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  • on 11.11.2014
  • at 12:30 PM
  • by Kevin Hind

‘They don’t teach it in law school’: white privilege and Oscar Pistorius 0

Notwithstanding the violent and aggressive behaviour he exhibited in his personal life, the product of a historically heavily subsidised racial group in South Africa, Oscar Pistorius’ life demonstrates how white privilege protected his masculinity from being constructed as uncivil, criminal, threatening and dangerous.

In a New York Times article, Michael Sokolove described Pistorius as a “great deal of fun”, but “more than a little crazy”. It is white privilege that ensured that Pistorius’ penchant for guns, excessive drinking and dangerous driving was not construed as transgressive behaviour.

Although a double amputee, Oscar Pistorius achieved what sociologists call hegemonic masculinity, a privileged male social status rarely achieved by disabled men. Pistorius had almost everything that white men are socialised to feel entitled to – prestige, fast cars, wealth and a blonde model on his arm. The Washington Post defined Pistorius’ trademark as his ability to transcend disability, and his “claim to fame, fortune and the attention of beautiful women, such as, model Reeva Steenkamp.”

Before his fall from grace, both the local media and the international media showered Pistorius with the kind of admiration that is often preserved for heterosexual, able-bodied white males. Locally, he was branded South Africa’s sexiest celebrity. The international media idealised Pistorius, calling him the “Blade Runner”. Although Pistorius had to face accusations that his prosthetic legs gave him an unfair advantage over his competitors, these accusations did not significantly impact his public and financial status. It is reported that he earned more than one million dollars a year from endorsements.

Contrast the financial rewards that Pistorius received to the financial struggles of fellow South African athlete Caster Semenya. Like Pistorius, Semenya has had to deal with adversity. However, Semenya is not exactly an international media darling in the way that Pistorius was. Media reports show that after the International Amateur Athletics Federations (IAAF) conducted a gender test on Semenya without her knowledge in 2009, she struggled to find a sponsor even after the IAAF cleared her to run in 2010. In an academic paper, which compares Semenya to Pistorius, the authors, Amanda Watson, Heather Hillsburg and Lori Chambers, find Semenya significantly more accomplished than Pistorius on the track. Additionally, athletes who have similar track credentials to Semenya do not typically struggle to find sponsors, but often earn substantial salaries through endorsements.

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