On Monday, tennis champion Naomi Osaka announced that she was withdrawing from the French Open tournament in order to protect her mental health. Days prior, knowing she’d face fines, Naomi had announced that she would not be accepting any interviews during the tournament because of its detrimental impact on her mental health. She encouraged the World Tennis Association to find a better way to meet its press coverage needs than by subjecting players to brutal, heartbreaking, humiliating press conferences after each match. The Roland-Garros Tournament responded by not only fining the star athlete $15,000, but threatening to disqualify her from the tournament altogether if she continued to avoid press. With grace, Osaka exercised the power of refusal and dropped out of the tournament.
Over the years, Osaka has shown signs of and has explicitly admitted to struggling with depression and anxiety, much of which is escalated by press at tournaments and likely the impact of hypervisibility from being a famous athlete. She was seen crying after she won her match with her idol Serena Williams, who was then lambasted in the press for being a poor sport compared to Osaka; she admitted to being sad during a press interview in 2019 and she cried while answering questions. The world has watched this woman struggle and is still making unnecessary demands of her. While Venus and Serena Williams and many other Black athletes have publicly come to her defense after her withdrawal from the French Open, many white people in positions of power, like tennis legend Billie Jean King and noted bigot and misogynoirist Piers Morgan, believe Osaka should work at the expense of herself. But Osaka refused.
The spirit of refusal is the necessary beginning of strategy against capitalist exploitation.
The spirit of refusal is the necessary beginning of strategy against capitalist exploitation. This system doesn’t value our humanity, wellness, or relationships — only our productivity. Capitalism uses white supremacist ideologies of “professionalism” and respectability to keep workers in line and as productive as possible. Workers are often expected to suffer humiliation at the hands of colleagues and/or overseers under the guise of “professionalism.” What we have been socialized to understand as “professionalism” is oftentimes just domination and subjugation in our working relationships. Capitalism teaches that the professional thing to do is to refuse your own needs, agency, wellbeing, and personhood, when in reality, we have to refuse the way things are, refuse domination, and refuse capitalism.
I support Naomi Osaka, of course. Osaka’s act of refusal is a rejection of humiliation under the guise of professionalism. But, though her aim is to make tennis protocol more amenable for all players, this is an act of individualism from someone with enough wealth and social power to say no. This does not mean she is free of consequences or impact; we’ve seen the nasty headlines, the fines, and the dismissive responses from the Tournament. However, we must acknowledge her social and structural power that aids in her ability to practice refusal.
Again, refusal is necessary. But, refusal cannot be individualized. The support for Osaka is beautiful, however, we tend to let celebrities capture our attention the most. We show celebrities more grace and support than we would show the average low wage workers. Refusal must be collective. It is a practice we have to do in community with each other.
Refusal must be collective. It is a practice we have to do in community with each other.
Workers have been practicing refusal before and during this pandemic. Amazon warehouse workers, restaurant workers, education workers, factory workers, retail workers, nonprofit workers, contracted workers, and so many more are refusing exploitative, low wage, soul crushing jobs. Refusing to perform for the sake of pretentious customers and corporations. There’s been an increase in employees quitting jobs that do not offer remote work and the strikes that have taken place this year. There’s an increase in people quitting jobs that mistreated them and did not pay them enough to survive; these are all examples of refusal power.
In fact, Amazon continues to crush union efforts as their workers continue to refuse dehumanizing working conditions and low wages. I wish the outpour of support from these efforts was just as strong as the support for Naomi Osaka. I wish the refusal of the everyday worker inspired us the way so many of us have felt inspired by Osaka. We are all practicing — or should be practicing — some refusal for the sake of our material conditions and mental health. When this refusal power is organized and collective demands continue to be made, we can all win. The spirit of refusal should be anti-capitalist and it should also say “no one can profit off of me at my expense or the expense of others.”
June Jordan’s 1980 “A Poem About My Rights” so righteously articulates refusal. She says “I can't tell you who set things up like this but I can tell you that from now on my resistance, my simple and daily and nightly self-determination may very well cost you your life.” Hundreds of thousands of workers in America who could not refuse work during this pandemic died as a result. What would it mean if we saw ourselves in the simple, daily, and nightly moments of refusal? What would it mean if we didn't need to see ourselves or be inspired by celebrities when our community members are right in front of us? What would it mean to avenge those who died at the hands of exploitation and to stand in solidarity with those currently fighting?
Refusal isn’t beautiful in practice. Refusal is necessary.