Naomi Osaka: Un-Masking Systemic Racism


Artwork by Emily Hsu

Varsha Bhargava '23


Naomi Osaka is taking a not-so-subtle stand against racial injustice in America and the onslaught of African-American murders throughout the country.


The twenty-two year old, former World No. 1 in Women’s tennis, has been an outspoken figure during this time of crisis throughout the world. Osaka describes herself as being a “vessel” for the victims of racial injustice and their families, emphasizing how she works to use her large platform to spread awareness and make a difference for them.


The US Open Tournament was one of those occasions where she had the opportunity to use her platform. During her seven match run at the US Open Tournament, Osaka prominently bore seven different masks. Each mask read the name of one out of the many victims of systemic racism in America.


Breonna Taylor– On August 31, 2020, Osaka secured her first victory of the US Open, while boldly bearing Breonna Taylor’s name on her mask. Breonna Taylor is a symbolic face in the fight for racial reform. The twenty-six year old ER technician was shot to death in her sleep by armed police officers, because of her boyfriend’s alleged suspicious activity. Her killers were not prosecuted for the murder, instead one officer was convicted for firing into Taylor’s apartment. Although Taylor’s murderers have not been brought to justice for their crimes, protesters continue to fight for her and all other victims of racially charged violence.


Similarly, Osaka fought to win her highly anticipated first round match, and triumphed over her opponent, Misaki Doi. 


Elijah McClain– Day Two: September 2, 2020: Osaka distinctly displayed Elijah McClain’s name across her face mask. McClain was left brain dead after an encounter with police officers, in which he was placed in a carotid hold and afterwards, supplied with a heavy dose of anesthetic. His killers were not immediately fired, which led to thousands of people instating a petition to change this outcome. Although the killers were not prosecuted in the end, reforms were made to the laws governing these situations. McClain’s unfortunate death also led to more awareness of the issue of racism in the police force.


Osaka went on to defeat Camila Giorgi in her second match of the competition.


Ahmaud Arbery– For her next match, on September 4, 2020, Osaka wore a mask that honored Ahmaud Arbery. Arbery was chased down and shot by a father and son duo while he was jogging. Months after the incident, his killers were ultimately arrested.


After a long two hours and thirty-three minutes of playing, Osaka emerged victorious against Marta Kosyuk.


Arbery’s family reached out to Osaka after her match, expressing their gratitude for her recognition of Ahmaud. As seen through Osaka’s tweets, Arbery’s family drew an emotional reaction from the normally tough-as-nails athlete.


Trayvon Martin– On September 6, 2020, Osaka marched onto the court, wearing Travyon Martin’s name across her mask. Martin was merely 17 years old when he was shot for looking “suspicious” while walking down the street. Martin’s death was especially impactful for Osaka and her journey in advocating for racial reform. In a tweet, she illustrates her memory of how, as a child, learning about Martin’s death made her afraid, but it also opened her eyes to the racial injustice in the world.


While displaying Martin’s name across her face, and keeping her end goal in mind, Osaka won her match against Anett Kontaveit.


George Floyd– September 8, 2020: Osaka’s mask could be read from afar, as she stepped onto the court, the name “George Floyd” passing by everyone’s eyes. George Floyd’s name carries a lot of weight in America, as his murder was a large factor in the uprise of protests for racial justice. A cop murdered Floyd by suffocating him to death, because of an alleged counterfeit $20 bill. The murder was caught on camera and citizens were outraged; protests were established, and the call for reform was launched.


Osaka’s determination reigned high as she won her match against Shelby Rogers and got ready to take on her next opponent.


Philando Castile– On September 10, 2020, Osaka walked onto the court with the name “Philando Castile” shining on her mask. Castile’s death started out with a broken taillight. He was pulled over by an officer for the fault. He addressed the officer politely, then proceeded to pull out his ID from his back pocket. The officer, believing that Castile aimed to retrieve his gun, drew his own gun and shot Castile multiple times. These injuries eventually lead to Castile’s death. 


Still working towards her ultimate victory, Osaka stepped onto the court with the intention of beating her opponent, Jennifer Brady; and she did just that.


Tamir Rice– September 18, 2020: Bold white lettering stood out from the black background of Osaka’s mask, spelling out the name “Tamir Rice”. Tamir Rice was a twelve-year-old boy holding a toy pellet gun. The cops were called on him. He was shot within two seconds of them arriving. Rice was murdered in 2014. His murderer was fired in 2017, for unrelated reasons. Rice’s story was cut short, for no reason and with little resolution. Racial activists, like Osaka, work to ensure that they are making a difference. They ensure that their messages reach and leave an impression on people, so Rice’s story does not have another sequel.


This was Osaka’s final match and final message, both would live long in the minds of the audience. She beat her opponent, Victoria Azarenka, (1-6, 6-3, 6-3), and claimed her victory in the tournament; taking home not only the US Open Cup, but also the satisfaction of making a difference.


During the tournament, an interviewer inquired about Osaka’s opinion regarding the message behind her masks, and she cooly answered, “Well, what was the message that you got is more the question”. She then elaborated on her personal intentions, saying, “I feel like the point [was] to make people start talking”. And she did.


Osaka not only won the US Open Tournament, but she also won the attention of the American audience.


Seven masks. One message.


Her mouth may have been covered, but her message for change shouted loud.