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...

Tuesday 7 July 2015

The budget, Sky News and the BBC

If you haven't yet seen the advert for Sky's coverage of today's budget, it's unspeakably awful. And not just on the level that it's as creepy as anything I've seen. But because it represents something outright dangerous.

The advert uses the music "I've been thinking about you", as it shows various people of different ages, ethnicities and genders, as they perform all kinds of tasks, from lollipop ladies to parents to factory workers to bankers to... etc. Except all of these people have George Osborne's face superimposed on top of their own.

So far, so terrifying. And don't get me wrong - the advert is terrifying. You kind of get the idea that it's exactly how George Osborne views the world, in an even-more-disturbing Being John Malkovich kind of way.

It then ends with the tagline "He's been thinking about you" and promises live coverage of the budget on Sky News. Obviously, when you see this, your first thought is of a malevolent kind of Santa Claus figure, who is drawing up a naughty and nice list, except everybody on it is naughty unless they're rich, and instead of coal, he just turns up in your bedroom at the stroke of midnight with an axe.

But it's not the strangeness of the advert, the ineptness of the advert, or the sheer hair-raising terror of the advert that's stuck with me. It's something far more insidious.

Look at how this positions the budget and Osborne himself.

"He's been thinking about you."

This is a thoughtful budget. A budget in which our chancellor has put himself into as many people's metaphorical shoes as possible. One in which he's thought about what each person and each job needs.

And this is a chancellor that is thinking about people of different ages, ethnicities and genders. A chancellor that's genuinely tried to understand each person and their struggles.

It positions it as a thoughtful, considered budget. And it also positions it, naturally, as the right budget. Because it's thoughtful. Because it's considered. And because good old George Osborne has worked long and hard to think about the implications for each person.

This is a news advert, and it promises all the hard journalistic challenge and insight of a slow, soft candle-lit massage.

It's attempted propaganda. It positions Osborne in a specific way, and it positions the budget in a specific way, before it's even been published.

And now let's remember Osborne, just this week, outright attacking the BBC, on the basis that it needs to have its budget cut considerably. Why? Because it's online capabilities means that it's in danger of monopolising the competitive space with newspaper websites.

Obviously, some of those newspapers are owned by Rupert Murdoch. In a similar way that Sky News is. And Murdoch has clear motive to want rid of the BBC.

So, in the same week that Osborne threatens the very existence of the BBC, Sky News puts out an advert for the budget that is more an advert for the thoughtful nature of George Osborne.

This, to me, shows why we need the BBC. Why we need an independent news broadcaster. Because as much as I've sometimes wished that the BBC would be more critical of the government, they've never quite been part of a circle-jerk like this while pretending that it's about independent coverage.

The news and the government should not be quite this chummy.

London Wanderings #8 - Boston wanderings and local pride

I was recently lucky enough to be sent to Boston for a few days with work. It was my first time in America, and I wanted to try to make the most of it. After a long flight and a hectic first day, it was tempting to crash in my hotel, and not go further than the restaurant.

Instead, I took a walk. I just picked a direction and started off for a while. This is something I like to do in a new city. At least once, don’t consult any maps or GPS, but rely on your own sense of direction to see what’s around.

I ended up in a bar – the Beantown Pub, which did good grilled cheese sandwiches and better beer. It was dark, but welcoming, with baseball on the TVs and a nice thick bar, where I sat reading for a while. After a little while, I got chatting to a woman there, and we talked about London and Boston for a while.

I’d been told by a few people when I first got there that Bostonians had a reputation for being… let’s say ‘brusque’. But in my time there, I found everybody I spoke to was pleasant, talkative and polite. As the woman I was speaking to explained it, “If you act like a dick, people will treat you like a dick. But if you’re nice to people, they’ll treat you really well”.

I tend to think it’s a similar story in London. I don’t think it’s that people are intrinsically rude – it’s that there are just more people. Someone close to me was worried about visiting London, due to the occasional seizures she had. “What would happen if I had a seizure on the underground?”

It’s an understandable concern. When you’re around that many people, it can be difficult sometimes to see the good. The unpleasant or uncaring people stand out more. The person who asked me about people on the underground was worried that she would be ignored, or stepped over, or pushed out of the way. As it happens, I’ve been on the tube when people have collapsed before. And every time, someone has helped out.

You get more arseholes in London. Definitely. But you get more of everyone. And you get more of the nice people too. The numbers are just bigger. And, again, if you act like a dick towards people, they’ll act like a dick right back. But if you treat people nicely…

My new friend back in the Boston bar also explained just how big a deal the Boston Marathon is. I mean, I’d heard of it, but I hadn’t realised just how big it was. The entire city stops for the day. It’s practically a holiday. It’s a source of immense pride. She told me about the time her brother ran it, with her eyes welling up with pride.

And she told me just how much the bomb at the Boston Marathon shook the city. How it took something right at the heart of the city and killed people, and made people afraid. And often, when people are afraid, they fall apart. Often when societies are afraid, they turn on each other.

But instead, in Boston, she described seeing people talking and taking care of each other everywhere. They were quiet, but they supported each other. They went to neighbours, or they stayed together at work, or they travelled together and they sat in bars together and took care of each other.

She said it made her proud to be from Boston.

Ten years ago today, bombs went off in London. I wasn’t here at the time – I was living up north for a short while, and working in a call centre in Tadcaster of all places (next door to the Sam Smith’s brewery).

I heard about the bombs through the television in the breakout area, and I watched, numbed for a moment. I contacted people who I knew, and checked in online to make sure my friends back in London were okay.

A colleague made comments to the others in the breakout area about it only being Londoners, and hoping they’d hurt a few of them, obviously in the hope of general laughter. But instead, everyone ignored them. Some of us were angry. But after some awkward and angry silence, she just left quietly.

Along with general human empathy, she misunderstood something about London. And something about Londoners (and I’m sorry to those who think otherwise, but I’m of the opinion that if you live here and you love the place, you count). And  it’s a similar thing to  the Boston pride.

We’re a busy city, and spend so much time looking at pavements and travelling in packed tube carriages, face-first in someone else’s armpit, that it can sometimes seem that empathy is in short supply in London.

But if you look online, you’ll read many people’s stories about how they came together with neighbours and colleagues and friends. In work and in pubs and in the streets and at home. You’ll hear about how they looked out for each other and how they came together. Just like they did other times they were attacked or made frightened, by bombs or riots or threats.

It’s something I love about cities like London and Boston, and one of the things that I generally love about people.

When you attack people, they come together and support each other and look out for each other and even love each other.

That’s what makes cities like this feel like home.

Love wins. Humanity wins. People win. Even in loss, even in fear and even in grief.