nation: South Africa

The American Anthropological Association website on race has a great collection of the racial and ethnic categories included on Censuses throughout the world, showing how different countries formalize different racial categories.  They illustrate just how diverse ideas about race are and challenge the notion that there is one “correct” question or set of questions.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

One of my former students, Janel B., sent me to this post called “Don’t Sleep on Africa” on the fashionable Livejournal community called black cigarette, and thereby introducing me to the South African photographer Nontsikelelo Veleko and her amazing portraits of Johannesburg stylish street denizens.


The entire post at black cigarette begins with this brief intervention into the problematically differential distribution of “style:”

Stockholm. Paris. London. New York. Helsinki. Milan. Tokyo.

These seem to be to go-to places when it comes to “street-style” and what’s hot in general on most fashion blogs, but I just wanted to share some of the street-style you’ll find on the African continent…. South African street style is rarely sleek and chic – it’s irreverent, vibrant and daring. It mixes patterns and textures, with echoes of mid 70s style (and just a splash of “geek chic”).

(Consider too the fact that Feedshion, which collects “the best street fashion photos from all the greatest street style blogs for your viewing pleasure,” happens to feature only street style blogs from the usual suspects and none from South America or Africa.)

The photo-heavy post is a wonderful contrast to those editorials in American and European fashion magazines whose visual vocabularies for “Africa” are unbelievably narrow and alienating (Galliano, I’m looking at you and your “tribal” fetish figure shoes). The continued refusal to see the African other as coeval (that is, contemporaneous) with the so-called modern observer, most obviously manifested in the classification of “tribal chic,” betrays the still-haunting presence of colonial aesthetics in Western art and design.

I wish I could repost all the photographs, but I will settle for a handful from Veleko.





Edited to add additional links supplied by Sociological Images and Racialicious, by way of the LJ community Debunking White.

Gorgeous photos from South African photographer Nontsikelelo Veleko.


Based outside of Chicago, Mimi Thi Nguyen scours thrift and vintage stores with reckless abandon. She writes about neoliberalism and humanitarianism from a transnational feminist analytic, which includes the “management” of refugee crises but also beauty as a civilizing project.  She blogs at Threadbared.

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We posted earlier about the biology behind the controversy over Caster Semenya’s sex.  Germán I. R.-E. and Philip Cohen (who has his own post on the topic) asked that we comment on her recent makeover.

Some sociologists argue that gender (as opposed to sex) is really more about performance than it is about our bodies.  That is, we do gender and, when we do it in ways that other people recognize, everyone feels satisfied.  This is, perhaps, what Caster Semenya’s handlers were hoping for when she submitted to a makeover for South Africa’s YOU Magazine:


Notice that Semenya carries the same body into this photoshoot, but she is properly adorned with make up, feminine clothing, jewelry, a passive pose, and a pleasant and inviting facial expression (because to be feminine is to be accommodating).


Perhaps more importantly, the copy and the interview tells the reader that Semenya likes dressing up and looking pretty, another important indicator of both femininity and non-masculinity.  The cover says:


(Notice, too, the implication that power and glamour are opposed.)

This insistence that Semenya feels (or wants to feel) feminine, as well as looks it, is mirrored in the text (as summarized by the Guardian):

It carries an interview with the 18-year-old student. “I’d like to dress up more often and wear dresses but I never get the chance,” she says. “I’d also like to learn to do my own makeup.”

The lifestyle magazine quotes Semenya’s university friends saying that she wants to buy stilettos and have a manicure and pedicure. Semenya adds: “I’ve never bought my own clothes – my mum buys them for me. But now that I know what I can look like, I’d like to dress like this more often.”

You magazine says that, after the photoshoot, Semenya told her manager that she would like to buy all the outfits she had modelled.

So, in the face of the leaked and unconfirmed finding that Semenya has undescended testicles and higher levels of testosterone than the “average” woman (see note at end*), there is an assertion here that what matters (i.e., the measure of sex that we should attend to) is her gender identity (feeling feminine) and her gender performance (doing femininity).

Anna N. at Jezebel points to how the public interest in Semenya’s sex may have pressured her, and those around her, to play this gender game. She writes:

…up until now, Semenya and her family have been unapologetic about the way she looks and dresses. Her father said that she had always preferred pants, but that she was still a woman — and the idea that she has to put on a dress and lipstick to prove her femaleness to people is pretty depressing.

It is also something that almost all women in Western countries do everyday.  We perform gender, in part out of habit and in part consciously, all the time.  Semenya hasn’t cared about this performance and that is at least in part why the controversy over her sex is taking the form that it is.

* Note:  The release of male-related hormones, androgens, isn’t the whole story here.  Cells must also have the relevant receptors for the presence of the hormones to matter.  Semenya likely is lacking some of those receptors, either in her whole body on in parts of her body, because her body obviously didn’t respond to the hormones (otherwise she would have a penis and scrotum).  My point here is dual: (1) the presence of testicles and testosterone doesn’t tell the whole story and (2) even if we knew the whole story, it doesn’t tell us if she is female or male.  What if her body doesn’t detect the presence of those androgens?  What if it reads the presence of some of them, but not others?  What if she is chimera or mosaic?  All these are interesting questions biologically, but the answers will not tell us whether she is male or female because sex, like gender, is a social construction.


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Chrissy Y., Stacey S., and a former student of mine, Kenjus Watson, have all suggested that we post about the controversy over Olympic athlete Caster Semenya’s sex.

A lot of people are talking about whether or not it’s appropriate to be asking about her sex and why we would be so obsessed with knowing the answer. Those are fine questions (and I address them secondarily).  But first I would like to suggest that, even if we were to decide that it is appropriate to want to determine her sex (that we are obsessed with it for a good reason), it would be impossible to actually determine her sex definitively. Let me explain:

If you were to try to decide what qualifies a person as male or female, what quality would you choose?

I can think of eight candidates:

1. Identity (whatever the person says they are, they are)
2. Sexual orientation (boys dig girls, vice versa)
3. Secondary sex characteristics (e.g., boobs/no boobs, pubic hair patterns, distribution of fat on the body)
4. External genitalia (e.g., clitoris, labia, vaginal opening/penis and scrotum)
5. Internal genitalia (e.g., vagina, uterus, and fallopian tubes/epididymis, vas deferens, seminal vesicles, prostate, etc)
6. Hormones (preponderance of estrogens/androgens)
7. Gonads (ovaries/testes)
8. Chromosomes (XX/XY, the SRY gene)

Most of us assume that these criteria all line up. That is, that people with XY chromosomes have testes that make androgens which creates a penis, epididymis, vas deferens etc… all the way up to a male-identified person who wants to have sex with women.  We also assume that these things are binary (e.g., boobs/no boobs), when in reality most of them are on a spectrum (e.g., hormones, also boobs, likely sexual orientation).

But these criteria don’t always line up and sex-linked charactertics aren’t binary.  Examples of “syndromes” that disrupt these trajectories abound (e.g., Klinefelter’s syndrome).  And all kinds of practices, including surgeries, are sometimes used to force a binary when there isn’t one (e.g., intersex surgery to fix the “micropenis” and “obtrustive” clitoris and breast reduction surgery for men).

If these criteria don’t always line up, then we have to pick one as THE determinant of sex.  But any choice would ultimately be arbitrary.  The truth is that none of these criteria could ever actually definitively qualify a person as male or female.

The alternative would be to require that a person qualify as male or female according to ALL of the criteria.  And you might be surprised, then, how many people are neither male or female.

I think the debate over whether we should test Semenya’s sex is getting ahead of itself, given that there is no such test.


Yet, while we won’t be learning anything definitive about Semenya’s sex, the controversy does teach us something about our obsession with sex difference.  On MSNBC, Dave Zirin explains what the controversy over is really about:

YouTube Preview Image

To me, one of the most interesting things that Zirin says is that sex isn’t actually a good indicator of athletic ability.  He may be a guy, he says, but having a penis doesn’t translate into outrunning anyone.

He is implying that sex segregation in athletics, as a rule, is more about an obsession with sex categories and their affirmation than it is about sports. Remember, Semenya’s sex is being questioned not just because she appears masculine to some (she always has), but because she kicked major ass on the track.

Kenjus, my former student, writes:

…why didn’t they test Usain Bolt?  He did amazingly well… Yet, his otherworldly accomplishments are considered the result of his never-before-seen body structure… Usain, however, is a big, strong, fast Black man. The fact that his times are just as mind-boggling as Caster’s gets lost in the widely accepted narrative that big, strong, fast Black men accomplish amazing athletic feats. It’s what they’re built for.

But this woman has apparently baffled the athletic and scientific experts because her body is not doing what a woman’s body is supposed to do. More specifically, her shape is too muscular, her voice is too deep, and her time is too fast. Essentially, “Semenya-the-woman” CANNOT exist in an exclusively two-gendered (i.e. men and women) society in which men are innately bigger, stronger, more deeply-voiced, and particularly FASTER than women…


Semenya is getting far more media attention than the recent cheating scandals of higher profile athletes. This is precisely because there’s something that separates Caster from an A-Rod, a Marion, a Sosa… The world is captivated by Caster because something that should be certain; unquestionable; medical; pre-ordained, is in flux.  It is regrettable that some athletes take illegal drugs to gain an edge over the competition. It’s entirely unethical, unnatural, and ungodly for an athlete to not fit into our narrow specifications of what constitutes gender or sex.

Indeed.  Our obsession with Semenya’s sex, in addition to being hurtful and invasive, says a great deal more about us, than it does about her.  And perhaps the reason we are so obsessed with proving Semenya’s sex, to bring this post back to its beginnings, is because binary sex doesn’t actually exist.  Me thinks we protest too much.

(Thanks to Mimi Schippers, via the Sociologists for Women in Society listserve, for alerting me to the video. Images found here and here.)


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

AdFreak drew my attention to a South African liqueur called Wild Africa Cream.  The advertising suggests that drinking it will “unleash your wild side.”


We have posted before about the tendency to associate black people, especially black women, with animals (see here, here, here, and here), as well as the historical roots of this discourse.  But, in this case, the advertising uses both black and white, male and female models.





I think what is interesting here is the association of Africa itself with animalism and primitiveness (an association that no doubt also colors our thinking about black people).  (Notice that the first and only Disney film to be set in Africa, The Lion King, included only animals.)  Catherine MacKinnon coined the term “anachronistic space” to refer to the idea that different parts of the globe represent different historical periods.  See other examples of representing Africa in this way here, here, here, and here.

In line with this tendency to think in this way, in this advertising it’s almost as if black Africans are meant to represent white humans’ own more primitive past (ergo the drink “unleashing your wild side,” whoever you are).

I like to point out to my students that Americans are not more modern than Africans (purposefully eliding the abstract meaning of “modern” in a way that tends to surprise them out of their easy associations).  It is 2009 there, also, and human evolution has progress no further from the “wild” in either place.


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Amy D. sent us this really fascinating South African commercial for a light truck:

Contextualizing the commercial, Amy remarks that, given race relations in South Africa, many companies probably do operate as this team does at the first job with the white home owner. Yet, the commercial presents the black and white men as partners, switching roles so as to maximize their customer base. There’s an irony, though: While the partners seem to be cooperating, their cooperation naturalizes an (in this case symmetrical) preference for those within one’s own race.

Amy is optimistic about the impact of the ad:

The tagline “the bakkie that helps build the nation” is a great play on words. Literally, it refers to the fact that many small contractors – builders, pavers, electricians, plumbers – use this small truck as it is cheap and reliable. Figuratively, the need for nation-building in South Africa is crucial. Although we are 15 years into democracy, there are still huge social and economic gaps between racial groupings, and there is a tendency for people to segregate themselves. The way I see it, the two men in this advert are therefore achieving this nation-building by firstly, breaking racial barriers by running a business as partners, and secondly, in the meta-context, by subverting our racial stereotypes through humour.


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The image below is from the latest episode of Britain’s Next Top Model (image found here).  I would comment, except I just recently wrote almost exactly what I would write for this post here.  You might also want to look here and here and here and also here for historical context.

Dude, we are so not making this stuff up.

Thanks to an anonymous tipster in our comments!  Don’t forget you can always email us tips at

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Miguel pointed out that collected a list of “worst male-bashing ads,” all of which represent men as morons or useless oafs. Here are some of them:

1st for Women, a South African auto insurance company that only insures women:

A Domino’s ad in which the wife laughs at her husband’s sexual overtures:

A Sony Cyber-shot ad that depicts men as a horse’s ass (it’s the first clip; for some reason there are some FedEx clips afterward):

Men as easily manipulated by flirty women:

These might be useful for a discussion of masculinity and portrayals of men as idiots and morons, especially regarding family life, which serves to reinforce the idea that men can’t be trusted to cook or clean or care for children because they’ll just mess it up. Although it doesn’t come up in these ads, it’s also good to bring in the class element we see in shows like “King of Queens,” “The Simpsons,” “According to Jim,” and “Married with Children,” which all have working-class, generally pot-bellied idiot husbands married to smart, gorgeous women who sigh and put up with their childish behavior.

Also see the earlier post of a Roomba ad that portrays the husband as a literal ass (this ad also made it into the AskMen list).

Thanks, Miguel!

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.