Tennis’ Fight Against Racial Injustice

By Sophia Pilot

September 29, 2020

  The 2020 US Open served as a stage for the fight against racial injustice. In response to racial inequality, many Americans have become united in support of racial and social justice. Professional athletes have used their platform to bring awareness to systemic racism. Naomi Osaka, a professional tennis player, reached the final where she continued to advocate for racial and social justice, winning her third Grand Slam Title. Osaka was playing not only to win the title, but more importantly,  to spread awareness about these issues in our society. 

   Naomi Osaka is the third-highest ranked women’s professional tennis player in the world. She represents Japan. Her mother, Tamika Osaka was born in Japan and married Haitian Leonard Francis, who is Osaka’s father. She identifies as ‘Black Asian’ and is proud to be bi-racial. People often assume Osaka is American because she moved here at the age of eight to train in Florida. Osaka responded to confusion about her ethnicity,  “My dad’s Haitian, so I grew up in a Haitian household in New York. I lived with my grandma. And my mom’s Japanese and I grew up with the Japanese culture too, and if you’re saying American, I guess because I lived in America, I also have that too.”

    Tennis fans have questioned Osaka’s Japanese heritage. She declines requests to speak in Japanese during interviews, despite her ability to understand the language. This has raised questions concerning her Japanese identity. 

    There are debates about what country Osaka should represent to maximize her career. Tennis fans believe that she represents Japan for marketing purposes, but her mother declined the possibility that Osaka received financial support from the Japanese Tennis Federation, “We made the decision that Naomi would represent Japan at an early age. She was born in Osaka and was brought up in a household of Japanese and Haitian culture. Quite simply, Naomi and her sister Mari have always felt Japanese so that was our only rationale. It was never a financially motivated decision nor were we ever swayed either way by any national federation.” Due to the regulations of Japan’s Nationality Act, no dual-citizenship can be held after the age of 22. Osaka was faced with the option to represent the USA but ceased her American citizenship in order to compete for Japan in the 2020 Olympics. 

    Osaka has been a victim of racism in Japan. She encountered discrimination for her Haitian ethnicity, being called “haafu” (a Japanese term referring to an individual born into one Japanese and one non-Japanese parent). A group of Japanese comedians discriminated against Osaka, calling her “too sunburned” and said she “needed some bleach”. Osaka responded to their remarks by promoting her sunscreen sponsor, “Little did they know, with Shiseido Anessa perfect UV sunscreen I never get sunburned.” Osaka also was seen whitewashed in an advertisement by Nissin, a Japanese Noodle company. Some believe that the altercation to Osaka’s appearance ruined the opportunity for a person of color to be seen in a Japanese advertisement.

   She postponed her semi-final match at the Western and Southern Open to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. She participated in the social justice movement, attending a rally in Minneapolis. Osaka continued her fight against social injustice to the tennis court where she was seen wearing seven different masks with the names of seven different victims of racial injustice and police brutality.  

   Tennis hasn’t always been the most inclusive sport, but Osaka’s efforts caused the Western and Southern Open to postpone matches until the following day. The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) responded to racial injustice by stating, “As a sport, tennis is taking a stand against racial inequality and social injustice.”

    In the 2018 US Open Championship match, Serena Williams was favored to beat Osaka. Osaka prevailed and defeated Williams to win her first Grand Slam title. Williams was frustrated she was getting beat by Osaka and ran into the Chair Umpire Carlos Ramos, who called three code-of-conduct violations against Williams. She also was penalized for allegedly receiving a hand signal from her coach. She was docked points and fined over $17,000. Williams was furious and believed they were only penalizing her because she is a Black woman. In 2001, she pulled out of the Indian Wells Tournament after experiencing racism. Williams then realized the fight for equality that she had to overcome, “I remember the whole stadium was 99 percent white people and they were all booing. Racial slurs used, it was loud, it was like an echo, it was so loud I could feel it in my chest.” Since then, she has been a vocal advocate of the Black Lives Matter movement and has pushed for equal pay for women. 

   In response to being asked what message she wanted to spread on her mask, Osaka responded saying “What was the message you got? The point is to make people start talking.” 

   Although fans could not attend this year’s Open, Osaka is hoping to bring awareness to millions of people watching on TV.

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