by Dahleen Glanton
Naomi Osaka is as much a Black Lives Matter activist as she is a tennis player. In these confrontational times, it is hard to be both.
Osaka abruptly withdrew from the French Open tournament this week, citing mental health concerns. Though she did not explain what is going on in her life, it would not be surprising if today’s tense racial climate contributed to her decision.
People of color have endured a great amount of stress the past year, particularly Black women. The pandemic alone, which disproportionately impacted African Americans, was enough to test our mental stamina but added on top of it was the George Floyd murder, the killing of Breonna Taylor and the constant cries for America to see us and hear us, often to no avail.
Though she made a career choice to represent Japan on the tennis courts, Osaka walks through life as a Black woman. Her mother is Japanese, and her father is Haitian. Though she embraces both cultures, she grew up in her Haitian grandmother’s home in New York, so she knows what it means to be Black.
Over the past year, Osaka has been very vocal about the social and criminal injustices that Black people face in America and in Japan, where she was born. She has lived all but three of her 23 years in this country, and she fully understands its issues. She has fearlessly used her unique public platform to call for change.
She withdrew from the Cincinnati Open in 2020 to raise awareness for the police shooting of Jacob Blake. At last year’s U.S. Open, she wore masks onto the court displaying the names Floyd, Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and other African Americans who were senselessly killed.
Shortly before withdrawing from the French Open, Osaka decided that talking to the media was simply too stressful. She’s extremely shy to begin with, and the added pressure of having to answer questions about her abilities as a tennis player seemed overwhelming.
So, she bowed out, and was fined $15,000 and threatened with suspension. That prompted her to take a break from tennis.
She was brave to put her personal well-being ahead of her job. She chose to take care of herself because no one in the industry was going to do it for her.
Osaka joins other high-profile Black women who recently decided to take care of themselves by letting go, at least temporarily. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms chose not to seek a second term. Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson is leaving her “dream job” at the end of this school term.
Brava for all of them. Other Black women should consider doing the same if they are feeling overwhelmed —and can afford it. But too often, we don’t. Black women generally don’t see stepping away from opportunities as an option.
The workplace has long presented unique challenges for Black women, who sometimes feel as though they are held to a higher standard than their white peers. Northwestern Medicine psychologist Inger Burnett-Zeigler calls it “impostor syndrome.”
“Black women, particularly in corporate environments, feel like they don’t belong, and it intensifies when people question their right to be in a place,” she said. “Despite evidence of success, achievement and credibility, there is still this nagging fear or worry of not being good enough.”
The No. 2 ranked Osaka has excelled in a sport that is overwhelmingly white, but signs of despair have long been there. After winning early matches at the 2018 Charleston Open, Osaka expressed doubts about herself to the media.
“I was able to win two matches, but I feel like that doesn’t really say I can play well on clay,” she said. “I’m just an OK player who was able to play OK.”
Being asked repetitive questions by the media exacerbates self-doubt, said Burnett-Zeigler. But many women feel it’s easier to suffer in silence than to walk away.
“Much of the backlash Osaka has received falls in line with the unspoken belief that women should just do what they have to do and put up with things that are harmful to them in order to pacify others, be agreeable and keep their ‘good jobs,’” said Burnett-Zeigler, who researches Black women’s mental health.
By deciding to step away, Osaka set clear boundaries for herself and prioritized her needs over the opinions and agendas of others, she said.
Most Black women don’t have Osaka’s fame and $55 million earnings, though. The average white woman earns 82 cents for every dollar earned by white men, but Black women earn only 66 cents, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Still, amid this socially stressful time, Black women can take this lesson from Osaka. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with looking out for No. 1.
Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.