Monday 27 July 2015

Wrestling with Racism

I'm a wrestling fan. Have been since I was 12. Surprisingly, this isn't often a cool thing to admit, and right now, it's particularly not.

The recent revelations about the racist remarks by Hulk Hogan have shocked a lot of people. Myself included. While I wasn't the biggest Hulk Hogan fan in the world, I can't deny that I was something of a fan, as anyone who read this piece by me in 2012 after I saw him live at Wembley Arena will remember.

This isn't a photoshop. This is from 1986.
But while the explicit racism that Hogan came out with shocked me, the idea that wrestling has been racist for some time hasn't surprised me at all. By now, a number of news websites have run with some of the more racist gimmicks and storylines that have turned up in WWE over the years.

And there have been a lot of obvious ones. A black man becomes Kamala, the Ugandan Savage. A Samoan becomes Umaga, the Samoan Savage. Two black men become Cryme Tyme, a gangsta team.  Another black man becomes a voodoo high priest, before becoming a pimp, who walks down to the ring with his 'ho train'.

Yokozuna and Mr Fuji

And another Samoan becomes a Polynesian sumo wrestler, who comes down to the ring with a Japanese mananger who plays up to the evil stereotype, often attacking opponents behind the referee's back while the commentators complain about it being "like Pearl Harbour all over again".

This is without even noticing that the list of black WWE champions starts and ends with The Rock (who is African-Samoan). This is after a storyline where black wrestler Booker T was told by evil WWE champion  "Triple H" (standing for Hunter Hearst Helmsley) that "people like you don't get to be champion", before failing to win the championship at WWE's flagship event, proving that people like him really don't get to be champion.

The same Triple H, by the way, in 1998, along with his compatriots in the "D-Generation X" stable of wrestlers, blacked up to make fun of The Rock's stable, the "Nation of Domination", which was a spoof of the Nation of Islam. Triple H and D-Generation X were, by the way, the good guys. This is a scene that WWE proudly replay as one of their funniest ever moments, usually getting a black wrestler to talk about how funny it was. They did this in their recent "Monday Night Wars"
documentary series on their network.
Triple H, second from left, is now WWE's Chief Operations Officer, by the way.

All of this is awkward, to say the least. And, for the most part, in the past.

But there's an incident that was quite minor that stood out to me that happened earlier this year, which showed just how endemically racist WWE and wrestling continues to be.

A wrestler known as Bubba Ray Dudley was a member of a decades-long popular tag team called "The Dudley Boyz" along with his 'brother' D-Von. He's held pretty much the same gimmick since the 90s, with some minor changes along the way, but left WWE years ago. He and D-Von went to a rival company called TNA.

The bandana really doesn't help, does it?
Just quickly, there's a joke here that needs explaining. Bubba Ray and D-Von were brothers despite Bubba being white and D-Von being black. The origin of the team was that they were, along with the rest of the Dudley Clan, the children of "Big Dick" Dudley, who slept around a lot. The two of them had signature 'spots' that they came up with in the year 2000. Usually, they set up a thin table and put their opponent through it. They also have the "wassup" headbutt, where Bubba Ray holds the opponent's legs apart and D-Von screams 'Wassup!" before leaping off the top rope to headbutt the opponent's crotch. They still do the 'Wassup" despite the Budweiser campaign it's based on being over for a very long time.

While I don't think this is immediately relevant to D-Von's choice to do the move, the headbutt has a long and proud racist history in wrestling. You may not be aware that it's been scientifically proven that black people and Samoans have harder skulls than white people, because it obviously hasn't. But in wrestling, it used to be a hilarious spot in a match where a white wrestler would headbutt a black wrestler, but they'd be the ones that were hurt. While I'm not sure of the origin of this, I suspect it's probably got something to do with the long dominance of boxing by black athletes. It was mostly phased out for black wrestlers but remained a traditional spot for Samoan wrestlers until relatively recently.

R-Truth, looking exactly like D-Von Dudley
Now, one of WWE's biggest annual events is the Royal Rumble, a massive multi-man match where wrestlers enter the ring every two minutes, and get eliminated by being thrown over the top rope. They usually have a few cameos and nostalgic returns, to get the crowd to react. It's usually one of their most popular and fun events.

This year, they brought back Bubba Ray, to a large cheer from the crowd. Since D-Von wasn't in the match, the assumption was that the classic moves wouldn't happen. But they did. Because a wrestler called R-Truth was available to do the moves with.

Can you guess the only thing that R-Truth and D-Von have in common, other than strange initials in their name? Yeah. They're both black.

That's it. That's all there is. That was the thinking in putting R-Truth with Bubba Ray. They didn't have the black guy he normally does the moves with, so they just threw in another black guy, because he'd do.

At the same time, three wrestlers (Kofi Kingston, Big E and Xavier Woods) have been put together in a group with a kind of gospel-soul-self-help gimmick despite having nothing at all in common. Except that they're black.

The New Day. They have so much in common.
That's one of the biggest problems with wrestling. Black wrestlers are put together because they're black. Or they're treated as interchangeable. Everybody else gets characters. Gets defined by something else.

Black wrestlers still regularly get defined by being black.

Strange as it may seem, I'm still a wrestling fan. But I want them to acknowledge the problem. I want them to stop showing wrestlers blacking up as if it's hilarious and not awful. I want them to start treating black wrestlers as individuals and not either grouped or interchangeable.

This can be owned, acknowledged and moved on. But the longer wrestling, and WWE in particular, pretends it's not been an issue, the more of an issue it's going to turn out to be.

On a similar note, if this interested you, I wrote about homophobia in wrestling a while ago. I'll have to complete the trilogy at some point and talk about their attitudes towards women...

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