Stop Erasing Naomi Osaka’s Blackness

Stop Erasing Naomi Osaka’s BlacknessStop Erasing Naomi Osaka’s Blackness
Elliot Sang
January 28, 2019
Biraciality makes people uncomfortable. In society, we communicate narrow ideas of racial identity, as if identity can fit into distinct, narrow pockets. Biracial public figures like Naomi Osaka prove it cannot. Osaka is a tennis star who represents Japan in competition; she is Japanese and American with dual citizenship; she is ethnically Haitian and Japanese.
Monoracial Asian nations, like Japan, often respond to mixed-race people with hesitation at best and out-and-out bigotry at most. The fact that a Japanese star, featured in Japanese ads and winning sporting awards for Japan, is not only mixed-race but Black, shows an important amount of progress in Asian race relations. So there is something empowering about merely calling Naomi Osaka Japanese, whether it be in headlines or advertisements. And it’s a correct assertion: she is Japanese. Her biraciality does not make her less so.
But we must also seek to empower her and respect her as a Black woman, singularly. Just as her Blackness does not make her less Japanese, her Japanese-ness does not make her less Black. We as Asians can borrow her for a story, but we can’t claim her for a narrative. And we cannot afford to gloss over her identity as a Black woman, which includes significant aspects of her physical appearance, in this day and age.
Case in point: a Nissin advertisement featuring anime-style depictions of Osaka and men’s tennis star Kei Nishikori received major backlash after depicting the former as, essentially, a White-Japanese woman. It’s no wonder many people responded to the ad by saying it looks nothing like her. Without the physical features she’s inherited from her Haitian ancestry, you are essentially depicting an entirely different woman.
As Osaka becomes the number one women’s tennis player in the world following her Australian Open win, depictions like these ring ominous. It’s no wonder media scrutiny has manifested in tweets like these:
But as well-intentioned and understandable as this tweet is, it does open up some issues. For one, the Time piece in question does not erase Osaka’s Haitian identity; it is included as part of the story. This response is pointed toward the AJ+ tweet, which says she is “the first Japanese woman to win a Grand Slam.” The tweeter is asserting that AJ+ should have/could have changed this to “the first Japanese-Haitian woman to win a Grand Slam.” But that change would be uniquely problematic.
Part of the reason biracial people struggle to be accepted is in the constant necessity to note their biraciality. Osaka is the first Japanese woman to win a Grand Slam; there’s a strength in that statement. It’s saying she is Japanese, and that in itself has power to it. The accomplishment does not count less because Osaka is Black, and Osaka is no less Japanese because of her Blackness.
I love and relate to Naomi Osaka as a fellow biracial Asian. I am Chinese and Dominican: both of those things. Yet I squint and squirm when I’m only referred to as one or the other: “Well, I’m not quite Chinese, am I?” Identifying as both often feels like identifying as neither. (It can also mean identifying as either: but we’ll talk about transraciality another day.) Growing up biracial means quickly learning that the language we have for these identities is insufficient.
The unfortunate part is, if we only mention her Japanese identity in this, we are downplaying the remarkable reality that in all the years of professional tennis competitions, and of all the female Japanese tennis players, Naomi Osaka — a Black woman — is the first to win a Grand Slam for Japan. We are downplaying how important it is that an Asian society which often shuns mixed-race people now has a new mixed-race hero to look up to.
This, however, does not excuse erasure of her blackness. Why would Nissin create an advertisement depicting a White Naomi Osaka? Japan has a troubling history of racial bias against Black people, as evidenced by the reaction to fellow biracial athlete Ariana Miyamoto. Monoracial states historically have looked down upon its mixed-race members. Nissin, consciously or not, tried to get away with whitewashing Osaka. They presented what many might consider a more traditional-looking Japanese anime character on screen. It looked nothing like Naomi.
Then, tie that into the troubled nature of whitewashing and anti-blackness in American media, and you begin to see why many Black people online are disdainful towards headlines of a Japanese Naomi Osaka. What about her blackness? Why exclude an equally important part of her heritage? And why is she only depicted as either Japanese or mixed-race? Why do we, in telling her story, neglect to tell her story as a Black woman? Why do we forget to examine her Haitian roots and her connection to that culture, or the struggle for acceptance that Black Asians like Naomi face in Asian communities?
Growing up biracial teaches you about “claiming:” which of your racial groups do people identify you as the most? Which one is calling you one of their own? And when they do, are they taking something away from you? Are they trying to make you easier to understand? Easier to digest? Easier to accept?
My personal experiences help inform my discussions surrounding Naomi Osaka. As a person who is both Chinese and Dominican, what would it mean to me to be told I am the “first Chinese” or the “first Dominican” person to do something? What would it mean to me to feel like a community which is technically only part of me to accept me as a whole? At the same time, what would it mean to me if receiving that acceptance meant watching that community shed a part of me that is important to my identity?
Our love for Naomi Osaka is necessary; she is one of our own. But she’s not one of our own despite her blackness. She is Asian and she is black, and those things do not contradict.
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