National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month

Naomi Osaka’s ‘No’ Is Our Summer Master Class in Self-Care

Choosing yourself is revolutionary

Photo: WTA/Jimmie48

First and foremost, Naomi Osaka is an amazing athlete. She is a four-time Grand Slam champion. However, as a Haitian-Japanese woman, Osaka has faced tremendous pressure on and off the court. After using her platform to speak against racial injustices, the backlash came swiftly. When athletes faced harsh critiques for branching out beyond the realm of sports, Osaka stood firm in her conviction. Some of her motivation comes from activist athletes like Muhammad Ali. Last fall, at the U.S. Open Tennis Championship, Osaka wore a Black face mask with white letters reading Tamir Rice.

“Before I am an athlete, I am a black woman. And as a black woman I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis,” Osaka wrote in a statement posted to Twitter in both English and Japanese.

And now, here we are in National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, and Osaka, 23, did something revolutionary — she said “no.” Osaka withdrew from the French Open after refusing to attend mandated press conferences. Sports journalists often ask athletes tough questions, particularly when they lose. Most fans have all seen some of these uncomfortable encounters.

According to The Ringer, “It was also clear Osaka didn’t love the questions reporters asked players after they lost.” As a result, Osaka will have to pay $140,000 in fines, according to Insider. Since then, relaxation app Calm has offered to pay these fines. It says it will also support other players opting out of the 2021 Grand Slam media interviews for mental health reasons.

According to Morning Brew, “Brands want to be seen as taking mental health concerns seriously, and Osaka gives them an opportunity to rally around the cause.”

When it comes to facing the ire of the media, Osaka is not alone. Some members of popular media once caricatured Serena Williams’ public image, claiming she was “raging” at the U.S. Open. This personification fit into a dangerous trope about Black women. While Williams says media scrutiny made her stronger, athletes should not have to endure prejudicial treatment to play sports.

While everyone handles the occasional bout of sadness or discomfort, few women bench themselves the way Osaka did. According to John Hopkins Medicine, far too many African American women try to handle anxiety and depression independently. Knowing your limits is crucial to maintaining good mental health.

Everyone has good days and bad days. But when celebrities have bad days, there’s often no place to hide. A few months ago, Meghan Markle gave a candid interview to Oprah in which she confessed to feeling suicidal. But, when she tried to get help, some royal family members ignored her mental health problems. Likewise, Piers Morgan and other critics disregarded her concerns, dragging her name through the British press.

While it’s fair to say paparazzi make a career of chasing all celebrities to the ends of the Earth, Black women face extra scrutiny by some unscrupulous commentators. Misogynoir sits at board meetings, press conferences, and on social media feeds. Too often, society expects Black women to do anything to stay in high profile roles, even when it means jeopardizing their mental health. But not Osaka. Her “no” resonated through the midnight summer air, traveling from coast to coast. Her audacity is infectious.

CNN Money recently said the 9-to-5 workday “is choking women’s progress.” There is a thin line between putting in a hard day’s work and overworking yourself. Women need time for themselves. Choosing yourself is a revolutionary skill. Not only should women embrace their boundaries, but they should also celebrate them. “No” is more than a word; it’s a lifestyle.

To maintain a healthy mind, consider how social obligations impact your ability to find joy. Of course, some of us are very new to drawing our own line in the sand. But there’s no need to worry, at least about our inexperience. Osaka’s “no” is our summer master class for self-care.

Do you remember senior skip day at your school? If you are unfamiliar with the tradition, this day allows seniors one day to skip school without consequences. Teachers will not tell, and parents will not interfere. On March 6, many students celebrated senior skip day and gave themselves a day off. While this may sound like bad behavior, it is actually training for self-care.

Sometimes, even when the obligations are of the utmost importance, you have to take a step back and relax. Learning to say “no” may sound simple. But there is no shame in taking your time to work up to a full-blown “no.” Maybe you can start with “not right now,” but by the end of the summer, you should be a pro at saying “no.”

Osaka explained her situation: “We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.”

Black women should not feel pressured to participate in scenarios that neglect their health. Apparently, many fans, businesses, and other celebrities agree. For example, Nike put out a statement saying, “Our thoughts are with Naomi. We support her and recognize her courage in sharing her own mental health experience.” Likewise, Will Smith sent a heartwarming message of support. After years in the spotlight, he knows firsthand how relentless celebrity life can become, especially when you are Black.

“You are right. They are wrong! I am with you,” Smith wrote. His encouragement is part of the growing support after Osaka’s media blackout. Since coming forward, sponsors are sticking with the tennis prodigy.

Osaka’s master class is as beautiful as it is simple. For centuries, the “lazy Black” person trope has coerced many Black people into working themselves nonstop. But, this dehumanizing pace has not led to progress. Black women embracing self-care is revolutionary; it means they refuse to perform for the White gaze.

Minority mental health care awareness month is supposed to bring attention to barriers to care. Osaka used her voice, once again, to bring attention to an issue harming many communities. Dealing with the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 and the public instances of police brutality has left many Black women feeling overwhelmed and undersupported. Ending mental health care stigmas won’t be easy. However, Osaka’s candidness about her boundaries is a step in the right direction.

Osaka did one of the most revolutionary things a woman can do — she chose herself. In a world that seems to demand more and more personally and professionally, it’s not easy to pull away. However, Osaka shows us that support and love can be waiting on the other side of “no.”

Essayist, Poet, Activist, and Scholar, EIC of CULTURED, Founder of #WEOC, with bylines at Momentum & ZORA ♥︎

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