Naomi Osaka is working hard to normalize being an unapologetic Black woman, and I’m here for it
By: Takirra Winfield Dixon/Salon
I am Black and alive, and that’s half the battle today. Seriously. I woke up. No cops shot me in my sleep or on the street. I didn’t get charged with a crime I didn’t commit. A white person didn’t tell me I didn’t live in my house and call the cops. I didn’t have a heart attack or stroke from high blood pressure, which runs on both sides of my family. I didn’t die from a health care system that fails Black women. I haven’t gotten COVID-19 (despite the myths people spread about protestors getting the virus), which we know is killing Black people at high rates. And though he tries every day in every way to make the lives of Black people impossible, the racist, vile president hasn’t killed me.
But that’s just today. Tomorrow is another story.
Naomi Osaka knows this, too. That’s why she made it a point to show up to the U.S. Open with her beautiful natural Black hair and with the wit and wisdom of her incredible unapolgetic Blackness. Naomi, just 22 years old, chose to take a risk on the world’s stage to protest the egregious murders of Black people and show up with seven masks for each of her matches with the names of Breonna Taylor, Elijiah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile, and Tamir Rice — with support from their families.
Because she is a Black woman, trust me, her career very well could have been on the line for speaking the truth: that as Black people, we are literally struggling to stay alive, hour by hour, each day at a time.
And she won. She won the game on the court, and she won in the game of life. Naomi Osaka is proof of what can happen when you show up as an unapologetic and authentic Black woman — and take a big risk along the way. And if the masks weren’t bold enough, in her post-game interview when asked what was the message she sought to convey, she very, very unapologetically asked, “What was the message you got?” My soul cheered upon hearing her reply so directly and emphatically. And in the time after her match, she exclaimed that her ancestors were with her and that she would not just shut up and be an athlete, because being vocal is the reason she won.
Naomi’s presence challenges us all to be better.
How can you not listen to her? Unapologetic Black women are here to stay through all the aggressions and attempts to marginalize and silence us, whether you like it or not, make space for us or not, And we are winning whether you like that or not, too.
It seems Naomi is also on a journey to true freedom. That made me feel that I am not alone right now. I made a choice recently, amid the national conversation on and protests for racial justice in this country, that I’m here to be in your face with all of my Black womanness. I have recently felt a merging of my identities, professionally and personally, that only my ancestors could have made possible. I am choosing to show up both at work and in personal spaces in a very unapologetic way, and I have decided that it is not just about me, but it is about all Black women taking back their power.
I know that every time I show up authentically I am taking a risk, and I have decided that I DO NOT CARE. I am on Zoom every day with my dope natural Black hair and my dope Black T-shirts. But mostly, I am here to remind you about the power of Black women and that we are knocking down walls and building new spaces, where we are truly ourselves and we are here to normalize our brilliance, our greatness and our beauty in every form that may take. It is time to be carefree with our Blackness because no one cares for us.
I am sure there are people who equate authenticity with “less than” or “classless.” I don’t know about you, but I choose not to subscribe to whiteness as my standard or to the respectability politics of other Black women who may also be incredible but are accustomed to conforming to what makes white people comfortable, thereby oppressing themselves. I don’t actually care what folks think and that has taken me years and a deep, supportive network of Black sisterhood and some Black men like my husband to keep me pushing.
And if I am being totally honest and real…It. Is. Not. Easy.
I recently sent a note to colleagues about the “Black woman tax” we are charged, like being asked to clean up problems at work including things that are not directly my job. I am often asked to appear on panel with the other “women of color” or to be the voice for all Black women in situations where men of color and white men and women feel uncomfortable or need some street credibility to perform inclusiveness. My decisions are sometimes questioned or compared to those of white counterparts in the same field and often people are baffled by my Blackness and how I can show up authentically in these spaces. The answer: I have decided that I don’t care about the threat of potential consequences that likely shouldn’t be imposed anyway. But I know that every time I make such a decision it carries with it the possibility that I could, through no fault of my own, see a door to new opportunities close.
As a proud Howard alum, I have been thinking a lot lately about the lessons that Chadwick Boseman left with us, specifically about the importance of finding your purpose and never, ever letting go. There is clarity in purpose and there is power in only saying yes to the things that move your spirit and your calling while saying a fierce no to the things that don’t. That no takes courage and a hell of a lot of risk. As Black women, every time we push a boundary or say no, we are absolutely risking it all because America is not built to respect that no, going all the way back to the unfair, racist and gendered tropes of Black women being made to clean up the messes of white folks.
Often we don’t have a choice because we have bills to pay, mouths to feed, a roof over our heads to maintain, and all the other very real reasons. But because Black women are not even allowed that choice due to societal circumstances and oppression out of our control, that in itself is part of the problem. I am fortunate to have a supportive boss who lets me lead and gives me the space and honors my voice to help everyone respect Black women’s dignity. That has not always been the case in other professional settings. I know that is not every situation. I am saying that it should be.
I am determined to make space for us by being my authentic and unapologetic self. I am saying that others need to normalize that and the burden should not be on us to be accepted or conform to white norms.
In this time of national reckoning with systemic racism, I have also had a self-reckoning: I have made the decision that my purpose is to push every boundary you lay in front of me so that you have no choice but to recognize and respect my Blackness and my identity as a Black woman. And if you don’t, I have given myself permission to leave that space. I am here to make you reckon with your whiteness, your privilege and your power.
I am on my own journey right now, wherever that takes me. As an activist and Black woman, I simply cannot ignore this calling. And I hope that more Black women will listen to their calling, too.
And in the end, we will all lay on that floor…finally free, whether you like it or not. Just like Naomi.
Takirra Winfield Dixon is a Baltimore native, activist and former Obama administration official.