Caster Semenya: Misogynoir and The Policing Of The Black Female Athlete (By: Zach Draves)
To paraphrase Malcolm X, the most disrespected woman is the black woman. That couldn’t be truer than what occurred this past week when the sport’s governing body known as the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) ruled that South African track and field star and Olympic medalist Caster Semenya would have to take hormones in order to lower her testosterone levels so that there is “fair competition” in events such as the 800 meters in which she is a frequent competitor. She was born with naturally high testosterone and as a result, her career has been plagued by accusation and innuendo that has questioned her athletic legitimacy as well as her femininity. Now they are demanding that she take medication to chemically alter her body to address a problem that does not exist. The argument being made is that she shouldn’t compete with other female runners because she has an unfair advantage due to her “masculine” characteristics and attributes, to the point where her gender identity is questioned. Therefore, she is subjected to random drug tests and sex examinations to determine if she is really a woman.
On the contrary, nobody bothers to ask Michael Phelps if he has an unfair advantage over other swimmers, after all he has extremely long arms and a greater lung capacity that works to his benefit. The reason why nobody would dare to address that is because sports and essentially every aspect of our culture holds a different standard for women in terms of how they are to present themselves. Their bodies are routinely scrutinized, their femininity speculated, their concerns brushed under the rug, and the lives seem to mean very little. That is true for all women, but these compounding forces have an even greater impact on black women. This is what is known as misogynoir, the racialized sexism that black women encounter in education, the workplace, popular culture, politics, and sports. The history of these practices and attitudes is long lasting and as Malcolm said it best “history is a people’s memory”, in other words, if we don’t know the history we are bound to repeat it.
Historically, female athletes in general have been subjected to policing tactics that have always tried to delegitimize their athletic abilities and accomplishments. We can go all the way back to the 19th century when women were precluded from mundane activities such as cycling, so as to not worry about getting the “bicycle face”. The idea was that women should be contained and confined into their homes doing all the domesticated duties and that they couldn’t be outside and subjected to the sun. Having a pale completion was seen as attractive and women often wore broad brimmed hats to block the sun. Actual male physicians said that if women rode bicycles they would end up with a “sour” facial expression and a “wild and haunted look in their eyes”. There was even a sexualized component to it when they suggested that the endurance and the physicality associated with riding a bicycle was a kin to masturbation. It didn’t stop there,
At the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, the women who competed ironically in the 800 meters collapsed in exhaustion after finishing the race. That is actually a common thing for both male and female athletes after competing in a race with a grueling distance. However, the male dominated sports media threw up a firestorm and spoke of the “horror” of seeing women run. In fact, legendary Notre Dame Football coach Knute Rockne proclaimed “it was not an edifying spectacle to see a group of fine girls running themselves into a state of exhaustion.” As a result, the Olympics had banned the women’s 800 meters for the next thirty years. Multisport extraordinaire Babe Didrikson Zaharias who competed in basketball, tennis, diving, archery, golf, billiards, and five Olympic events including winning two gold medals in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles was subjected to intense mockery and chauvinism by the sports media and from physical education teachers. Reporters would explain that “the only reason she was one of the best athletes male or female is because she couldn’t get a date”. She was also told to “get herself prettied up” and “wait for the phone to ring”. She was the ultimate example of female empowerment who shattered all the stereotypes of what women are supposed to be in American society and was unapologetic about it.
In 1967, Katherine Switzer became the first woman to compete in the Boston Marathon, entering under the name “KV” Switzer so as to not give off any suspicion. Eventually, as the race progressed, spectators caught on and one of the officials actually jumped in and tried to physically pull Kathy out. Her boyfriend whom she was racing with and a football player, tackled the official to the ground in response. These are some of the examples of the sports establishment trying everything in their power to create all these barriers for female athletes and to police their womanhood. But these instances pertained exclusively to white female athletes.
Black female athletes have an even greater burden to bear. From the times of slavery, there has been this image of the black woman in the American psyche that has permeated our beliefs on womanhood and femininity as it intersects with race. Black women have been portrayed as hypersexual, aggressive, angry, and un-womanly compared to white women who are seen as innocent, pure, and worthy of protection. The sexualization of black female bodies was used as a way to justify rape and other forms of brutality that is still prevalent to this day. Societal standards of beauty have been defined through a white Eurocentric paradigm (blonde, thin, blue eyes, etc.). All these different forces compounded by the systems of racism and sexism/misogyny led Dr. Moya Bailey to coin the term misogynoir in 2010.
The journey of the black female athlete began as it did with the men, where they had to struggle for access into sports and then once the doors were opened, they fought for legitimacy and respect as human beings. In 1956, Althea Gibson became the first black woman to win a grand slam tennis title in the French Open and would go on to break barriers in the world of tennis and golf. At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Wilma Rudolph, who survived scarlet fever and polio as a child, won three gold medals. They signified to the world that black women have a place in sports and could succeed on their own terms. Since the passage of Title IX in 1972, there has been a renaissance of women and girls in sports, but there have been setbacks and backlash with misogynoiristic overtones.
During the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, two in laws Florence Griffith Joyner and Jackie Joyner Kersee dominated, with FloJo winning three gold medals and setting a world record in the 100 meters that still stands to this day. Jackie won gold in the heptathlon and the long jump. Their success on the track was overshadowed by suspicion of steroid use in the wake of Canada’s Ben Johnson testing positive. Joaquim Cruz, a Brazilian sprinter spoke to the media and compared Jackie to an ape and that FloJo “looked like a man”. These remarks would have never been uttered in reference to white women. FloJo in particular had cultivated an image that embrace the politics of femininity to balance her athleticism with her flowing straight hair, her long multicolored fingernails rooted in a cultural tradition, and her unique track outfits signifying that she was to here to stay. Even that was under scrutiny from those who didn’t want to acknowledge a black women being in control of her presentation.
In the 1990’s, a French figure skater Surya Bonaly was one of the only black women on the ice and had a style of her own that was never seen. She brought a flare to the rink and could skate with grace, poise, and determination. She also became famous for her trademark backflip which was banned by the sport, but she would perform it to the astonishment and praise of the fans, but to the dismay and disgust of the overwhelmingly white judges. She was a rebel with a purpose, which was to win in accordance with her authenticity. She was subjected to harsh treatment from the establishment who tried to make her into a caricature. The most notable example came in the 1994 World Championships in Japan, where she was clearly at the top her of game and put on a masterpiece. The hometown skater who performed a more standard routine ended up winning the gold after a tiebreak of 5-4. Surya responded by stepping to the side of the podium refusing to take the silver medal unleashing loud boos from the crowd. She stood her ground before the entire world and in the eyes of the spectators and media, she was seen as “ungrateful”, sound familiar?
Later in the decade two girls from South Central Los Angeles stepped onto the tennis court embracing the same ethos. Venus and Serena Williams played the game with a tenacity and strength that hadn’t been noticed in women’s tennis since Martina Navratilova. They played the game while wearing eye catching outfits with multiple colors and wore their hair with strands of beads flowing, a style that many black girls identified with, their equivalent to Dr. J’s afro. The fact that they were embracing their own style, grew up in South Central, and winning major titles and grand slams irritated the tennis hierarchy that still embodied the rich white elitism that barred people of color from tennis courts and country clubs. There is a long list of incidents where Venus and Serena endured some of the worst examples of misogynoir in every way possible culminating in the 2018 U.S. Open when Serena like Surya stood up for herself and refused to accept the rules and discord from the judges against the backdrop of a hostile press.
The decade concluded with the launch of the WNBA and legends Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Cynthia Cooper, Teresa Witherspoon, and others showed the world that girls got game. Even in the midst of their success, they encountered misogynoirstic attitudes that included homophobia and transphobia. Their identities were called into question and every aspect of their presentation were analyzed like they were at the doctor’s office getting an examination. The media and the league itself tried to downplay the presence of LGBTQ participation in the game so as to not alienate “mainstream America”. Sheryl Swoopes, who was held up as the marketable player during their inaugural season as their girl next door, came out in 2005 and the league went into a panic. Today, nobody can deny the power and influence of black LGBTQ women in the WNBA who make the league a force to be reckon with. All of this goes to show that whenever black women assert themselves there will always be a backlash, but that doesn’t mean that the naysayers will win at the final buzzer.
There is much to take away from the historical and present day effect of misoygnoir in sports in the wake of Caster Semenya’s fate. Much more has to be done policy wise with regard to how sport governing bodies treat athletes, but when it comes to black female athletes, the first thing we can do is simply to know what misogynoir is and acknowledge that it exists. That will give us a greater understanding into the complex and complicated world that black women have to navigate on a daily basis. That can influence policy and perspective. A lack of understanding and aggressively policing styles, fashion, speech, and appearance leads us to the decision by the IAAF, leads us to the deaths of Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, and others who names we say, and leads us to rendering black LGBTQ and gender non-conforming individuals invisible. So with that being said, here are some remedies to the problem:
1. Call out the IAAF’s decision against Caster Semenya in letters, op-eds, blogs, and all other media spaces
2. Advocate for policy changes to ensure all athletes are protected from discrimination from sport governing bodies, universities, schools, and professional/amateur leagues
3. Learn about the history of black female athletes. Recommend reading Dr. Amira Rose Davis’s book Can’t Eat A Medal: The Lives and Labors of Black Female Athletes in The Age of Jim Crow
5. Engage in cultural competency such as trainings and implementation of culturally relevant programs
6. Read the works and writings of black women such as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde, and many others
7. Call out misogynoir whenever you see it
Now that we got that established, let’s make like Beyonce and get in formation.