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Is Naomi Osaka at the centre of another nationality claim?

Tennis player Naomi Osaka beat 23-times Grand Slam winner Serena Williams in a 6-2, 6-4 win in the US Open. But the reporting of her victory has shone the spotlight on a worrying disregard for the black excellence that Osaka represents.



Naomi Osaka

The US Open has produced a new winner. Naomi Osaka is young, just 20 years of age, with excellent footwork. When asked what message she had for Serena, just after her semi-final victory, Osaka said shyly with a large grin, “I love you, Serena.”

However, Osaka’s win over Serena left her caught between an umpire who took the fairness out of the game and boos from the crowd. Osaka has also been caught at the centre of another issue: her nationality and origin. Just like the French team that won the 2018 Fifa World Cup in Russia, the question of the origin of the French players became the centre of focus between a continent (Africa) and a country (France). In a world of increasing multiculturalism and pluralism, where the insistence to be one thing and not another is still very much prevalent, identity has become a huge focus in sports, especially when it involves black players.

Tennis star Osaka was born in Japan. Her mother is Japanese. Her father is from Haiti. She grew up in America in a Haitian household with her grandmother. When asked by a reporter about her identity she said, “My dad is Haitian, so I grew up in a Haitian household in New York. I lived with my grandma. My mom is Japanese, and I grew up with the Japanese culture too.”

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Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka with her older sister, her mother and her father. Photo: Twitter/ Naomi Osaka

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While a lot has been said about Osaka being the first Japanese woman to win the Grand Slam, no reference has been made to Osaka being the first Haitian to win the Grand Slam. Hardly any headline refers to her as Haitian-Japanese. And according to the New York Times Magazine, the fact that Osaka represents Japan in the Tennis Federation tournaments is a decision that was made by her father.

The deliberate omission of the black heritage and origin of black players who make it into the limelight in sports or other professions is part of the continued narrative that people from developing countries have to suffer. It is equally an erasure of anything spectacular coming from a developing country. It is therefore not surprising that while Osaka might have genuine ties to Haiti, to Western media she is Japanese-American. Despite the colour of her skin and her height, which is not typically Japanese, the Haitian side of her identity is being ignored deliberately. It seems that to share and celebrate the excellence that emerges from a developing country is still a taboo, whether in football, tennis or beyond.