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Naomi won’t be the last

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Naomi Osaka crashed out in the last 32 of the Madrid Open Michael Reaves GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP/File


“Naomi of House Osaka.
First of her name.
Tennis Treasure.
Savant of Singles.
Grand Slam Goddess.
Tycoon of Talent.
Spokeswoman of Self-care.
In a world that is constantly giving Black women hell, she refuses to sacrifice her well being for a sport that does not want to prioritise her humanity. I have no choice but to HAIL her, cuz this is courage under pressure and grace when they tried to disgrace her.”

These are the words of Luvvie Ajayi Jones in the aftermath of the fallout following Naomi Osaka’s French Open withdrawal. The tennis champion faced backlash for her decision against attending press conferences during the tournament due to her mental health. After being fined £10,574 and threatened with expulsion, as well as a future ban at other major events, the world No. 2 chose to step back completely.

Pop star P!nk also joined Luvvie in praising Osaka.

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“For whatever its worth-I’m proud of Naomi Osaka for putting her mental health, her well being above everything,” she posted. “If we don’t take care of our health, our wellness- well then who will,” the singer tweeted.

“What do we have if we don’t have our health? Don’t we know by now that success isn’t worth our life?”

“She’s (Naomi) an example I would show my children – “listen babies, you can work hard to master your craft, but you do it on your own terms, and screw anyone if they don’t get it,” P!nk added.

Always a vocal supporter of fellow sports people, Lewis Hamilton supported her with a post on Instagram: “Mental health is not a joke, this is real and serious,” he wrote. “This takes a lot of courage to do. Let’s all make sure Naomi knows she’s not alone.” Speaking before this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, praised her brave stance, condemned the organisers of the French Open for their treatment of the Japanese player:

“With Naomi’s scenario, she didn’t feel comfortable because of her own personal mental health, the backlash against her was ridiculous,” he said. “People were not taking into account that she is a human being. She was saying: ‘I am not well enough to do this right now.”

Yes, there’s been so much support for Naomi Osaka since the fallout, but there has been much criticism either; you don’t have to look too hard to see that most of the criticism that feels vicious and personal comes from pasty, pale white man who by virtue of their middle-class, middle aged and milky complexioned status consider themselves righteous paragons of wisdom and purveyors of expertise on most matters.

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Interestingly, these white men are often more vitriolic (Here’s looking at you, Piers Morgan) in their attacks on women of colour – from Naomi Osaka to Meghan Markle. It is frightening to see just how breezily such men dismiss mental health concerns raised by a woman of colour. It was only a few weeks ago mainly white middle-aged men cried wolf at Meghan when she discussed her frail mental health during the time she served as a member of the Royal Family with Oprah Winfrey. Yet, these are the same men who would show the compassion of the loving father or brother if it had been the Duchess of Cambridge who discussed her frail mental health.

True to form, Piers Morgan branded Naomi Osaka ‘petulant’ for refusing to do press interview in a bid to protect her mental wellbeing. The same Piers who stormed out of a live TV show after he was taken to task by a colleague over his unhealthy obsession with Meghan Markle.

Then of course there is the layer of sports as an entertainment, and black people, not just women, as sports people.

A joke has been doing the rounds since American footballer Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protest by taking the knee during the national anthem began in 2016:

White people: “Black people should protest peacefully.”
*Black person sits peacefully during the national anthem.*

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White people: “Not like that.”
During the 2020 U.S. Open, Osaka wore seven different facemasks for each round of the annual tournament. Each mask named a Black person whose death has been repeatedly cited in nationwide protests about racial injustice. What happened to those who at the time criticised her political move and told her “shut up and play”?

The 2021 take on the Kaepernick joke is:
Black sportsperson speaks up against racial injustice and violence aganst black people.
White people: “Shut up and play.”
Black sportsperson shuts up and plays.
White people: “Not like that.”

Naomi Osaka is the latest name in a long chain of black athletes criticised for speaking up about things that truly matter and black women derided for looking after their mental health. At the rate the world is still governed by middle-class, middle-aged, milky complexioned mediocre white men, she probably won’t be the last either.

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