Too Fast, Too Black, Too African: On Caster Semenya

A week or two from now, perhaps a month from now, Caster Semenya’s name will fall from our lips. The aggregated outrage over the IAAF’s discriminatory ruling collecting at our feet to be stepped over as we move onto the next outcry. But for now, we are here: all five of us, in a maternity room nestled amongst Cape Town, South Africa’s skyscrapers arguing the ethics of the IAAF’s conduct. Painting our disappointment in words we can all understand.

There is me: queer, activist, woman. There’s Judy and Janet: wives, new moms, community makers. Women with love in their eyes. There is Marje: grandmother, justice seeker, truth-finder. Woman with the history of Africa(ns) alive in her bones. Then there is Zazi: two days old, the promise of a life yet to be lived pulsing through the wrinkled hand she rests on my too-big wrist as I cradle her in the crook of my elbow. She was born the same night Semenya rushed to her latest victory in Doha, Qatar. Sweet baby girl, who will one day be a woman. Or perhaps someone else, discarding the binary placed on her. That is yet to be determined. For now, we are all women in a world that agrees with our womanhood. Unlike Semenya. Sitting in Cape Town, the connection to Semenya’s woes feels stronger. I am in the land of her home, her wife, her child, her family. A family much like this one, except not this one.

It should come as no surprise that the South African people and its government have relentlessly backed Semenya since her appearance on the global stage in 2009. Just last year, when the IAAF announced new rules targeting the regulation of testosterone levels (for female athletes only and within certain sports, including Semenya’s), there was strong rebuke from the highest levels of South African government. The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s ruling party, labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic. Steve Cornelius, a South African law professor appointed to the IAAF’s disciplinary tribunal a mere four months before the new rules were announced, resigned in protest.

“The adoption of the new eligibility regulations for female classification is based on the same kind of ideology that has led to some of the worst injustices and atrocities in the history of the planet,” Cornelius stated.

Back in the maternity room, there is much to be said about Semenya’s athletic prowess, much more to be said on the treatment of Blackness as both anomaly and object of fascination (see: American professional sports), and even more to be said on the treatment of Black Women’s bodies through a white lens and the colonial creation of “the African.” Marje quotes Busani Ngcaweni, prominent South African academic who minces no words in his opinion piece on the CAS ruling:

“Somewhere in the world this week congregated a group of men (majority caucasian) whose mission is to strengthen their hand in the application of the global matrices of power that target the people of the global south and women in particular – trapping them into objects of gaze and subjugation. In the so-called civilised world, a young woman from South Africa is being stripped naked, paraded to the indifferent world audience for she is regarded an oddity who must be examined by “scientists” in order to conclude “she is a man!”

This has been Semenya’s lived experience over the last 10 years: subjected to the constant external scrutiny of her personhood since she won her title at the Berlin World Athletics Championship. Mere hours after this win, she ran smack into the global matrices of power as her gender was called into question for being too fast, too quick for white tears. Elisa Cusma, one of Semenya’s competitors in the race, who finished sixth, is quoted as saying, “These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She’s a man.”

“These people” — so began the othering of Caster Semenya that culminated in last week’s Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruling. A ruling that aims to hide itself behind a flawed concept of “justifiable discrimination.” Which begs the question — what is the justified amount of discrimination to be applied to Black African women like Semenya, as opposed to the likes of Cusma or Linsey Sharp? Sharp who placed 9th in a 2016 race against Semenya is famously known for crying over her “unfair” loss to Semenya afterwards.

Listen, I’m willing to begrudgingly accept second or third place tears, but NINTH? Come on, Linsey.

When, and more importantly, how, does it become permissible to forcibly strip an 18 year old girl in front of “experts” who will determine, for her, her own gender? Though Semenya has never confirmed nor denied this, it is widely rumoured that the gender testing she underwent in the months and years following the initial questioning of her gender revealed an unknown fact to her: that she is intersex. Many intersex people are not aware they are intersex until a medical or reproductive issue arises; however it is estimated that roughly 1.7% of the world population is intersex. Pause to think about the weight of making this discovery in the most public, unnecessary and invasive of ways. To better understand the number of intersex persons globally, 1.7% is also the approximate occurrence of red hair in the human population. Which is to say, it is not a small number. Is discrimination against this robust a population of people justifiable? If so, why? Whose advancement does it serve? What agenda does it push forward?

The science of testosterone and its influence on performance or as indicator of masculinity has likewise been successfully questioned and discredited within academic and scientific circles. I don’t purport to know nor want to debate Semenya’s biological composition; she is deserving of more privacy than we have ever afforded her. However, it is notable that the World Medical Association has not only questioned the study upon which the IAAF’s regulations are based but also the ethics of imposing medical treatment on athletes like Semenya. The IAAF’s regulations show a complete disregard for the wellbeing of Semenya when put up against the standards of a white, European, athletic body vested in the advancement of a heritage of white European athletic excellence.

Tragically, as South African academic Ngwaceni points out in his opinion piece, we can trace a direct line between the white gaze on Semenya and that of another South African woman: Saartjie Baartman. In 1810, Baartman, after being tricked with the promise of fortunes overseas, boarded a ship to Europe only to find, “as a Khoikhoi woman she was considered an anthropological freak in England, and she found herself put on exhibition, displayed as a sexual curiosity.” Much like Semenya’s, Baartman’s physique became the site for racist and misogynistic exploitations. Even after her death, her exploitation continued, with a “deathcast” of her body on display in a museum in Paris until the 1980s, only a few decades removed from 2019.

Two hundred years on, Black African women’s bodies remain objects to be pored over and deciphered by a parade of (mostly) white men. The kind of men who are afraid (It is not like us, therefore we must regulate it), yet enamored (How does it perform? What does it look like underneath?) by what they consider to be “other.” The same type of men who have been tasked with the protection of white women’s fragility over the centuries, a domain that has always been a dangerous place for Black bodies (see: Emmet Till). The story of Semenya remains unfinished and by her own account, she will be back on the track.

While Semenya takes the time to decide on her next move and before our outrage begins to fade into collective memory, I offer a celebration of Semenya. Not as object of empathy, but as triumphant athlete and symbol of unapologetic Black African lesbian-ness. Born to a nation that celebrates its freedom fighters and holds sacred the dream of equality, Semenya is a true South African heroine with not only a nation, but an army of supporters behind her (p.s. If you don’t cry watching this, you are heartless!) All across this continent we call home, and the world over, there are Black, Queer and African women like me who have witnessed the ascent of a star of our own, in spite the hurdles placed in front of her. Where Black America has Serena, Semenya is ours. A small town village girl propelled to dominance on the global stage. An athlete who asks of her competitors, “Would it be easier for you if I wasn’t so fast? Would you prefer I hadn’t worked so hard?” Semenya is fast because she works hard to be at the top of her game; every single time. Much like any other athlete who dominates their sport from Simon Biles to Serena Williams to Billie Jean King and Abby Wambach. Which is why, I, Queer, African, Woman, Black, Failed Athlete, celebrate you Semenya and the work you have done for women like us; for whom our presence on global stages remains to be normalized. Someday, perhaps, when Zazi is older, I will tell her the story of how on the night she was born, a fierce Black Woman whose heritage is hers to carry, raced to her 30th straight victory in a race they told her she could not run.

Kari is a creative writer born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya who spent her formative years in Minnesota—where she often dreamed of warmer weather. She is an avid traveler, perpetual list-maker and sometimes performer. Her words have appeared all over the internet, on the radio and on stage. For more, check out her website, The Warm Fruit, or follow her on Twitter.

Kari has written 16 articles for us.

11 Comments

  1. It’s so upsetting that Semenya has to put up with all of this. I’m sure that if she wasn’t (and hadn’t been) winning so often and for so long, there wouldn’t be this amount of scrutiny and hate. I know it wouldn’t be this bad if she were white. I’m happy she’s not letting any of these rulings stop her from racing, but I look forward to the day where Black athletes don’t have to deal with constant harassment and judgement and racism and misogyny and can just *be*

  2. Thank you for this loving tribute. For anyone interested in the how we got here, I recommend Lindsay Pieper’s “Sex Testing: Gender Policing in Women’s Sports.” It should come as no surprise that the IAAF has used sex testing most often to disqualify women of color from places other than Europe or the US.

  3. This is lovely, thank you!

    The more you look into the decisions, the more clear it becomes that Caster Semenya is being targeted, and there is a whole lot of misogynoir and homophobia at play. The great feminist sports podcast Burn It All Down has had some important recent episodes about this- check it out!

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