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French Open Tennis. Roland-Garros 2021.

Source: Tim Clayton – Corbis / Getty

The sports world has been abuzz with a Black woman exercising some agency in her career. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Any time a Black woman decides not to follow the rules, do as she’s told or make a decision that’s best for her, there will be fall out.

Over the weekend, we reported that tennis player Naomi Osaka announced that for the sake of her mental health, she would not be participating in the interviews after her matches during the French Open.

She shared that she had no interest in speaking to people who may cast doubt in her mind or cause her to analyze a painful loss. Osaka claimed it was not good for her mental health. And for the most part, people supported her decision. But when she did exactly what she said she would, the Roland-Garros fined Osaka $15,000.

We all know fines are meant to influence behavior in one way or another. And while I’m sure Osaka has the money to pay all of the fines she might have incurred skipping interviews during this tournament, she decided to double down on her stance.

Instead of continuing to pay the fines every round, Osaka simply withdrew from the tournament altogether.

“Hey everyone, this isn’t a situation I ever imagined or intended when I posted a few days ago. I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris. I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer.

More importantly, I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly. The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that.

I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media…So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was best to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences. I announced it preemptively because I do feel like the rules are quite outdated in parts and I wanted to highlight that. I wrote privately to the tournament apologizing and saying that I would be more than happy to speak with them after the tournament as the Slams are intense.

I’m gonna take some time away from the court now, but when the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans…”

You can read her full statement below.

It was a beautiful thing. Not only did Naomi Osaka stand up for herself on the world stage, the French Open stands to lose far more by her decision to withdrawal than they would have gained from her interview or even the fines they may have collected from her refusal to engage with press.

Naomi just offered those of us who can listen and will listen a powerful example in self prioritization-at the expense of popular opinion, at the expense of displeasing others and even at the expense of one’s career.

Many of us are not rich enough to comfortably afford a $15,000 fine. We’re not rich enough to withdrawal from certain aspects of our jobs. And sadly, more often than not corporations prey on that fact.

We saw it in the mandatory discussions on race and racism, Black employees were forced to either lead or attend so that their companies could look like they cared. We saw it in the unnecessary mandates to turn video on during conference calls that likely should have been emails in the first place.

We see it in the request for work and availability after business hours, in the expectation that you perform tasks that were never in your job description with no mention of additional compensation. It’s present in the denial or assumption that your request for additional resources is unmerited.

And unlike Osaka, far too many of us can’t pay the fine. We can’t truly advocate for ourselves when that means walking away from gainful employment and the ability to support ourselves and our families.

What Black women around the world do have in common with Osaka is the fact that without us, many of our works spaces would not be as effective, as renowned or as lucrative without us.

I don’t know the solution. For most lower and middle class folks, capitalism is the albatross around our necks.

But hopefully, Naomi’s act of bravery, courage and self-advocacy will encourage all of us to look for the small ways we can resist and protect our peace in the midst of situations that mentally, emotionally and psychologically drain us.

Veronica Wells-Puoane is the culture editor at MadameNoire.com. She is the author of “Bettah Days” and You’ll Be All Write, a question and answer journal for Black women. She is also the creator of the website NoSugarNoCreamMag.

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