‘Race science’ is rearing its ugly head again – and black women are the target

This is not the first time the sports world has veered into dangerous territory over attempts to police what it means to be black and female

Georgina Lawton
Sunday 23 June 2019 14:48 BST
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The athlete accused the IAAF of treating her like "a human guinea pig" this week
The athlete accused the IAAF of treating her like "a human guinea pig" this week

Scientific racism is on the rise once again. Its pernicious effects throughout our society are being explored everywhere, most notably in Angela Saini’s new book Superior: The Return of Race Science and debates surrounding South African athlete, Caster Semenya.

In the most recent development in the ongoing battle between Semenya and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the athlete accused the governing body of treating her like "a human guinea pig", after they ruled that she needed to take medication, which made her feel “constantly sick”, to control her testosterone levels.

The two-time Olympic champion is one of many athletes deemed to have differences of sexual development (DSD), which means their hormones and genes do not coincide with what is typical.

Semenya must now either take medication in order to compete in track events from 400m to the mile, or change races. She had been entered in the 800m at South Africa's preliminary squad for the World Championships in Qatar later this year, but whether she competes now depends on the outcome of her appeal.

Court papers classified Semenya as “biologically male” but the athlete has never confirmed an intersex identity, and trying to define what a “normal” testosterone level even is, seems arbitrary and discriminatory. In the myopic way we view and divide the sporting world, Semenya is an anomaly, an athlete who doesn’t quite conform to society’s narrow view on gender, and so her difference means that she is sacrificed in order to preserve what the IAAF say is, "the integrity of female athletics”.

But Semenya’s case is just the latest example of nonsensical race science being weaponised against sporting men and women of colour. Her presence in women’s athletics has sparked a global debate about what it means to be black and female in sports, and who gets to police those identities.

Monitoring testosterone is a practice that began in the sporting world in the 1930s, around the same time many European scientists began positing ideas that empirical evidence exists to support or justify racial inferiority. Semenya’s case has highlighted the lasting legacy of Saartjie Baartman, another South African woman, who was taken from her home in the early 19th century and paraded through Paris freakshows under the stage name “the Hottentot Venus”. Baartman’s body was the subject of ridicule and speculation – much like Semenya’s – and the case is cited by many as a great influence on the global discourse around the black female physique.

We’ve see African-American athlete Serena Williams receive similar treatment. In 2018, Williams complained of “invasive and targeted” doping tests, noting that, despite never testing positive for any kind of substance over her 23-year career in tennis, she has been tested four times more frequently than her peers.

Williams is black, muscular and super-talented, and like Semenya, her incredible athleticism is often lazily linked to her ethnicity, and the far-fetched notion that “women like them” must be in possession of some sort of super-human biological qualities in order to be so good in their field.

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This myth around “natural talent” or “unfair advantage” has led many to unfairly critique sportspeople of black backgrounds, but, has been pointed out many times, there was less furore around Olympic-swimmer Michael Phelps and his exceptionally long arms, which gives him an advantage in the pool. The same can be said of Eero Mäntyranta, a skier who had a genetic condition that caused the excessive production of red blood cells, which gave him an advantage in endurance events. In the interests of levelling the playing field and all, why don’t we ask these men to stop competing?

And black male athletes don’t escape the legacy of race science either. One study, from professor Cynthia Frisby at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism analysed over a decade’s worth of news coverage and found that black male athletes are subjected to “significantly more negative coverage” in the media than their white counterparts who are depicted as heroes and winners.

David Epstein’s 2013 book The Sports Gene also explained how athleticism is portrayed as inversely proportional to intelligence in the media, and that notion was popularised only when black athletes began to dominate globally.

The sporting world has always been deeply political, but it’s utterly frightening how outdated notions on race and gender are being serviced once more to prevent black athletes from competing. If nothing is done to challenge this approach, who knows how far these extremes will go.

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