Wrestling with Racism - Part II
[Trigger Warning: There are videos and links below that include coarse, racist language and racist depictions.]
The American entertainment industry is no stranger to racial injustice and inequality – no matter the medium. In short, the industry has been, time and time again, guilty of negatively depicting, and therefore negatively impacting, Black and Brown Americans via belittlement and stereotyping. All while being dominated by and catered to white America. Early, often applauded, films like The Birth of A Nation by D.W. Griffith (the first full narrative) and The Jazz Singer (the first film with sound) by Alan Crosland feature white saviors, racist, sexualized depictions of Black people, racial slurs, and use of black face. A quick, simple dive into the history of racism in television, film, theatre, music, fashion, and sports provides some very shocking results. So much so, that in my case, as a fan and student of the industry, the amount of inequity may give you a moments pause about your future hobby/career plans. Professional wrestling and sports entertainment is in no way exempt from this history and at times can be one of the industry’s biggest offenders. It's a problem and it has been for far too long. [2}
Yeah. I know. Awful. But only a small percentage of the damaging content consistent with televised professional wrestling of the 80s and 90s. A 1993 article by psychologist Bobby Newman warns against ignoring the ‘darker side’ of professional wrestling’s racist portrayal of races and classes despite it being a dramatic, entertaining representation of what society loves or fears. He further argues that the Black community is the most frequently stereotyped and caricatured.
So why does this industry’s problem with racism seem to permeate so many avenues of entertainment in this country and why has it gone on for so long? Even now, in 2022, the conversation must still be on the forefront of the Black agenda in film as Black performers statistically get less work, exposure, and money than their white counterparts. Additionally, when work or exposure is acquired, it comes with barriers and exclusions to certain roles or opportunities.
In the pro-wrestling industry, it’s clear, the history of racism runs deep and while much of this can be credited to some of the larger sports entertainment entities like the WWE, WCW, or ECW it doesn’t mean that other, smaller entities haven’t used it as platform to enact social change before. The professional wrestling documentary Memphis Heat discusses Sputnik Monroe, a massive draw in the professional wrestling world of 1950s and 60s, who refused to work for venues and promoters that refused to desegregate their crowds. Because of Monroe’s ability to draw large crowds many promoters immediately suspended those venue rules in a first for public spaces in the Memphis area during the Civil Rights era.
Additionally, modern documentary series like Viceland’s Dark Side of the Ring highlights the industry’s more recent shortcomings by way of interviews from Black performers by having them share their first hand experiences.6 These personal accounts are vital to understanding the toxicity of the industry, how recently is has effected it’s workers and audiences, and how it can best be addressed and changed.
While it is important to understand and acknowledge the racist history of pro-wrestling and its portrayal of racist stereotypes it is also important to highlight and acknowledge those who used their platform for equality and positive, social change. If pro-wrestling as theatre can be used as an avenue to introduce new concepts on race and sex acceptance to an audience that would normally oppose that discourse can it then be an avenue for change? When having this discourse it is important to speak the language of the community you are in so they both understand and accept the message – even if they disagree with it. Professional wrestling is theatre. Theatre is art. And art creates conversation. 7
Is it already changing? If we compare the products from the 80s and 90s to today do we still see that inequality or has there been a shift to a more accepting, progressive reaction to Black and minority performers? This month in AEW the Main Event of their flagship show AEW: Dynamite will be Keith Lee vs Hobbs – two Black wrestling performers who don’t have gimmicks or characters to play. They are simply Black wrestlers – damn good ones too.
References - 1. Wilson, Clint C., II (2012). Racism, Sexism, and the Media: Multicultural Issues Into the New Communications Age. Félix Gutiérrez, Lena M. Chao. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.
2. 10 Racists Moments in Wrestling – WrestleAmia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9vFB9DVVW3w
3. Newman, B. Professional Wrestling—Stereotypes, not only Archetypes: A Reply to Polizzi. (1993) The Humanistic Psychologist, 21(1), 121–126. https://doi.org/10.1080/08873267.1993.9976912 4. McKinsey & Company (2021) Management Consultant Firm Data Analytics, Black Representation in Film and TV, 2021 https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/black-representation-in-film-and-tv-the-challenges-and-impact-of-increasing-diversity
5. Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin. (2011). Dir. Chad Schaffler, USA.
6. Viceland: Dark Side of the Ring. (2021). New Jack Interview: Why WWE is a Racist Organization - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qc8YzzWdJtY
7. Porter, Lynne. Unmasking Theatre Design: A Designer's Guide to Finding Inspiration and Cultivating Creativity. Focal Pr., 2015.