Castor Semenya: Shameful Context of an Athlete’s Persecution

Laurie and Debbie say:

World Athletics remains committed to a centuries-old, white supremacist notion that defines “womanhood” in terms of the white, cisgendered female body, rendering everyone else, especially women of African descent, socially unacceptable aberrations. 

We have written about Castor Semenya several times, most recently here and here.  Semenya is an Olympic-class runner who has been continually harassed and demeaned by World Athletics (formerly the International Association of Athletics Federations, or IAAF), which is committed to the proposition that she’s not a real woman. Elizabeth Adetiba, writing at SB Nation, goes deep into the repulsive historical, contemporary social, and biological background to this substance-free “controversy.”

Read the whole article, don’t rely on our selections:

Based on the tones of disgust used to discuss her physicality, one might think that Semeya is the only runner to ever possess a body that so greatly differed from everyone else’s in the field. It seems the sports world has forgotten the peculiarities of Ira Murchison’s stocky, 5’4 frame, which earned him both the nickname “Human Sputnik” and an Olympic gold medal in the 4×100. Or that world record-holder Usain Bolt was taller with longer legs than any of his competitors.

Unlike those men, Semenya’s body is often deemed unwanted and out of place, most notoriously by her sport’s governing body.

Adetiba names two other contemporary African runners who are receiving similar treatment. Annet Negesa, from Uganda, was pushed into invasive surgery by World Athletics, and is suffering both physical and mental consequences. Adetiba goes on to cite the repugnant 19rh century “scientific” theories of Sir Albert Cook, who categorized Black women’s bodies by their “ape-like” features.

Before Cook, Sarah Baartman, more commonly known by her derogatory nickname “The Hottentot Venus,” encompassed Western society’s fixation on black women’s bodies. Captured and enslaved in what is now South Africa (Semenya’s home country), Baartman was brought to Europe in 1810 and exhibited in circuses and public squares until her death, when scientists assessed and dissected her elongated labia. That work was promoted as more evidence that black women’s so-called deficiencies made them less “womanly” than their white counterparts.

The impact of such ideas can still be seen today within the medical community through widespread diagnoses of “labial hypertrophy,” a medical term for an elongated labia, despite the fact it is not a major (nor, for the most part, even minor) health concern.

She goes on to discuss J. Phillippe Rushton’s spurious 1995 claims about Black people’s levels of testosterone. “Scientists have spent the last few decades refuting Rushton’s claims, and ironically fanning the flames of racial pseudoscience.”

Stepping back 150 years, Adetiba addresses other racial stereotypes:

In 1851, physician Samuel Cartwright wrote that, “It is not only in the skin that a difference of color exists between the negro and the white man, but in the membranes, the muscles, the tendons, and in all the fluids and secretions.” Cartwright’s work, which Hoberman claims was read widely by slaveholders, gave (pseudo-) scientific, biological justification for maintaining racial hierarchy and slavery, even as moral opposition grew in other parts of the United States. Implicit in Cartwright’s work was the idea that black men’s physicality is acceptable only when it can be manipulated for profit.

Today, we see Cartwright’s legacy in sports. Exceptional male bodies, often characterized by great strength and size, often inspire awe, and not ire, because for the last century sports institutions have forged and refined mechanisms to make money off of them. Strong women’s bodies, however, haven’t yet been nearly as profitable, and thus have been much more easily derided.

And she minces no words in making her key points:

World Athletics simply sees little use in acknowledging and developing female talent, particularly black female talent in the Global South. As exemplifiers of a particular strain of racialized thinking, those women, to them, are not “real women.” And when World Athletics refuses to elevate the athletic prowess of a black woman, within a body that defies centuries of white supremacist, colonial, gender-essentialist myths, it chooses, instead, to humiliate her on every level.

It is impossible to read this article in April 2020 without also thinking of the Black women being denied hospital care for coronavirus, of whom Rana Zoe Mungin is only one example.

We can only join Adetiba in our outrage.

… these women shouldn’t need to advocate for themselves. As society continues to confront the racial legacies of social institutions in other ways, sports organizations like World Athletics have a clear opportunity to address the harm done as a result of the implementation of racist, sexist ideas. No more hiding behind biased science, doctors, and metrics. Semenya, Niyonsaba, Negesa, and other African female athletes with hyperandrogenism need not alter or manipulate themselves to fit ideals of womanhood that were constructed explicitly around their exclusion. Their bodies are simply not the problem.

They never were.

Thanks to @LisaIronTongue on Twitter for the link. Follow Debbie on Twitter.