Friday, July 11, 2014

The Rock Is Black, but That Doesn't Excuse WWE's Institutional Racism

The Rock is a black man who got to the pinnacle, and that doesn't make WWE any less racially insensitive
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Yesterday, The Atlantic dropped an article on WWE's racial problems by Dion Beary. The column had the right message and came to the right conclusion, but it had some factual inaccuracies. One of my least favorite things when one of these kinds of articles calling wrestling companies or fans on their heads from publications/sites that aren't in the know is that fans have too much of a hive mentality in discounting the overall message because of a few factual missteps. If the jabs began and end with calling Beary to the carpet for implying that Zack Ryder was inspired by the Jersey Shore when he predated it by months or that Booker T was WCW Champion in its heyday rather than the dying days of the company, I might be willing to ignore the cacophony altogether and write it off as wrestling fans being petulant nerds.

However, at one point in the article, Beary wrote something that just wasn't true at all:
In its 62 year history, WWE has never chosen a black wrestler to hold its world championship.
WWE has put its major, lineal Championship on a black superstar, and his name was Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

I admit that when I read the article the first time, my own personal red flags didn't go up for reasons that I'm not proud of admitting. I didn't necessarily think of Rock as a "black" Champion because of his diverse ethnic heritage, despite the fact that WWE made a big deal that his father was the goddamn "Soul Man" Rocky Johnson and that he was part of a stable of militant African Americans in the vein of the Black Panthers. Just as David Dennis pointed out over at With Spandex, no one can decide how "black" a person is based on who their parents on or how they're presented within the context of a fictional story. It doesn't matter if Vince McMahon didn't present Rock as a "black Champion," because Vince McMahon doesn't get to decide how black anyone is. No one does, and just as Dennis pointed out in his column, it didn't matter if you had all black lineage or just one black grandparent. You had to drink from a different water fountain than white folk did back in the day.

Beary, rather than taking the criticism in stride, doubled down on his mistake by regurgitating what amounted to pretty much a terrible Family Guy joke and then tried to paint himself as a martyr later on. I agree black people talking about racism on the Internet gets the ignorant white racists in a tizzy more than anything else, but you can't claim that moral high ground when you yourself stumble at making a point and further polarize the people you're speaking as a representative of. Side note, being Samoan in WWE isn't a walk in the park either, since historically, you either pretend to be another race to get ahead like Yokozuna or Rikishi, or you're a hard-headed "savage" like the Wild Samoans, the Headshrinkers, or Umaga.

The problem is that whether or not Rock ever won the WWE Championship or not as a representative of whatever race doesn't detract from the overarching point in Beary's article at all. In fact, Rock probably buttresses his point, because he represents the awful practice of tokenism. He can be trotted out as an example of how WWE is this welcoming company that pushes black people the same as white people, but when put in the context of the real history, it doesn't cut muster. Sure, Rocky started from the bottom and had to sleep in his car and on piss-stained mattresses just to get a shot in Memphis. He certainly wasn't handed anything because of his legacy status in the business, but when he got to WWE, no one can argue that he wasn't given chance after chance because McMahon had a hard-on for the offspring of wrestling icons. He had the right lineage, knew the right people, and still, he's the only African-American wrestler in history who got to sniff the historical top title in the company.

Sure, other white wrestlers had the benefit of those doubts as well. Randy Orton is the shiningest example of a fuck-up who may not have lasted more than five years in WWE if he wasn't Bob Orton's kid, just as you can point to white wrestlers who have been racially or ethnically lampooned over the years as flimsy counterevidence to the WWE's racial profiling of wrestlers of color (no matter what race they may have been). But what you can't do is point to the black, or Asian, or Latin wrestlers who were given good faith pushes based on something other than a stereotype like you could for white people. No wrestler of color analogue exists for John Cena or Bruno Sammartino or Hulk Hogan with the bare exception of maybe Pedro Morales. The Rock had everything going for him; he had wrestling genetics AND had to overcome a racial stereotype (the Nation of Domination) in order to show the charisma needed to attain god status within the company. I can't make the argument in the other direction that if he DIDN'T have all that going for him that he wouldn't have reached the heights he did, but to be fair, few other wrestlers of color have broken through that barrier if any at all.

Debating Rock's "blackness" helps no one, but it's also pretty irrelevant to the conversation and overall point of Beary's original article. It doesn't stop me from being disappointed that he would make such an ugly and misinformed argument in the face of criticism, but the fact remains that wrestling is an ugly business when it comes to race altogether. The fact that so many fans are people of color despite the fact that they've had so little representation on cards is astounding, especially when the root of that lack of representation came down to the grassroots of several wrestling schools outright refusing to train aspiring black wrestlers.

However, more and more wrestlers of color are making their way through the ranks. WWE can do its part by giving more black (and Latin and Asian) wrestlers gimmicks that are independent of ethnicity. One can only look to how the company's only success stories of ethnic Asians being Hakushi and Yoshihiro Tajiri as damning evidence to how ineffective its stereotyping is in that direction. It can start by letting Big E Langston be Big E Langston and not generic Martin Luther King, Jr.-knockoff #9823. It can start by letting KENTA (who is reported to be signing his contract today) get over in NXT the way he did during his Ring of Honor excursions. And it can start by firing Kevin Dunn into the Sun and allowing the reparation of the women in the company and their shattered reputations begin. WWE can change the game from the top. I know that would be asking a lot since like many inertiatic corporate entities, it waits for the indies and companies abroad to innovate and then take their ideas, but at this point, the soul of its fanbase can't take much more of this all-white-men, all-the-time corporate message.

Arguing over whether Rock was black enough or not doesn't help anyone, but with regards to the bottom line, it's also not terribly relevant to how institutionally racist WWE and the wrestling industry it spring forth from is. One drop in a bucket isn't enough to dispel years and years of lax treatment towards wrestlers of color.