Naomi Osaka teaches us women are not rocks: when you strike us, we bleed

Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka
Image: Reuters

Professional tennis player Naomi Osaka has a Japanese father and a Haitian mother.

The 23-year-old four-time Grand Slam singles champion is ranked No 2 by the Women’s Tennis Association.

A week ago, she pulled out of the French Open after refusing to do a mandatory media interview.

The interview was supposed to take place after her first round win in the competition on Sunday.

Before the event, she had indicated she would not do interviews as she wanted to preserve her mental health.

The organisers duly threatened censure to Osaka.

Her non-compliance landed her a R210,000 fine and she responded by withdrawing from the tournament.

Osaka has been battling mental health problems. She has admitted to battling with long bouts of depression since the 2018 US Open tournament, which she won.

Osaka’s mental health struggle is so intense that she wears headphones at tournaments to act as a buffer from her social anxiety issues. And it is easy to understand why.

Take for example the 2018 US Tournament finals where she played against the brilliant Serena Williams.

During the match, Williams had an argument with the umpire whom she accused of making a wrong call.

Osaka won that match but at the prize-giving ceremony afterwards, she was heckled and booed by Williams’s fans — a devastating moment that played itself out in front of millions of viewers across the world.

But abuse on the field is not the only thing Osaka has had to endure.

She has spoken publicly about the racism and marginalisation that she has experienced in Japan — the country that she competes for.

In a 2020 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Osaka spoke about microaggressions that she experiences in Japanese society, of her childhood experiences of having Japanese opponents refer to her as “that black girl” and of constantly being probed about whether she is really Japanese.

So, Osaka, brilliant as she is, must navigate a racist and heteronormative patriarchal world in which she is discriminated against on the basis of her race and her gender.

How then would someone with so heavy a burden to carry not have battles with mental health problems?

Those who believe that her decision to withdraw from the French Open was the result of “entitlement” have no appreciation of the depths of mental illness that plague women like Osaka — women who are expected to be brilliant and who carry this burden on behalf of an entire gender and race.

They also do not appreciate that she is only 23-years-old, hardly an age for someone to have developed the “thick skin” that they are demanding from her.

These are people who likely label those with mental health problems as “attention seekers”, trivialising the seriousness of the issue, and in the process, hurling people at the margins.

Is it any surprise then that the rates of suicide in our society are on the increase?

Osaka represents many black women in the world — women like our mothers who were beaten to within an inch of their lives by the system and still expected to continue with the motions of being alive.

Women like us who are expected to be brilliant and strong in the face of institutionalised racism, sexism and inequalities — who must be extraordinary in the workplace and come home to be exceptional wives.

Black women are never afforded the chance to be young or to be hurt.

We must always be strong.

Pain is our baptism and eternal strength our punishment.

But we are not rocks, when you strike us we bleed.

I am thankful to Osaka for the important lesson she is teaching us: that if it costs you your mental health, the price is too high.

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