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WWE’s Race Problem Is Bigger Than Hulk Hogan

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(Please pardon the non-Monday wrestling post. I didn’t think this could wait.)

I often say when it comes to racism accusations that intent matters. A white guy rapping lyrics to an NWA song aloud – including the “N” in their name, in full – probably does not hate black people. But a guy talking about how he doesn’t want his daughter dating a black person, and if she must then he wishes it were a basketball player? No way around that – that’s a racist thought and utterance.

But firing Hulk Hogan for saying that (in private, on a tape that’s at least three years old), and scrubbing the entire WWE website to make it look like he never existed or was acknowledged, is both historically ignorant and a superficial gesture, the equivalent of MLB pretending Ty Cobb never happened. I don’t have a problem with the firing in and of itself – but I do have a problem with WWE’s official statement on the matter, which includes the phrase “WWE is committed to embracing and celebrating individuals from all backgrounds as demonstrated by the diversity of our employees, performers and fans worldwide.”

As Miz would say: “Really?”

Hulk Hogan saying racist things in a sex tape doesn’t make the company that hired him racist. You know what does?

Maybe the fact that they’ve never had a black WWE World Champion (yes, I know the “world” championship that they always treated as secondary has had black holders, but it was always made clear that wasn’t the main belt in the company), and half-black Dwayne Johnson doesn’t absolve them of that. Maybe the fact that Olympian Mark Henry is constantly referred to as a silverback gorilla, with the caveat that it is supposedly a “self-description.” Maybe it’s in the way three very talented and distinctive performers with totally different styles were thrown together as a team with a Gospel choir gimmick, presumably because they all happen to be black.

Or, I dunno, the way they took a collegiate hall of fame football player from Florida, who later became the first black WCW world champion, and ignored his past and gave him a fakey Muslim-sounding name for his entire WWE wrestling career, only acknowledging his original identity post-retirement after turning him into a one-joke character who literally only utters a single profanity every time he’s on TV. I’m referring to Ron Simmons, but Monty Brown was going in a similar direction before he quit the business.

I used to joke – and it was true – that the WWE formula for naming black characters was to take a biblical-sounding first name and add it to a presidential surname: Ahmed Johnson. Abraham Washington. Ezekiel Jackson. It’s a shame we never got Jesus Reagan.

Yes, they’ve certainly improved since the days when the only black athlete on the main roster was Virgil, or when Tony Atlas was brought back as a Zulu warrior named Saba Simba – and WWE was way ahead of the curve in not using the Confederate battle flag on their Freebirds action figures, even though it would have been gimmick-appropriate. But then they give Roman Reigns blue contact lenses to make him look less ethnic, seemingly concerned that a main-event push won’t work unless they do. This despite the fact that in the larger pop-culture sphere, the previously caucasian looking character of Aquaman has been made over into a Hawaiian Roman Reigns lookalike for the movies. Or that John Cena was never popular until he started talking in Ebonics and acting like a rapper.

And that’s just race. If we’re talking diversity in the larger sense, my friend Jen Yamato has a great article on WWE’s fear of dealing with homosexuality in almost any way.

WWE does have a more diverse roster than ever more, although let’s be frank, if all your Pacific Islanders literally come from the same family, that isn’t super-diverse. And with Naomi and Jimmy Uso (or is it Jey? With them mixing the real and fake names all the time I get confused), they have a positive interracial couple, which would at one time have been unheard of.

It is an unfortunate coincidence that Hulk Hogan’s last action on WWE TV before this was to pick on Patrick, the one black contestant on Tough Enough, who also seemed to be the only guy on the show who actually knew anything about the business. I’m guessing WWE may try to bring back Patrick in some capacity sooner rather than later.

But there’s no Band-Aid. Racial issues don’t vanish because you fire one guy. They may start to go away if you acknowledge what they are first.

About Author

Luke Y. Thompson has been writing professionally about movies and pop-culture since 1999, and has also been an actor in some extremely cheap culty and horror movies you will probably never hear much about (he is nonetheless mostly proud of them, as he met his wife on one). As editor of The Robot's Voice since 2012, he can take the blame for the majority of the site's content, all of which he creates because he loves you very, very much. (Although he loves nachos more. Sorry.) Prior to TRV, Luke wrote for publications that include the New Times LA, Los Angeles CityBeat, E! Online, OC Weekly, Geekweek, GeekChicDaily, The L.A. Times, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, and Nerdist