 1:53 pm | permalink

    What a great article! Thanks – it made me laugh at all of us unums at a time when that’s not easy to do!

  2. By Morgan
    September 10, 2010 at 3:44 pm | permalink

    Great column!

  3. By Alan
    September 10, 2010 at 4:04 pm | permalink

    Passing this along, because we all need this kind of reminder this weekend, for lots of good reasons.

    I wish we could amplify this good word over the noise of those who abuse the Gospels for their ends and — with the national media’s complicity — make, “white,” “Christian” America look like hateful lunatics throughout the world. I wish this was our national image abroad.

  4. By Paul Cardwell
    September 11, 2010 at 12:51 am | permalink

    Amen indeed! It is also nice that the more orthodox Muslim women can finally get to swim with no more danger than naturists (who also face occasional irrational persecution).

  5. By JB
    September 12, 2010 at 1:23 am | permalink

    Yes a great article at first I worried the guy was going to go on and on about the old man and his thong. He comes on weekdays because he does NOT want to offend others. He clearly wants to wear as little as he legally can. He had not interest in offending others. I also found it curious that others were labeled SMOKERS. Something I personally find very offensive and while it is getting less and less tolerated I dream of a smoke free world where I will never get that awful sting in my nose every time I get a whiff of cigarette smoke.

  6. By Kathy Deering
    September 13, 2010 at 10:15 am | permalink

    My husband and I go canoeing at Pickerel Lake, for the same reason (no power boats). A few weeks ago as we emerged from the channel that connects Pickerel to Crooked Lake, we encountered a older man swimming along, far from the beach on the other side. “Watch out for sharks!” he enjoined us, with a German accent. Fun to read about him in this article.