The WWE kicked off 2018 and their ‘Road to Wrestlemania’ in surprisingly progressive fashion, as their annual Royal Rumble battle royale was won by newcomer Shinsuke Nakamura, a slender, charismatic Japanese martial artist, with mannerisms more akin to Freddie Mercury than Hulk Hogan.
With the winner guaranteed to fight for a main title at Wrestlemania, the company’s showpiece event of the year, this win seemed to signal a sea change in the landscape of the WWE, with many pointing to Nakamura’s landmark win as signalling a more progressive future for the company.
However, whilst WWE has certainly taken steps to shed its often sleazy image, and embrace the diversity of its audience, the company is still haunted by its history of playing on deeply held prejudices in their storyline narratives.
“This egregious history of reliance on racially motivated stereotypes is perhaps best highlighted by the plight of African Americans in the WWE.”
Now say what you want about WWE, the company seems to show a lack of discrimination with regards to who they discriminate against. Whether it be a latino tag team called ‘The Mexicools’ riding to the ring on lawnmowers, a muslim character called Muhammad Hassan presented as a terrorist or repeated homophobic slurs used by fan favourites to disparage their opponents, the WWE has seemingly found no minority group it will not exploit in the name of family friendly entertainment.
However, this egregious history of reliance on racially motivated stereotypes is perhaps best highlighted by the plight of African Americans in the WWE.
Take Charles Wright as an example, a veteran performer respected by his peers and inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame as recent as 2017. Wright’s storied career reflects the worst of WWE’s views towards people of colour, debuting as the voodoo priest Papa Shango during the colourful ‘Hulkamania’ era before he was repackaged as Kama Mustafa, member of a black nationalist parody group known as the ‘Nation of Domination.’
However Wright’s most famous, and shocking, character transformation was saved for the late Nineties where, in keeping with the product’s new grittier direction, he was given the character of ‘The Godfather’, a pimp who would be accompanied to the ring by a procession of women the company referred to as ‘his hoes.’
Wrestlemania 19 saw Hunter Hearst Helmsley, aka HHH, defending his World Heavyweight Championship against Booker T in a storyline playing on the two men’s real life pasts. Whilst Helmsley’s character was that of an entitled aristocrat, much was made of Booker T’s upbringing as an orphan and single father on the streets of Houston. In the weeks preceding the match, viewers were shown Booker’s actual mugshot as a young man with Helmsley commenting infamously ‘People like you don’t get to be Champions.’
Whilst this had all the makings of a true underdog story, with Booker cemented as the company’s next great star by triumphing over an overtly prejudiced representation of the powers-that-be, WWE chose to have Booker lose in one of the most one sided world title matches in Wrestlemania history.
Now whilst many have excused Charles Wright’s various guises can being light-hearted comedy characters not reflective of the men portraying them, the same cannot be said for Booker T. Rather than choosing to anoint a new star, WWE chose to show such an astounding lack of awareness that they let a physical embodiment of the establishment insult a black man using racially toned insults and then destroy his hope of being a champion.
For a company that is now trying to accentuate its diversity and downplay its murky past, it is absolutely shocking that out of the fifty men to hold the WWE Championship, not one of them has been African American.
This is not to say that African Americans have never experienced success in wrestling. In other companies, wrestlers like MVP and Ron ‘The Truth’ Killings have used their time on the microphone to articulate the struggles of black men in the industry. Even within WWE, the trio of black wrestlers ‘The New Day’ have become some of the most popular performers in the company through a combination of charisma, in-ring ability and obscure vine references.
However for each success WWE can tout there are uncomfortable realities, such as how of the nine current champions on WWE programming, all but one are white. Even the Rock, a man so significant that he has truly transcended wrestling into mainstream fame, is almost solely presented as Samoan, without mention of how his father ‘Soulman’ Rocky Johnson was half of the first ever black WWE Tag Team Champions.
Contrary to the name of this website, professional wrestling is not a sport and so there can be no Jackie Robinson or Jesse Owens to challenge the status quo and demand a seat at the table. Without avenues to challenge the monolithic presence of the WWE, talented black performers are entirely at the company’s mercy.
Nakamura’s triumph is certainly cause for celebration, let us hope that it marks the start of a new future for WWE and not the exception that proves the rule.