Naomi Osaka Is Black, Too — And We Need to Say So
Since Saturday, even people who don’t watch tennis have been talking about legendary player Serena Williams’ US Open loss to 20-year-old powerhouse Naomi Osaka. While Osaka’s win was overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the potential role of bias in the umpire’s now-contentious decision to issue Williams a series of penalties, Osaka’s identity — that of a Japanese and Black woman — has repeatedly been diminished.
Author Zeba Blay has rightfully described media portrayal of Osaka as “whitewashing,” writing in the Huffington Post, “Many tennis fans have pointed out that Carlos Ramos’ petty umpiring robbed both Williams and Osaka of what should have been a far less controversial match. But Osaka was robbed of something else: her agency, her identity, her story, and her blackness.”
A major example of Osaka’s whitewashing is the wildly racist cartoon published this week in Australia’s Herald Sun, which depicted the tennis player as a white woman with blonde hair. More often, the erasure is more subtle, like when media outlets describe Osaka as “Japanese” without acknowledging her multiracial identity. Erasing Osaka’s Blackness further divides her from Williams, who, in turn, is often depicted as a stereotypical “angry Black woman.” Whether intentionally or not, the whitewashing of Osaka serves to reinforce a racist victim-and-villain storyline.
Most importantly, however, is that in ignoring Osaka’s Blackness, we fail to acknowledge how poignant it is that the young tennis player is being given the torch of tennis greatness by her idol, Williams. Tennis is such a white-dominated sport that fewer than 40 Black women have ever competed at the elite level.
Osaka, her sister, and their father have all followed the Williams sisters’ careers closely. Osaka’s father even went on to train his daughters just as Richard Williams trained Serena and Venus. For Osaka, facing off against her lifelong idol was about more than a match — it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
Not to say that Osaka isn’t also Japanese. Osaka was born in Japan and professionally represents the country. But it’s important to note that her father, Leonard François is Haitian. Osaka and her older sister, Mari (who is also a professional tennis player), were both given their Japanese mother’s surname at birth for practical reasons — its easier to register for schools in Japan with a Japanese surname. The family moved to the US when she was just three years old, which makes Osaka a Japanese-Haitian-American woman.
The newly-minted US Open winner is never shy about checking reporters who fail to mention that she’s Haitian (like she did earlier this year in Australia). She’s also talked about how, when Japanese people see her name, they are confused that she’s “a Black girl.”
And while fans in Haiti are excited by her win, many are also curious to understand if they can rightfully claim Osaka as their own. “For over 200 years, Haiti has stood as the dream and lost hope of Black liberation in the new world,” writes journalist Valerie Jean Charles in Haiti’s Woy Magazine. Charles understands that while Haitians may feel at odds with claiming a Japanese-born, American-raised athlete, Haitians should rejoice that the diaspora has produced people proud to call themselves Haitian.
“Immigration is the price many Black nations pay for puppet governments, selfish rulers, and lack of resources,” he says, urging Haitians to embrace Osaka’s win as their own. “However, we cannot let these systems, which usually lie out of our control, to abandon our children, the ones like Naomi who know where they come from and do their best to uphold and respect all of their identities.”
Which is why it’s important to see last weekend’s US Open match for what it really is: a powerful moment in professional tennis where two Black women competed against each other, showcasing the absolute best the game has to offer.
Before her finals match against Williams on Saturday, Osaka was asked what drove her to her semifinal victory, and she said that it was simply for the chance to play against her idol. In a televised message to her opponent pre-match, Osaka said simply: “I love you.”
And that’s the story that’s worth sharing: one of triumph, respect, and friendship between two women of color whose love of the sport they play, and their infinite talents therein, set the stage for future athletes of color to see themselves reflected and respected in tennis, in pro sports at-large, and in life.
(Photos by Alex Pantling + Chris Trotman/Getty Images)