Naomi Osaka Uses Seven Masks To Deliver One Message: Black Lives Matter
Naomi Osaka took the stage at the U.S. Open with an undeniable message: Black Lives Matter. The 22 year-old professional tennis player wore customized masks, each with the name of a Black person who was wrongfully killed by police violence or American citizens. Osaka wore masks with the names of Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile, and Tamir Rice.
Photos: Naomi Osaka at U.S. Open matches (Naomi Osaka Twitter)
Osaka packed seven masks for the U.S. Open, one for each match she would play if she made it to the final. Not only did she make it to the final, she won the U.S. Open making it her second championship win in three years. When asked in her post-game interview with ESPN what message she was trying to send with the masks, she responded, “What’s the message you got, was more the question. I feel like the point is to make people start talking.”
And while people were talking, the conversation was not absent of naysayers. But Osaka had a message for them: they became her source of inspiration to win. She refuted the tired argument of keeping politics out of sports saying that her actions weren’t political at all. This echoed a previous sentiment Osaka had shared shortly after the death of George Floyd. “I hate when random people say athletes shouldn’t get involved with politics and just entertain. Firstly, this is a human rights issue. Secondly, what gives you more right to speak than me? By that logic if you work at IKEA you are only allowed to talk about the ‘GRÖNLID?’ ” she tweeted back in June.
This isn’t the first time the young tennis star has been seen fighting against anti-Black racism. After seeing the horrific video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck as he pleaded for his life, Osaka felt a call to action. In a piece for Esquire magazine, she shared how she and her boyfriend, rapper Cordae, flew to Minneapolis to take part in peaceful protests and pay their respects. Back in LA, Osaka signed petitions, protested, and donated like so many of us were doing. She kept looking for more ways to contribute to making this world a better place. It was then that she decided it was time to speak up about systematic racism and police brutality. “Black people have been fighting this oppression alone for so many years and progress has been fleeting at best. Being ‘not racist’ is not enough. We have to be anti-racist,” she wrote.
Osaka, born in Osaka, Japan to a Haitian father and Japanese mother, also spoke about fighting racism in her personal life. “Japan is a very homogeneous country, so tackling racism has been challenging for me. I have received racist comments online and even on TV. But that’s the minority,” she wrote. Osaka expressed her belief that biracial people, and athletes in particular, are the future of Japan. Indeed Japan also saw Black Lives Matter marches, something many including Osaka would never have expected. Nevertheless, she is proud of the “small part I have played in changing perceptions and opinions. I love the thought of a biracial girl in a classroom in Japan glowing with pride when I win a Grand Slam.”
However, Osaka’s role may be bigger than she perceived. In a video, the mother of Trayvon Martin, Sybrina Fulton, and the father of Ahmaud Arbery, Marcus Arbery, expressed their gratitude to Osaka for representing their children and supporting their families. “We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Continue to do well, continue to kick butt at the U.S. Open,” Fulton said. Their reactions meant a lot to Osaka who noted how strong the parents were. “I feel like I’m a vessel at this point in order to spread awareness and it’s not gonna dull the pain but hopefully, you know, I can help with anything that they need,” she said in an interview with ESPN.
Last month, on the same day, NBA and WNBA players decided that they would not play after the shooting of Jacob Blake. Osaka also followed suit announcing that she would not play the next day in the Western and Southern Open semifinals. Osaka in protest was ready to cede the match, but the tournament pushed back its schedule by a day. She came to the court that day donning a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. “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,” her statement read. “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.”
Osaka has already made her mark as a minority woman, becoming the highest-earning female athlete in history in 2019 earning $37.4 million dollars. She is also the first Asian player, male or female to be ranked No. 1 and the only Japanese player ever to win a Grand Slam, or anyone with a parent from Haiti for that matter. Her achievements and her activism speak for themselves. Osaka is proud of her heritage and identity and demonstrates the power of using your sphere of influence to defend the value of human life. Let us all continue to #SayTheirNames.