Pro Wrestling Is Fake, but Its Race Problem Isn't

The only person of African descent ever named world champion was Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, a special case. Half Samoan and half African-Canadian, Johnson identifies as Samoan and comes from a line of famous wrestlers. As WWE's first third-generation fighter, he was allowed a narrative that reflected his specific family history, not the mere fact of his race.

In a statement to The Atlantic, a spokesperson wrote, "WWE is a global entertainment company committed to embracing and celebrating individuals from all backgrounds as demonstrated by the diversity of our employees, performers and fans worldwide."*

* * *

WWE currently employs 12 black wrestlers. There are three character situations to be found among them:

1. The performer plays or has played a character based on a racial stereotype.

2. The performer does not have any discernible character.

3. The performer is largely absent from television and/or has never played a significant role in WWE’s fictional universe.

For some performers, all three situations apply. Take JTG, who has become sort of a meme in the professional wrestling community. Until a few weeks ago, he'd been employed by WWE for eight years, but hadn’t been on an episode of Raw since December of 2012, and hadn’t been on any WWE programming since September of 2013. Not even Rusev’s ravenous appetite for black wrestlers had been enough to draw JTG to television. Despite this, each time WWE has had a mass firing of workers, known colloquially as Black Fridays, JTG remained employed until late June.

There are several popular fan theories to explain his longevity. One suggests that JTG saved Vince McMahon’s life once, and McMahon is in debt to him. Another speculates that WWE had simply forgotten JTG was employed by them, and knowing his own lackluster status, JTG was in no hurry to remind them of his existence, so (fans like to imagine) he stayed out of the catering room, traveled alone, and kept to the less populated parts of the arena during television tapings.

JTG debuted in 2006 as The Neighborhoodie. He was quickly teamed with another black wrestler named Shad, forming The Gang-Stars. Perhaps fearing a lawsuit from DJ Premier and the similarly named Gang Starr hip-hop duo, WWE changed the team’s name to Cryme Tyme, easily the most racist gimmick in the history of pro-wrestling racist gimmicks. Hype videos for the team’s debut literally featured the phrase “yo yo yo, pop a 40 and check ya Rollies.” JTG and his partner Shad were shown assaulting police officers, robbing people, and participating in other generally illegal activities. I’m talking full-on platinum grillz and making it rain.

Then you have fighters like Ron Simmons, who WCW crowned as the first black world heavyweight champion in the history of the sport in 1992. He eventually signed with WWE in 1996 and was rechristened Farooq, a gladiator (fancy word for slave forced to fight other slaves for the entertainment of their oppressors), then the leader of the aforementioned black supremacist Nation of Domination, then a beer-drinking, cigar-smoking hired gun.

These days, Ron Simmons is a WWE Hall of Famer known for randomly showing up on WWE television during bizarre moments, looking around confusedly, and saying only “Damn,” calling to mind Deon Richmond’s its-funny-because-it’s-true monologue from Not Another Teen Movie: “I am the token black guy. I'm just supposed to smile and stay out of the conversation and say things like: ‘Damn,’ ‘Shit,’ and ‘That is wack.’"

There’s also Simmons’s fellow Nation of Domination alumni Charles Wright. During his time with WWE, Wright played a voodoo demon named Papa Shango, a black supremacist named Kama Mustafa, and, one of the most infamous ‘90s characters, a Huggy Bear-inspired pimp named The Godfather who came to the ring with a cane, fur coats, and a couple of ladies of the night.

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.

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Dion Beary is writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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