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Professional Wrestling, Racism, Transracial Identity, and Why We All Need to Lighten Up

Alexander Zubatov

In contrast to our ossified conceptions of race in other aspects of life, race in professional wrestling is a gimmick, a performance of an identity, which one can adopt or drop as part of the game.

“Hey, hey, hey, brothuh, didn’t you hear him, you thick-headed foool? From now on, I will be known as Akeeem! I’m reborn tonight, the greatest night in his-toe-ree!”

The speaker was a massive 6’9”, 457 lb., bearded, mustachioed individual dressed in a bright yellow dashiki with a light blue trim mirrored in a matching kofia extending the dimensions of his sizable cranium. The attire, in short, was, in the broadest sense, African. The words, however, were accented in a clear, if somewhat over-inflected, rendition of African-American jive. The setting was a facsimile of a dark, burned-out urban ghetto, a flame rising from a garbage can in the foreground. These facts in isolation paint a certain picture: a classic case of an African-American reconnecting with his “roots” and this would be a reasonable interpretation of the event, if not for two glaring problems: this was professional wrestling, and the man was white.

* * *

Despite having self-righteously issued a bland corporate-chump-crafted affirmation of “embracing and celebrating” diversity, in parting ways with Hulk Hogan recently over racist remarks of his on an eight-year-old sex tape, the WWE and wrestling as a whole have had a long, rich history of using racist and ethnic stereotypes for commercial gain. Such stereotypes easily connect with the fans, and wrestling organizations have not been shy about availing themselves of a wide gamut. Thus, Latin-American wrestlers like “Latino Heat” Eddie Guerrero would “lie, cheat and steel”, Southerners like The Fabulous Freebirds channeled Confederate pride and flashed the old battle flag, white nativist kooks like Zeb Colter sported long beards and ammo vests and spouted xenophobic right-wing propaganda, Japanese wrestlers like The Great Muta or “The Devious One” Mr. Fuji would do karate kicks and chops and engage in sneaky and cowardly acts such as throwing salt or spraying green mist into their opponents’ eyes. Black wrestlers had a choice of playing the roles of dangerous, angry black men (like the black-nationalist-inspired Nation of Domination), utterly demeaning themselves (like The Junkyard Dog, who wore a chain around his neck, barked and went around on all fours or “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase’s black man-servant, i.e., slave, Virgil, whose dialogue consisted mostly of “Yes, sir!”) or being straight-up criminals (like Cryme Tyme, two black thugs with gold teeth that debuted in the WWE in 2006. For those keeping track of time and hypocrisy, this was roughly around the same time Hogan was making the racist comments the WWE recently axed him for—and whose MO was that they … well … gleefully committed crimes, a must-see for anyone whose hobby is cataloging examples of egregious racism.

While these wrestlers would do their thing in the ring, commentators “broadcasting” the action would often engage in mini-discussions that exhibited a variety of political perspectives on some controversial aspect of the character’s gimmick so that most viewers would find someone with whom to identify. The ultimate effect of such dialogue was to make a show of distancing the wrestling organization itself from the character’s words and actions; the official commentators, just like fans watching at home, are positioned as mere onlookers subjected to rather than responsible for the offensive antics of an individual wrestler. When, for instance, Bad News Brown, a classic “angry black man” allegedly from Harlem, with a bad attitude and a finishing maneuver entitled the “ghetto blaster”, wrestled in 1988, the following colloquy among the ring commentators took place:

Jesse “The Body” Ventura (later governor of Minnesota): “I’ll tell you what, if he’s from Harlem, he’d better be bad news to get out of there.”

Bruno Sammartino (Italian-American long-time fan favorite and WWF champion throughout the '70s): “He looks like a real angry man, don’t he? He’s mad at the world.”

Ventura: “Well, he probably had a rugged childhood, Bruno.”

Vince McMahon (WWF owner, then masquerading as a mere commentator): “So what? Big deal.”

Sammartino: “Lot of people have.”

Such discussion may add a measure of complexity to the sometimes one-dimensional stereotypes being enacted in the ring. But the birth of Akeem, the 457 lb. white man portraying a black man from “deepest, darkest Africa” introduces a whole other level of complexity.

Footage of this “greatest night in history” was aired in the early afternoon of Saturday, 24 September 1988, and I—a transfixed 13-year-old—was watching in amazement. This man, this same man (real name George Gray), had been on the WWE scene (then WWF) for over a year, playing the part of a gigantic biker from the south side of Chicago, sporting a mohawk, shades, skull-and-crossboned sleeves, and a nasty attitude. They called him the One Man Gang, a fitting moniker. Often he’d come to the ring with two black men, his tag-team partner, “The Natural” Butch Reed, hair dyed blonde to accentuate his unctuous nature, and, invariably, their manager, a living, breathing racist stereotype known as “The Doctor of Style” Slick. Here was your “typical” jive-talking, too-snazzily dressed, Jheri-curled wheelin’ dealin’ pimpin’ ghetto gadabout, always entertaining, seldom silent.

In pro wrestling, the character a wrestler plays is known as a “gimmick”, and because there is usually a distinction to be made between the gimmick and the man or woman acting the part, a gimmick can evolve or even undergo a total transformation over time. This is useful because it means that one wrestler can play many parts. When the crowds stop responding to the same shtick, when the well starts to run dry, when a given character has feuded with all or most of the credible opponents on the wrestling organization’s roster, he or she can always do a “face-turn” or “heel-turn” (i.e., change, respectively, into a hero or villain) or else vanish for a month or two and then re-emerge as someone completely different, perhaps with some face paint, a radical new haircut or a mask to keep the fans out of the know. Such stunts became a whole lot harder to pull off once the internet turned every fan into an insider, but in 1988, it happened regularly. Another option to keep things from getting stale—the “Akeem” option—take a wrestler and stage a transformation right in front of everyone’s eyes.

To pull this off, however, the wrestling organization’s creative team had to come up with a hook, such as a compelling vignette which told a reasonably coherent story of what was motivating the change. This is what the scene I watched on that September afternoon in 1988 was all about:

WWF-interviewer and long-time straight man par excellence Mean Gene Okerlund had been invited by “The Doctor of Style” Slick to meet him in this abandoned urban setting at night to witness what Slick had described as a “startling transformation.” Slick had promised to bring Mean Gene to “deepest, darkest Africa”, but Mean Gene, upon arriving at the appointed location, remarked, “This ain’t it.”

Slick turns up, stepping in to the beat of a shoulder-borne boom box. Acknowledging he can’t deliver on his promise, Slick says he’ll do the next best thing: he’ll bring Africa to Mean Gene. He flips the tape in his boom box, and an “African” drumbeat takes hold, followed by the arrival on the scene of some vaguely dark-skinned face-painted men (Africans?) armed with spears and shields. They embark upon a ritual dance-and-chant around the garbage can fire. The fire flashes brightly, and when it subsides, the big man is there. He starts to strut toward Mean Gene like a gargantuan funky chicken and, debuting a ghettoed-up accent (as the One Man Gang, he’d hardly spoken at all) he, along with Slick, describes his rebirth as Akeem (often referred to later as “Akeem, the African Dream”).

During the ensuing colloquy, as Mean Gene, the would-be representative of the viewing audience, voices incredulity on its behalf, Akeem never remains still, his big body swaying, his arms moving in an exaggerated serpentine fashion likely intended to evoke the strut of a stereotypical black pimp ambling through the ghetto. Then Slick says, “It’s time to go, bro,” and turns the boombox back to “Jive Soul Bro”, his catchy ring entrance theme.

He and his protégé dance off into the steamy night, leaving Mean Gene alone with the natives. Bereft of their drumbeat, and with the ritual now concluded, they peer at him. He loosens his collar and, suggesting cannibalism, says, “Guess who’s not staying for dinner tonight …. Hey, somebody call me a cab,” as he hastens nervously out of the scene. I must’ve watched this whole unforgettable sequence upwards of three dozen times.

Just as Akeem said this was one of the greatest moments in history, or at least in my own history watching television, which is something I haven’t done in years now because I know it can never be this good again, as the Foo Fighters song proclaims. I’d recognized at once that I’d seen something spectacular. Exceeding the regular liberal doses of casual and conscious racism pro wrestling dependably delivered, what I’d just seen—as obvious to the 13-year-old me as it remains today—was purely outrageous yet also completely compelling for anyone who has, as I do, a developed sense of the absurd and enjoys seeing certain hypocritical societal taboos being brazenly flouted.

The beauty of it—a type of beauty I have encountered often in my watching of wrestling over the years—is that when one thinks about the vignette carefully enough, the object of derision or ridicule is unclear. Yes, certain derisive stereotypes of both Africans and African-Americans are being appropriated and ridiculed. This cannot be gainsaid. And yet easily lost in the dust cloud of outrage we, especially the “we” of 2015, readily generate is the fact that the perpetrator of this stunt, this white man adopting the gimmick of a black man from “deepest, darkest Africa” while delivering an absurd imitation of the presumed speech and mannerisms of an African-American from the urban ghetto, is, in wrestling parlance, a “heel”, a villain meant to be mocked and jeered by the crowds. It's not black culture itself, but rather, his absurd and insincere assumption and impersonation of black culture that is the mechanism through which such mocking and jeering is called forth from the masses.

It is, therefore, not much different from the case of a far more obscure wrestler named Col. DeBeers, who was meant to represent a racist Apartheid-era South African and who insists that he will not wrestle with a black referee officiating the match. The commentators heap their scorn on him, and a chorus of boos resounds from the crowd. In this instance, retrograde anti-black racism is being condemned rather than perpetrated.

The case of Akeem, of course, is not nearly so straightforward. When a white man with a slick, jive-talking black manager takes on the role of a black African while primitive and possibly cannibalistic tribesmen are dancing and chanting in the background of an urban ghetto and our straight man, albeit figured as a frightened little twerp calling for a cab amidst abandoned building at night, retreats for fear of being eaten alive, the viewer doesn’t know what to think. And that’s exactly what I love about the scene. Like a great work of art, it slows down perception; it leaves the viewer horribly and wonderfully confused.

The case of Akeem is not entirely sui generis; more than a few stereotypes deployed by professional wrestling involve instances of transracial or transethnic identification as between a gimmick and the wrestler playing the role. Col. DeBeers was played by a Polish-American with no trace of a South African accent. The Italian-American Luke Joseph Scarpa played the rain-dancing, tomahawk-chopping Chief Jay Strongbow, the Japanese sumo monster Yokozuna was played by a Samoan, Razor Ramon, the prominent Cuban-born heel from Miami who antagonized audiences with his Latin playboy Scarface-influenced (appropriate given Al Pacino’s non-Hispanic heritage) machismo was the distinctly non-Latin-American Scott Hall faking an accent, and countless Russians from the Cold War to today were depicted by anyone and everyone other than actual Russians. And, for those who enjoy seeing people who think they’re cool making fools of themselves, there’s the all-too-white John Cena, who, in his early career, imagined himself as a Vanilla Ice/Eminem/Iggy Azalea-style crossover, with “a Ph.D. in thugamonics”.

Other transethnic stereotypes were hilariously incongruous in a different way, such as when Hossein Khosrow Ali Varizi, the Iranian Olympic wrestler and one-time bodyguard of the Shah, who came to prominence as the villainous Iron Sheik when Iran under the Ayatollah Khomeini was Public Enemy #1, then, a decade later, during the Gulf War, re-emerged as the equally villainous but Iraqi Col. Mustafa, extolling the virtues of Iran’s great enemy, Saddam Hussein, and serving as the commanding officer of the WWE’s top heel and heavyweight champion in 1991, one-time US patriot (and model for the G.I. Joe character of the same name) Sergeant Slaughter, now transformed into a US-hating Iraqi turncoat, who received real-life death threats from wrestling fans unable to draw the line between fantasy and reality.

If this is not confusing enough, there's the controversial case of Muhammad Hassan, played by a half Italian/half Jordanian American, whose gimmick was based on complaining about the manner in which Arab-Americans were stereotyped and demonized as terrorists after 9/11 but who, at the same time, was shown demanding that a reluctant fellow wrestler of Arabic origin become a sacrifice, i.e., martyr, for a greater good, which was a plan to use this decoy to distract the fan-favorite Undertaker to whom he would be offered as a sacrificial lamb, while deploying a bunch of ski-masked men in black to assault the Undertaker and choke him out with a Garrote wire, after which they carried off the brave martyr over their heads. Adding drama and terrible irony to the incident, it was, by total coincidence, aired on the same date as the 7 July 2005 London subway bombings and so had to carry a warning: “In light of today’s tragic events in London, parental discretion is advised in viewing tonight’s episode.” Indeed.

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