The Story of Caster Semanya: Do I need to be white in order to be a woman?


Caster Semanya

Anika Jaswal

Earlier this month, the Court of Arbitration in Sports (CAS) ruled that Caster Semenya, a two-time Olympic South African dark-skinned Black female athlete, could not compete in women’s sports. Seymenya was assigned female at birth and identifies as a woman. The 29-year-old mid-distance runner has a difference in sex development, also known as a DSD. Disorder of Sex Development (DSD) is a mismatch is a person’s chromosome or genetic material, and the person’s physical appearance. In Semanya’s case, she was born with an XY chromosome karyotyping, the chromosome presentation of a male, which resulted in undescended testes and a testosterone-fueled body that provides superior athletic ability. 

CAS has ruled that Semenya must alter her natural biological hormone levels through estrogen injections to be able to compete in women’s races from 400 meters to a mile, to seemingly level the playing field.

This ruling painfully supports the notion that black women, particularly dark-skinned black women are inherently unfeminine. Women of color are commonly called “unwomanly” or “manly.” Feminism has long been associated, and judged, with and by a Eurocentric, caucasian style of beauty. Serena Williams, one of the greatest athletes of all times, has spent much of her professional career dealing with the vile combination of racism and misogyny, a burden predominantly carried by black women.

As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to etch itself into the global consciousness, we as a society must ask: what if Caster Semanya was a white athlete? Should Caster Semanya artificially suppress the naturally occurring hormone in her body in order to align herself with the scale of what denotes women, particularly white women? 

The constant violation of Semanya’s privacy, as she underwent testing in 2009 under the pretext that it was a doping test, is appalling and unfortunate. Conversations about one’s gender can’t be casual. Who comprised that body of decision making at CAS? Was it a committee of white people deciding what is “fair”? Why is it fair to decide that a naturally occurring hormone in a non-white individual is automatically an abnormality?

Having an increased presence of a hormone does not define a person’s sex, which is biologically determined. Gender on the other hand can be chosen. Semenya is undoubtedly a female, raised a female, brought up as a female, self identifies as a female. And isn’t the entire foundation of sports based on talent? Why should Semenya have to alter her natural talent and not use it to her benefit? I would argue that each and every athlete should get their genetic mutations examined to see whether or not they have any hormone that might help their athleticism. Michael Phelps’s numerous genetic differences, including a significantly lower production of lactic acid which causes fatigue, made him a better swimmer. He was never forced to regulate his lactic acid production or account for his other genetic differences. Instead, he was deemed supernatural, a superhero! Each of us has some form of inherent talent for some sport or music or activity, which may or may not come from a genetic predisposition. 

These powerful systems and organizations may label certain women as being more feminine than the others but all of us are unique  — our genuinity defines us. They can label traits as  “womanly” or “un-womanly,” but we will keep fighting for our authentic selves. They can stop us from competing, discriminate against us on various pretexts, but the truth is in reality  —  Semenya was born a female, she doesn’t need a medal for it. They can keep it.