Is the Caster Semenya Sex Controversy Racist?

by Special Correspondent Nadra Kareem, originally posted at Nadra’s Race Relations Blog

Caster Semenya is making headlines after winning an 800-meter race in the World Championships in Berlin on Wednesday by 2.45 seconds more than the second-place athlete. The fact that the 18-year-old South African literally left her rivals in the dust during the competition has led some of them to accuse her of being a man.

Both Italian runner Elisa Cusma Piccione and Russian runner Mariya Savinova made the accusation, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Now, the International Assn. of Athletic Federations is requesting Semenya to take tests to determine if she’s indeed female. If found not to be, she would be barred from racing and stripped of her medals.

The request has not only infuriated Semenya’s family but South African dignitaries as well. The L.A. Times printed a statement issued by the Young Communist League of South Africa, which supports Semenya.

“It feeds into the commercial stereotypes of how a woman should look, their facial and physical appearance, as perpetuated by backward Eurocentric definition of beauty,” the league stated of the accusations against Semenya. “It is this culture which has forced many African women to starve themselves with the objective of reaching the model ramps of Paris and Milan to become the face of this or that product or magazine.”

The league may not be far off the mark. Although their gender was never in question, tennis players Venus and Serena Williams have frequently been deemed too masculine by critics. First Lady Michelle Obama has faced similar criticism because of her muscular arms and 6 foot frame. Are black women in Western society unfairly pegged as masculine? In the case of Semenya, this argument is strengthened by the fact that two European female athletes publicly called her a man.

Semenya’s mother said that these accusations are rooted in jealousy. However, Semenya, who is 5 feet 7 and 140 pounds does have some characteristics that make such accusations seem viable. In addition to her very muscular arms and washboard stomach, she has a notably deep voice. These traits have led others to accuse her of being male in the past.

To clear her name, Semenya’s family has released her birth certificate to publications such as the Daily Mail of London.  The certificate clearly identifies Semenya as female. So, if the runner exhibits typically male traits, it could be the result of her taking performance-enhancing drugs, the Daily Mail posits. Other possibilities include that Semenya has underdeveloped male sexual organs inside of her body or an unusually high number of male chromosomes.

Only time will tell what the truth is. But, until then, I hope Semenya can withstand this intense scrutiny about her gender.