An essay by Robyn Autry for NBC. Autry is chair of the Sociology Department at Wesleyan University
Naomi Osaka’s hair doesn’t impact her 120 mph serve or powerful baseline play. But it does impact how she is perceived in the bright, white tennis world.
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 will play in the U.S. Open women’s finals against Victoria Azarenka, who earned her bid by defeating Serena Williams. Both women will be looking to capture a third Grand Slam title.
Osaka has grabbed headlines this tournament by wearing masks emblazoned with the names of victims of racial violence.
Alongside her outstanding athleticism, though, Osaka has grabbed headlines this tournament by wearing masksemblazoned 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. As Claudia Rankine wrote about Serena Williams in “Citizen: An American Lyric” — referencing Zora Neale Hurston — Black players appear against the sharp white backdrop of the tennis world.
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 as it was when Venus Williams protested being penalized for losing hair beads while playing in 1999.
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, younger players are more likely to be interviewed about their beauty rituals and personal style. Osaka has been profiled in numerous magazines like Vogue and Elle, and on websites like Refinery29.
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.
This is not an unfamiliar situation for people with mixed heritage: President Barack Obama wrote about it in “Dreams From My Father.” Zadie Smith uses “speaking in tongues” to refer to multiracial people’s ability to tap into a variety of styles, tastes and habits that are racially coded. This can elicit distrust and charges of inauthenticity, especially in highly racialized societies like the U.S. but also more ethnically homogenous ones like Japan. But it can also create opportunities to expand our understanding of racial identity.
Black women with natural hair that has not been chemically straightened or relaxed can relate to the way Osaka talks about her curls.
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. Just as being Black and (not “or”) multiracial in the U.S. involves upturning racial thinking, being Black and Japanese challenges long-held beliefs about Japan as monoethnic.
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.
Just like her heritage, Osaka’s hair makes a statement in Japan as much as it does in the U.S. Last year, one of her sponsors, Nissin, the popular instant ramen noodle company, was called out for “whitewashing” Osaka in an illustrated anime-style ad by lightening both her skin and hair. The tennis star suggested they consult her before generating her likeness, especially as company representatives acknowledged, “We are not sensitive enough … to diversity issues.”
In an even worse incident, following Osaka’s dramatic upset of Serena Williams at the 2018 U.S. Open, an Australian newspaper published a cartoon that relied on gross exaggerations of both Williams’ and Osaka’s bodies, including their hair, with Osaka depicted as a slender white woman with a long blonde ponytail and Williams drawn using features associated with Jim Crow-era imagery.
But thinking about Osaka as Black and Japanese has also led to more productive conversations about gender, style and biraciality in Japan. YouTube features the experiences of Black people in Japan including their take on hair trends, beauty and colorism. Ariana Miyamoto also shined a light on these topics when she was crowned Miss Universe Japan in 2015 and has spoken out about both her darker skin and curly hair being mocked growing up.embed=embed&paywall=anonymous
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. She chooses not to straighten it or smooth it back as other Black athletes, like gymnast Gabby Douglas, are expected to do — only to be mercilessly criticized. We cannot help that we show up in the world with brown skin — that is not a choice — but we exercise agency as we style ourselves, even as we risk backlash and seek legislation to prohibit discrimination against natural hairstyling.
While hair may not seem like a big deal, it is. There have always been top tennis players with signature big hair, think Andre Agassi’s messy mullet hairpiece, but it reads differently on Black bodies, whether male or female. For women, the associations between particular hair textures and styles with femininity and attractiveness are especially loaded.
Osaka’s hair helps us make sense of what Multiracial Black looks like, at least some of the time. Other times, it looks like Osaka bowing to an opponent on the court. In another setting, it can look like senator and vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris wearing a Howard University hoodie or sprinkling Tamil words in a speech. To treat these as measures of whether someone is “Black enough” or “really Japanese” is to miss the opportunity to think of Blackness as a not-always-obvious, multiracial, global thing.