A company that sponsors Naomi Osaka admitted that it whitewashed the half-Japanese, half-Haitian tennis star in a new ad that has since been discontinued. But the damage was apparently done after the cartoon portrayal of the 21-year-old became the latest incident where the issue of race threatened to overshadow top talent in tennis who happens to be Black.
News of the ad by Japanese noodle company Nissin came just as Osaka reached the women’s final for the Australian Open, the sport’s first Grand Slam event of the year. Osaka said Nissin apologized to her, but the tennis star during a post-match press conference appeared incredulous that it even happened.
“I’m tan, it’s pretty obvious,” Osaka said in part on Thursday from Australia.
However, Nissin failed to come across as contrite in a statement to Japan Times.
“We never had the intention to do what is known as ‘whitewashing,’ but with this becoming an issue, we will pay more attention to respect for diversity in our PR activities,” Daisuke Okabayashi, a spokesman for Nissin Foods, said.
In case there was any confusion, Osaka, who is listed as a Japanese national, has remained very proud of her Haitian heritage.
This incident wouldn’t be as newsworthy if the issue of race hadn’t been looming over professional tennis for decades.
An Australian paper came under fire in September for publishing a racist image of Serena Williams after the tennis icon lost the U.S. Open championship match to Osaka. The image featured an image of Osaka that was whitewashed, as well.
In April, Tony Nimmons, who was once the United States Tennis Association’s (USTA) only Black chair umpire, filed a discrimination lawsuit alleging that the USTA was racially biased in job promotions and retaliated against him for a previous complaint.
Venus and Serena Williams encountered racism in their rise to the top of the sport—and their battles continue. Just last year, tennis commentator Doug Adler compared Venus Williams’ movement on the court to a gorilla.
Serena Williams recalled the unfair criticism the sisters faced in the early years of professional tennis. The former world number one player was told to stay in her place. “I definitely was scrutinized because I was confident. I was Black and I was confident. And I am Black. I am confident. But I would say that I feel like I could be number one, ” she told People. “Why shouldn’t I say that? If I don’t think I’m gonna be the best, why do I play? … I believed that I was gonna be number one.”
African-American player Donald Young claimed in February of last year that a white player used a racial slur toward him during a heated match. His opponent, Ryan Harrison, denied the charge. Officials said they found no evidence to support Young’s claim.
In 2017, Romanian tennis legend Ilie Nastase, responding to news that Serena Williams was pregnant, said, “Let’s see what color it has. Chocolate with milk?” Serena Williams’ husband is white.
Osaka rose to tennis prominence last summer during the U.S. Open that she won. She was part of the second consecutive all-Black women’s final at the tennis tournament in New York City. She became a media darling after that victory and promptly secured a record-setting endorsement deal with Adidas.
With such a bright future on the court, it was unfortunate that this whitewashing episode was getting more attention than Osaka’s skills on the court.