Naomi Osaka’s radical act of self-care showed exactly what the world thinks of Black women

·6-min read
<p>French Open Osaka Tennis</p> (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

French Open Osaka Tennis

(Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

In 1988, Audre Lorde, a Black lesbian poet and activist, wrote of how her fight against the cancer ravaging her body and the political system that also sought to kill her were intertwined. In her essay “A Burst of Light,” she wrote: “Caring for myself is not an act of self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

When 23-year-old tennis champion Naomi Osaka declined to speak to the media for the 2021 French Open, I’m sure she didn’t set out to perform an act of political warfare. When it comes to self-care, most of us Black women never do. We simply want to survive. But it is the pushback from the world that turns it into a battle, as we soon saw through the world’s reaction to Osaka. That reaction made Lorde’s revolutionary words about self-care even more urgent and relevant.

“I believe that the whole situation is kicking a person while they're down and I don't understand the reasoning behind it,” Osaka tweeted, regarding how doing multiple interviews — especially after an athlete has lost a match — can take its toll. “I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.”

In an ideal world, Osaka’s boundaries would have been respected and the issue would have ended there. But that world doesn’t exist, or else she wouldn’t have had to make the statement in the first place. Instead of care and respect, she was fined $15,000 when she didn’t show up to a press conference, and then threatened with suspension from the Grand Slam Tournaments.

Instead of acquiescing to their demands, Osaka withdrew from the tournament and expressed that she might take a break from tennis altogether. In this, she performed a radical act of self-care, risking her career and legacy in favor of her survival.

In her statement, Osaka went deeper into the reasons why she declined to speak to the media. “The truth is I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” she said. “So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences. I announced it preemptively because I do feel like the rules are quite outdated in parts and I wanted to highlight that.”

It is shameful that she even had to make this disclosure, that her wishes weren’t sufficient, that she had to further bleed out her feelings so that she could be taken seriously.

This world constantly demands full access to Black women, insisting that we remain hypervisible and ultra-accessible, while also punishing us for exposing too much of ourselves, either by being too “arrogant” or being supposedly “unstable,” or whatever pejorative they want to assign to our disclosures of our experiences and feelings.

Osaka was expected to share her thoughts with the media after the tournament, but her public vulnerability about her mental health was criticized by some fellow (white) athletes, such as Billie Jean King and Novak Djokovic (richly hypocritical, as he was also fined for skipping media).

While Osaka is still experiencing a tidal wave of criticism, she’s also experiencing a rush of support. Serena Williams, another Black woman tennis player who has been subjected to intense racism and bodily scrutiny, had loving words to say to Osaka. “The only thing I feel is that I feel for Naomi. I feel like I wish I could give her a hug because I know what it’s like. Like I said, I’ve been in those positions,” Williams told the press at the French Open.

Nike — the sports apparel corporation that began sponsoring Osaka in 2019 — also supported the tennis player’s efforts to preserve her mental health. "Our thoughts are with Naomi. We support her and recognize her courage in sharing her own mental health experience," Nike said in a statement.

“I just know I must not surrender my body to others unless I completely understand and agree with what they think should be done to it,” Lorde wrote. “I know I can broaden the definition of winning to the point where I can’t lose.” In an industry where “winning” so often means stretching the body and spirit to unimaginable limits, Osaka’s decision to preserve her own is radical — especially as a Black woman, whose body is so often assumed to belong to all who seek to stake a claim onto it.

Self-care, for Black women, cannot be practiced in isolation. It requires what writer Najma Sharif — reflecting on Lorde’s writings — called a “chorus of consent.”

“For Black women, learning to consciously extend ourselves to each other and to call upon each other’s strengths is a life-saving strategy,” Lorde wrote. “In the best of circumstances surrounding our lives, it requires an enormous amount of mutual, consistent support for us to be emotionally able to look straight into the face of the powers aligned against us and still do our work with joy.”

So often, we are presented with versions of self-care that are materialistic and carry with them a false sense of moral and political superiority. In that context, face masks and pedicures become radical, and so does isolationism and toxic selfishness. Conversely, when self-care is practiced the way Lorde imagined it for Black women, it brings peace — but first it brings hostility.

The powers-that-be would like us to believe that self-care is actually the opposite of what Osaka did. That self-care would be her going along with the prescribed formula, winning every tournament and charming the press — a “win” for Black women everywhere. But self-care isn’t that simple, nor is it so politically convenient. “Inside and outside, change is not easy nor quick, and I find myself always on guard against what is oversimplified, or merely cosmetic,” Lorde wrote.

It is important that we not hold Osaka up as some kind of martyr, claiming that she is sacrificing herself to make the sports industry a more inclusive place. She is a young woman who was forced into a horrible position, and who made the choice to prioritize herself. Rather than lionize her, it is important that we stand with her, understand her, and work to incorporate what she has done into our own lives, if we can. Only then can change be achieved. To make her into a singular hero would be oversimplified and cosmetic. What is revolutionary is to see her as part of a movement so ferociously dedicated to our collective and individual survival that we will not be stopped, and we will not let anyone intrude upon our peace.

As Lorde wrote, “I am on the cusp of change, and the curve is shifting fast.” Osaka helped shift the curve. Let’s all follow that example.

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