Posted on September 16, 2020

Naomi Osaka’s Hair Reveals the Burdens Carried by Black Bodies in White Spaces

Robyn Autry, NBC News, September 12, 2020

Naomi Osaka’s hair doesn’t matter. At least not when it comes to her 120 mph serve, her daunting forehand or her powerful baseline play. But it does matter in terms of how she shows up in the tennis world and how she’s emerged as one of the most prominent athletes supporting the Black Lives Matter protests.

On Saturday, Osaka defeated Victoria Azarenka to claim her second U.S. Open singles title and third Grand Slam title.

Alongside her outstanding athleticism, though, Osaka has grabbed headlines this tournament by wearing masks emblazoned with the names of victims of racial violence: Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain. Black masks, white lettering. Her one-person protest feels even more powerful as she enters and exits the nearly empty stadium every match.

The masks draw our eyes up, but this is nothing new when it comes to Osaka. With her thick hair often pulled into a high ponytail and up through a visor, Osaka is accustomed to making a statement. It’s the sort of statement that Black bodies always make, whether intended or not, in predominately white spaces. {snip}

There are more Black female professional tennis players today than there were when sisters Serena and Venus Williams made their Gland Slam debuts in the late 1990s. But the way these women show up — how they present themselves and how their bodies get read by others — is no less a topic of conversation today, and, yes, as much a form of everyday resistance {snip}

Whether it’s colorful beads that clack or hair pieces attached at the back, Black women’s hair gets noticed especially by white onlookers. However, with more Black players on the courts and shifting public discourse about what’s appropriate to say about Black bodies {snip}

Black women with natural hair that has not been chemically straightened or relaxed can relate to the way Osaka talks about her curls, the way her hair reacts to humidity and its propensity for dryness. We can relate to her laughing at the unruliness of her hair as its best and worst quality. She watches YouTube tutorials and uses Miss Jessie’s styling products, just like so many other Black women with natural hair.

It’s this relatability that delights and should not be underestimated, especially given Osaka’s multiracial heritage. She was born in Japan, but grew up in the U.S.; her father is Haitian and her mother, Japanese; she relinquished her U.S. citizenship for Japan and plays under its flag but lives in Los Angeles and has been a vocal supporter of BLM. She emphatically describes herself as a Black woman, but also as multiracial. She has said she doesn’t quite feel American or Japanese or Haitian.


Osaka’s hair bouncing in a few different directions as she darts across the tennis court, sometimes with her curl pattern defined and other times in more of a frizzy cloud, attracts attention and resonates with audiences beyond the U.S. {snip}

Osaka and other BLM protests are shining a light on racism in Japan, inspiring discussions about what it means to be Japanese and about the lives of the country’s multiracial population. Some are now questioning why people with mixed heritage are referred to as “hafu” (or half), suggesting they’re somehow less Japanese than others. She’s widely regarded not just as a Japanese celebrity but as a role model for her talent and social activism.


It’s the fluffy curliness of Osaka’s hair that makes it stand out against that sharp white backdrop of the tennis world because it represents her agency, not just her body. {snip}