I can’t stop thinking of this photo of Lynsey Sharp being hugged by fellow White lady Melissa Bishop after losing to Caster Semenya.
The recently announced ruling that will force Semenya to take drugs to lower her natural testosterone levels has been widely discussed for the completely scientifically unfounded, racist, sexist, and homophobic, not to mention simply inhumane, dumpster fire of a decision that it is.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell this audience that there is no actual scientific basis for this decision, or that physical attributes between individual athletes vary so widely that it would be both impossible and a bad idea to attempt to “regulate” them all, or that Noted White Man Michael Phelps has been lauded rather than scrutinized for his perceived natural advantages in sport––and that’s just one example. The IAAF even acknowledged the discriminatory nature of the ruling but said discrimination was necessary for “achieving the IAAF’s aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics.”
If this mistreatment is truly what’s necessary to preserve “female athletics” in their current form, I’d argue that is what needs to change.
I also want to make sure everyone understands that this is hardly the first time White women used eugenicist and colonialist ideas and moments to attack Black women they perceived as threatening. Slate recently covered this story with an analogy to the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, where the women’s 800m race was cancelled because it was deemed too challenging for the (White) female athletes. The piece notes that this anecdote and the Semenya case, taken as one, offer “a lesson about how institutions rely on bad science to ‘protect’ women in sport”––but as in many cases, pretending “women” is a single identity category isn’t worth much to Black women who have been dehumanized by eugenicist institutional rules from which White women benefit. Let’s remember Black women couldn’t even compete in the Olympics until 1936, but people of color were exploited as a spectacle to attempt to demonstrate White superiority in the Olympics long before that.
And White women have too often looked on with feigned helplessness––and actively participated––all the while in shameless complicity, which is exactly what happened here. As intersex activist Pidgeon Pagonis told VOX, “What I think this comes down to is, Caster’s faster than white girls and she made them cry.”
White women have often participated in the perpetuation of colonialist norms and the dehumanization of people of color to further their own causes. American suffragettes and first-wave feminists including Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger decided that alignment with the eugenics movement, which included work by actual female eugenicists, was sound political strategy (it was). Female Klan leaders hid their motives behind the rhetoric of “social welfare.” Semenya’s White competitors have been throwing tantrums over not being able to beat her and comforting themselves in a warm bath of hideous racism. British marathoner Paula Radcliffe insisted that Caster Semenya’s case could represent “the death of women in sport.”
That image of Sharp and Semenya has stuck with me because it represents White women calling upon privilege to try to ruin Semenya’s life because they’re furious with her success. Without the support of science, Semenya’s White competitors have always known they had the structural power behind them to get what they wanted and the bottomless sea of public sympathy to get away with it––and as many trans and intersex activists have pointed out, they’ve utterly exposed the failed logic of TERF fearmongering talking points by insisting that a woman be forced to change her body to conform to a societal gender standard. White women everywhere should be ashamed at this disgusting ruling and the utter lack of solidarity with Semenya from so many of her fellow athletes, but we shouldn’t be surprised.