Naomi Osaka is the moment. From an eponymous Netflix documentary series and a sold-out Barbie doll to penning an op-ed in TIME Magazine about the importance of mental health and co-chairing this year’s upcoming Met Gala, Osaka redefines what the modern athlete can look and be like. At only 23 years old, she is the face of professional tennis and probably the biggest name in sports right now.
And yet, here we are: “How Japanese Is Naomi Osaka?” they ask. Article after article continues to pose this tone-deaf question and its many other variations. Mainstream media and journalists all around the world have publicly criticized and picked apart her identity, as if her identity is up for debate.
Hers is not a unique experience. It’s an everyday occurrence that multi-ethnic and mixed people face: an internal struggle and crisis of balancing various cultures that make up their identity. Osaka, a woman of Haitian and Japanese descent, has always been vocal about her pride and love for all parts of her identity.
But what makes Osaka’s experience unique is the press and attention she garners from being an elite athlete. Not only is she repeatedly asked to answer interview questions explicitly in Japanese, but the media uses selective (re: racist and/or sexist) language whenever she expresses any sort of emotion. She constantly has to fight to be enough for both of her cultures. But should she even have to? No. Would Osaka be treated differently if she was biracially Asian and white? Short answer: Yes.
Feeling unwelcome in both Black and Asian spaces, Osaka bears the brunt of the Asian and Asian American communities’ long history and cultural entanglements with colorism and anti-Blackness. One just has to look at the lineup of skin whitening products currently on the market to see how white standards of beauty are pushed upon Asian markets. Our culture’s ties to anti-Blackness rears itself in stigma and outright discrimination against interracial relationships — particularly in situations where our significant others are Black.
At the same time, Western society perceives Asian Americans as a monolith, essentially equating to East Asian ethnicities. Having someone with more melanin represent and take center stage like Osaka rightfully does, threatens the model minority design and assimilation into white culture.
The mental health toll of being a Black and Asian athlete
Racist stereotypes and limitations don’t allow BIPOC women to exist on a spectrum or find a space within the middle. Osaka can’t come across as mad or else she’s labeled as “The Angry Black Woman” — a label her veteran peer, Serena Williams, often experiences. On the other hand, if she were reserved or composed, people would then associate her demure nature with her Japanese heritage. In order for women of color to succeed, we have to be exponentially better and outdo everyone around us to be even as remotely successful as a mediocre white man. Society constantly reinforces the idea that we need to overcompensate for our cultures, but then punishes us for being “too much” or “not enough.”
On top of all of that, we add into the mixture the pressures that come along with being a professional athlete and Osaka’s current status as “The It Girl.” It’s one thing to have to experience these identity struggles and feelings of uncertainty in a private setting, but Osaka’s mental health journey has been broadcasted across social media for billions to see.
After Osaka made the decision to opt out of any post-match press conferences at the French Open this summer, citing how these situations were difficult for her, the tournament directors of all four Grand Slams, the biggest tournaments in tennis, decided to threaten her with continued fines and withdrawal, while simply wishing her the best with her mental health. Coming to no surprise, after that response, Osaka shared her decision to withdraw from the entire tournament in order to focus on her mental health.
No matter your ethnicity, no one should have to endure even a fraction of what she has had to deal with as a Black and Asian woman.
The importance and impact of Osaka’s activism on our communities
Mental health has long been stigmatized in the Asian and Asian American communities.
A common thread in this particular situation is how both in sports culture and Asian culture, keeping your head down — sometimes even to the point of suffering in silence — is very much the norm. Whether it be through long days in the gym or staying up into the very late hours studying, hustle culture has seeped its way into our mindsets as the only way to succeed.
And despite this immense pressure and scrutiny, Osaka has consistently used her platform to bring awareness to police brutality, Black Lives Matter, and other social issues within and outside the world of sports. In a time where athletes are (still) being attacked for kneeling during the national anthem or publicly talking about political issues, it’s naive to think that these athletes should just “stick to sports.”
With the landscape of collegiate and professional sports — industries worth hundreds of millions of dollars — being built on the backs and labor of underpaid Black athletes and people of color, it is long past time to ask: Do their lives only matter if they’re winning championships or gold medals? As much as white America may think that sports are a neutral playing field or an arena separate from our everyday lives, it’s ignorant to dismiss the systemic racism within the structure of sports.
What I hope to see from Osaka’s advocacy for restructuring how professional sports handle the demands of players is that governing sports bodies focus on prioritizing the mental well-being and stability of their athletes. This may even open up the conversation for topics surrounding mental health, like therapy and mental illness, in our own Asian and Asian American households. We talk about the necessity of representation in Hollywood, but sometimes glaze over the importance and power of athletes that look like us playing the sports we love. Athletic competitions are just an extension and compartmentalized version of what we experience daily.
By having a multiethnic, Black and Asian woman like Osaka dominating on the biggest stages and having vulnerable conversations about her mental limitations, Black, Asian, and multi-ethnic kids can see that it’s okay to not always have to be 100%. Young, dark-skinned Asian children can see that they are a part of the larger Asian and Asian American diaspora. The next generation of multiethnic people can know that there isn’t just one way to “look Asian,” and that they too matter.