Naomi Osaka may have a reputation for being soft spoken, but her actions have been louder than words when it comes to her activism, with the 23-year-old U.S. Open champion taking a stance against the unjust murders of Black Americans both on and off the court.
“I feel like this is something that was building up in me for a while,” Osaka told Vogue for the January 2021 cover story, referring to her work as an advocate for racial justice. “I watched the Trayvon [Martin] stuff go down. For me that was super-scary. I travel so much during the year that I don’t always know the news that’s centered in the U.S. But then when the pandemic hit, there were no distractions. I was forced to look.”
Osaka moved to Florida with her family at the age of 9, and when she was 14, she heard about the death of Martin, just hours away from where she lived. That’s when Osaka gained her first understanding of the unfair treatment of Black men, women and children. The death of George Floyd in May drove her to action, pushing her to attend her first protest, in Minneapolis, with her boyfriend, rapper Cordae.
“I don’t think it matters if you’re shy or not, or if you’re introverted or extroverted. You’re just there in the moment,” she said. “When you see it in real life — so many cameras filming everyone, police with guns outside the city hall, the parents of other victims telling their stories — it kind of hits you differently. You’re able to process it on your own terms.”
Osaka was met with mixed reactions and some criticism when speaking out about the Black Lives Matter movement. “I think I confuse people because some people label me, and they expect me to stick to that label,” she shared. “Since I represent Japan, some people just expect me to be quiet and maybe only speak about Japanese topics. I consider myself Japanese-Haitian-American. I always grew up with a little bit more Japanese heritage and culture, but I’m Black, and I live in America, and I personally didn’t think it was too far-fetched when I started talking about things that were happening here. There are things going on here that really scare me.”
Still, her most powerful move came in late August when she decided to sit out the semifinal match of the Western and Southern Open — her first tournament during the pandemic — in honor of Jacob Blake, a Black man killed by police in Kenosha, Wi. on Aug. 23.
”I was playing my matches and I saw what the NBA was doing, and then I saw what Lewis Hamilton [the Formula One world champion] was saying, and then I was thinking to myself, Wow, tennis really doesn’t do this at all,” she recalled, referring to the lack of tennis professionals or organizations taking a unified stance against these murders. “I started to think about how I could make an even bigger impact. So then I decided to take a day break.”
Tennis’s governing bodies then took her solo protest into account and halted play altogether. Days later, Osaka continued to use her position on the court to raise awareness for the killings of Black Americans as she arrived to the U.S. Open with a collection of face masks, each featuring the name of a victims.
She even credited her activism for the championship title that she walked away with.
”I was just thinking that I had this opportunity to raise awareness,” she said. “Tennis is watched all around the world, so people who might not know these names can Google them and learn their stories. That was a big motivator for me, and I think it helped me win the tournament.”
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