On the rare occasions that WWE decides not to create a clearly stereotypical persona for its black wrestlers, it makes them into “natural athletes,” a.k.a. Guy Who Is Strong. But this too is a stereotype, albeit a bland one. In the WWE Universe, all the wrestlers are athletes, as wrestling is fictionally considered a legitimate athletic sport. So promoting a black wrestler as a Natural Athlete falls in line with the racism displayed by mainstream sports media famously written about in the Boston College study “Brains Versus Brawns.” In an analysis of National Football League commentary, it was found that sports media figures are more likely to refer to a white athlete as a student of the game or a technician, while they will refer to a black athlete as a “beast,” an “animal,” or a “machine.”
Out of the 12 black wrestlers, only one is an original, distinctive character regularly featured on WWE television and who is not a racial stereotype. That's Victoria Crawford's Alicia Fox, who recently inexplicably turned into a deranged, borderline psychotic figure and challenged the extremely pale Anti-Diva Paige to a match for the Divas Championship, the highest prize for women in WWE.
Outside of that dubious example, black wrestlers simply don’t get to be the fascinating, three-dimensional characters that their white counterparts are. Black guys can’t be the bulletproof vest-wearing vigilantes, the swamp-dwelling cult leaders, the straight-edge punks, the intellectual saviors, the school-yard bullies, the power-trio rock band members, or the deranged former movie stars covered in gold paint. Both historically and in modern times, black wrestlers can either have a racial stereotype for a character, or they can have no character at all.
Other racial minorities are subject to similar treatment. Take the Colon cousins, Eddie and Orlando. Born into one of professional wrestling's most famous families, the two almost have a birthright to the sport. Their father and uncle Carlos Colon is the most important promoter and wrestler in Latin American history, having played a seminal role in the sport's growth in Puerto Rico. Carlos Colon was acknowledged for his accomplishments earlier this year when WWE placed him into their Hall of Fame, the same class that included the Ultimate Warrior. Eddie and Orlando, along with former WWE wrestler Carly Colon, another member of the Colon family, inducted Carlos into the Hall. Carly, who went by Carlito during his time in WWE, joked about the induction, suggesting that WWE only included his family in the program to offer the audience a chance for a bathroom break.
“Send out the Colons!” Carly imitated, eliciting uncomfortable laughter from the attendees.
But Eddie and Orlando were quiet, respectful, and almost stoic when introducing their family's patriarch, presenting an odd contrast with the personas they currently portray on television. For a while, Eddie and Orlando were Primo and Epico, two characters whose only defining characteristic was that they were Puerto Rican. They came down to the ring to generic-sounding Latin music with the seductive Rosa Mendez salsa dancing at their side. Now, Eddie and Orlando play Diego and Fernando, or Los Matadores, a pair of masked bullfighters who are accompanied to the ring by a dwarf in a cow costume named El Torito. Their catchphrase is “Ole!”
To the WWE’s credit, a lot of these character changes appear to be, in a strange way, beneficial to the performer. Primo and Epico were floundering as a tag team before WWE repackaged them as Los Matadores. Now, they get a lot more TV time. That means more opportunities to connect with the fans, more chances to end up on pay-per-view special events, and more money. Ultimately, WWE is a business, and if fans want to see racist characters, then WWE is going to give them racist characters. You can't even fault the performers. With dozens of wrestlers on the active roster and even more waiting in the developmental system to get their shot at the main events, and only a few hours of TV time per week, you've got to take the opportunity to get on screen whenever you can.
But the reports from behind the scenes of WWE don’t inspire much confidence that all the stereotyping and marginalization of minorities happens by accident. Michael “PS” Hayes, a longtime member of the creative team, was disciplined at one time for calling Mark Henry the "N" word, and before that, a young black wrestler named Bobby Lashley quit amid accusations that Michael Hayes had racially harassed him.
Lashley is an interesting case. He's currently employed by Impact Wrestling, the only other wrestling company with a national television deal in the United States, in a main event stable with fellow black wrestlers MVP and Kenny King, the aptly dubbed M.L.K group. On June 19th, Bobby Lashley won the TNA World Heavyweight Championship. He is the first black wrestler to hold TNA’s world title, and the second black wrestler to be a world champion in TNA. In TNA’s early days, the company did not have its own world championship, instead “leasing” the world championship of the National Wrestling Alliance, one of professional wrestling’s oldest entities. R-Truth held the NWA World Heavyweight Championship during this period—making him another black athlete who could be a world champion in other companies but never in WWE.
The irony is that WWE has appeared desperate in recent years to turn around its negative image. Women are no longer stripped naked, overly violent hardcore matches are a rarity, and dirty words are kept to a minimum. WWE prides itself on putting on a show appropriate for children. The highly publicized "Be A Star" campaign urges kids to avoid bullying, top stars like John Cena and Daniel Bryan do a massive amount of charity work for Make-A-Wish kids, and WWE even changed its television content dramatically enough to receive a PG rating. But in all that, what is the message being delivered to black children? It’s clear if you pay attention.
Somebody like you doesn’t get to be a world champion.
*Update: These two paragraphs were added after publication.