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Post-racial America is a myth – and it’s not one that Naomi Osaka cares to further perpetuate. The 23-year-old tennis champion came out swinging in 2020, and we’re not just talking about tennis rackets. Being of mixed race, Osaka has not shied away from her Black heritage and uses her platform to speak out about systemic racism and rally for social justice reform. In a sport where African American athletes remain the minority, she has made the plight of the race take center stage – even causing a postponement in play prior to the semifinals of the Western & Southern Open in August.
The move came on the heels of Osaka initially withdrawing from the tournament ahead of the semifinal as a means of protest in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. It was the day the sports world stood still; the NBA, WNBA, and MLB also suspended play on Aug. 26 to stand in solidarity.
In an Instagram post, Osaka wrote: “As a Black woman, I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention rather than watching me play tennis. I don’t expect anything drastic to happen with me not playing but if I can get a conversation started in a majority white sport, I consider that a step in the right direction.”
When play resumed, Osaka took care of business on the court while making sure her bigger fight was never shoved to the background. After winning her semifinal in convincing straight sets, she pulled out of the final due to a hamstring injury. However, the US Open was right around the corner, providing her yet another huge platform to spread her message. Marching to her second US Open title, she made a statement before each and every match along the way before the tennis ball even hit the court.
For each of the seven rounds, Osaka wore masks emblazoned with the names of African American victims who had been killed with little to no repercussions for the perpetrators: Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice. The intent behind the decision was to start, or intensify, conversation in a space where the viewers, and many of the players and officials simply have been able to ignore the brutal reality of racism in America. Asked about what message she wanted to convey with the masks, Osaka responded, “Well, what was the message that you got was more the question. I feel like the point is to make people start talking.”
Now, make no mistake – Osaka’s visible activism didn’t start with the Western & Southern Open. In May, she had traveled to Minneapolis to take part in the numerous protests that sprang up around the country following the killing of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin. In an op-ed piece for Esquire, she recounted that time saying, “We grieved with the people of St. Paul and protested peacefully.”
Peaceful, calm, humble confidence – those are all attributes that could be used to describe the tennis phenom in her still-young professional career. However, things changed in 2019. She started to find her voice. In an interview with CNN Sport, the athlete spoke of her regret in not speaking up initially. “I have a lot of regrets before I go to sleep,” she said, “and most of the regret is that I don’t speak out what I’m thinking.” Well, Osaka can sleep a bit more peacefully these days as her fight for social justice has extended beyond the borders of the United States.
The star has been hard at work in her birthplace of Japan, as well. During the protests of Summer 2020, she encouraged Japanese citizens to join the marches in the city of her namesake. Her efforts in Japan have been met with even more ire as she refuses to “stick to sports.” The daughter of a Japanese woman and Haitian man, she is viewed as “hafu,” which has impaired her acceptance by a country that she has represented at an unprecedented level in the tennis world.
She has won Grand Slam titles for a country where comedians said that she is “too sunburned” or “needed some bleach” – a reminder that at the end of the day, regardless of DNA, Osaka is a Black woman. Unlike another Blasian sporting pioneer, she wears the distinction loud and proud – never shying away from relating to those who look like her, but lack the platform and opportunities to speak out. Osaka sees herself as a vessel. “I’m not sure what I would be able to do if I were in their position,” she said after watching videos of support from the parents of Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery. “I feel like I’m a vessel at this point in order to spread awareness. It’s not gonna dull the pain, but hopefully I can help with anything that they need.”
Although she holds dual citizenship, Osaka has lived in the United States since the age of 3. She relinquished her US citizenship so that she could compete for Japan in the 2020 Olympics, which have since been postponed. That in and of itself has caused some to question, and sometimes attempt to erase, Osaka’s Blackness. When she was described as the first Japanese woman to win a Grand Slam, it was an accurate description. It’s also accurate that she is the first Japanese-Haitian woman to win a Grand Slam. It’s an issue that many biracial individuals find themselves facing at one point or another. A Nissin advertisement depicted Osaka, anime-style, as a lighter-skinned Japanese woman, drawing ire from many as her Haitian features were essentially erased. As for the phenomenal woman herself, Osaka has stated, “Before I am an athlete, I am a Black woman.” It’s that Black woman that was named the 2020 AP Female Athlete of the Year — not to mention a 2020 REVOLT Power List honoree.
Osaka was 16-3 in a COVID-shortened season and finished ranked No. 3 in the world. Her work on and off the courts garnered her support from living tennis legend Billie Jean King. “She successfully completed the difficult task of taking excellence in sports performance and using that platform to succeed outside of sports on a much bigger stage,” King told the AP. “She ignited a conversation on social justice, the results of which were bigger than tennis, larger than sports, and in doing so raised the bar for all those who want to leverage the gifts and talents we have to make a difference in our world.”
As most of us watched Osaka’s Australian Open semifinal match against the GOAT Serena Williams with bated breath, we were unsure what we were witnessing. But, we liked it. Was it a passing of the torch? Was it the end of an illustrious, captivating run for 23-time Grand Slam winner Williams? None of us can say just yet. However, what we do know is that Naomi Osaka has arrived – signed, sealed, and delivered to continue to spread awareness and spark conversations in rooms that we have very sparingly been in.