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

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.

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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.

Our Savage Inclinations

We cannot afford to take them as seriously as we often do. They cannot define us. They are gimmicks.

An entire sub-category in the larger genre of ethnic transplantation involves black Americans (or Canadians) recruited to depict “savage” Africans, such as the Canadian Larry Shreve, better known as Abdullah the Butcher, the primitive “Madman from the Sudan”, who attacked opponents with a fork, or the shield-and-spear-bearing, feather-clad “African” Saba Simba, played by the American bodybuilding champ Tony Atlas supposedly “reconnecting with his roots”. The most prominent and un-P.C. example in this category, however, is surely an African-American who played the role of Kamala the Ugandan Giant, a face-painted cannibal who ate live chickens and needed a white “handler” to contain his savagery. Here he is being introduced in the usual manner, and here, he is “interviewed” (accompanied by his masked white handler and a vaguely Jewish manager type named Harvey Wippleman), during the course of which the viewer will hear comments like this:

Vince McMahon: “My goodness what an awesome creature this man is.”

Commentator Jerry Lawler: “He doesn’t even know which direction to turn to the camera.”

Mean Gene: “This man is nothing more than a savage.”

Harvey Wippleman: “This native is very, very, very restless.”

McMahon: [As Kamala appears to threaten Mean Gene] “My goodness, he’s gonna spear him.”

[Cut to an image in the crowd of a little white girl crying in real terror at the prospect of Mean Gene getting speared.]

Finally, we come to a man who represents a kind of anti-Akeem. A well-known Mexican-American wrestler and third-generation scion of a great wrestling family, Chavo Guerrero Jr., like Akeem, underwent a transformation. Rejecting his own Latin-American heritage, in 2005 he briefly became “Kerwin White”. He dyed his hair blonde, rode a golf cart to the ring, donned a cardigan sweater, polo shirt and khakis and trotted out to an entrance theme song plainly meant to evoke Frank Sinatra in its musical and vocal style (some lyrics: “I have a brand new car. I drive it to my country club. It’s in my gated neighborhood”; “I only hang out with a privileged few, society’s elite with blood that’s blue”). Doing his best to make his mannerisms as square as he could, he would then begin to antagonize the crowd.

In one awful/awesome video, for example, the viewer will hear him respond to fans chanting for “Chavo”, i.e., his real name and identity, with “Chavo has left the building; he’s probably trying to get a job at some taco stand, like all the rest of the unemployed Hispanics.” He then champions “white values”, announces that “(t)he great white hope has arrived” and concludes with the incendiary, “And like I always say, if it’s not white, it’s not right.” On some level, racist, wealthy, oblivious whites are the obvious objects of mockery here, but a level of complexity is once again introduced by the fact that the crowd knows and is intended to know that the message is coming from a former Mexican-American fan-favorite trying to “pass” and embrace a new white-washed identity.

Considering the sum-total of this brief decades-spanning survey of racial and ethnic stereotypes in professional wrestling, one who is primed for facile condemnation of such things will quickly leap to the unambiguous conclusion that the powers-that-be in wrestling, as in life, are virulent racists peddling a product reflective of those attitudes. Before firing Hulk Hogan, in other words, the WWE should have taken a long, hard look in the mirror and sent itself an organizational pink slip, or at least accompanied the anodyne affirmation of diversity it issued upon Hogan’s firing with a somewhat less generic corporate apology: “We deeply regret any possible inadvertent and/or intentional racism we may have consciously and consistently exhibited throughout our entire history as an organization. Such racism is unacceptable, and we apologize for any offense we may have caused.”

At the risk of summoning up scorn, however, I have to say that when I consider the relevant facts, I reach a very different conclusion. Our present politicization of and fixation on such issues notwithstanding, to me, a guy making some casually racist remarks during a private sex tape is only a little bit more offensive than a guy making casual fart jokes: both are in exceedingly poor taste (as is the very act of making a sex tape, for that matter) and likely indicative of more thoroughgoing poor taste and inadequate education and cultivation. And that’s pretty much where it ends; beyond that, it’s not worth our time and attention.

But the larger issue—the role of race and ethnicity in wrestling—is worth our time and sustained attention, and when I think about it, when I consider all these varied, multi-faceted examples and the many more like them, pushing boundaries, pulling viewers and their sympathies in a hundred different directions, I find what I see and have seen over the years positively liberating. It’s a complicated, highly ambiguous game that can be played in many ways and to many ends. In contrast to our ossified conceptions of race in other aspects of life, race in wrestling is a “gimmick”, a performance of an identity, to use Judith Butler’s terms. One can adopt and drop a gimmick, find oneself, as part of the game, praised or censured for the role one has assumed and, with rare exceptions, go on to re-invent oneself as something entirely other.

Akeem’s absurd dance moves have left an indelible mark on my own. I go around on a daily basis affecting accents, imitating mannerisms, saying and doing things that, in today’s puritanical political climate, would get me pilloried if perpetrated in public. I do these things because I find them fun and liberating, a welcome reprieve from the restrictive constraints of any single identity. I am only too happy to live out Walt Whitman’s words in expressing his generous and ecumenical vision of America: “I contain multitudes.” Impersonation at its best, as in the hands of skilled method actors creating characters from deep within — or wrestlers living their gimmicks—can be a genuine channeling of otherness; it’s a means of mockery, but it’s also a path towards empathy. It’s both an avenue of self-expression and an escape route from the necessary limitations of the self. I recall, in this context, T.S. Eliot’s dictum that poetry “is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality”, and there is, for me, a kind of everyday poetry we can all write when we play at being someone else.

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By now, most people have likely heard of Rachel Dolezal, the “white” woman who identified?/disguised? herself as a “black” woman, graduated with an M.F.A. from the historically black Howard University, served as an adjunct professor of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University and headed the NAACP in Spokane, Washington until she was outed as “white” by her own parents. Until Charleston and the race-realist story of Dylann Storm Roof hastily ushered it off the front pages, her saga inspired a week-long media blitz and Twitterstorm, as journalists, activists, deep thinkers, posers and average Joes chimed in to explore such issues as the apparent contradiction between our rigid, categorical views of racial identity and our far more flexible take on gender identity despite the fact that the latter form of identification is arguably far more rooted in biology or, indeed, tending toward the biologically binary.

Despite being widely acknowledged by scientists to be little more than a sociological fiction erected upon the slimmest biological foundation (biologists see a smooth genotypical and phenotypical continuum rather than distinct polar categories), race has increasingly been treated by us as an all-elucidating, ineluctable, intractable fact. While most purveyors of contemporary race-based critiques of every aspect of our society have sought to mobilize race to combat real injustice, they are playing with fire in further essentializing and reifying a concept that has been, historically speaking, used first and foremost as a means of dehumanization, of asserting and establishing the superiority of one group over another.

Many may believe that the Rachel Dolezal story was hardly newsworthy. I disagree. I think that in our current cultural moment she and her story were and are exactly what we need, exactly what we deserve. She serves as a rebuke to our rigid, simplistic racial categorizations. The complexity of her situation is nearly bottomless, with her possibly abusive home-schooling fundamentalist parents, her adopted black siblings, black ex-husband and mixed children, her white brother accused of sexually abusing a black child, her dismissed 2002 lawsuit against Howard University for, inter alia, discrimination on account of her white race coupled with her repeated and possibly fabricated complaints to the Spokane police department of racist acts against her on account of her black race, including an incident where the police department found it likely that she put alleged hate mail in her own mailbox.

Is she a hero having overcome a harsh and twisted upbringing now identifying as a black woman and fighting for racial justice? Is she a villain cynically playing the identity game for personal advancement? Is she just a very confused soul, struggling to find herself and recover from whatever emotional scars she has sustained over the years? Is she all of these?

When I think of the sublimely contemptible absurdity and insincerity of Akeem, “The African Dream”, I can’t help but think, in the same breath, of a man who may be his perfect foil, a wrestler widely recognized as one of the greatest of all time, who passed away very recently at the age of 69. I am speaking of “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, whose wrestling persona was little more than an amplification of his personality and background. He grew up in a largely minority neighborhood in rural poverty in Texas and attended a Southern Baptist black church. He seemed “white” enough, but only if the viewer never bothered to look past the surface of his skin. The key is to listen to him (not to watch, just to listen).

In another example, two of the most charismatic figures in wrestling history, Dusty Rhodes and the pioneering, jive-talking villain “Superstar” Billy Graham (without whose bulked-up look and flamboyant style Hulk Hogan would never have been possible) both sound like bona fide black men. Unlike Akeem, Dusty Rhodes never claimed to be black, and he certainly never pretended to be black. He didn’t need to pretend. He was what he was, and what he was defies all our binary categorizations. But as far as pro wrestling and its many millions of fans were concerned, he was magic.

Magic happened on 19 February 1990 during a match between “The American Dream” and “The African Dream”. There they are, the two of them—the “white” man who seems, effortlessly and genuinely, to inhabit the part of a “black” man and his factitious foil, the “white” man transparently pretending to be “black”—working seamlessly together to enact a mini morality play and comic masterpiece. They (and their managers) play off of each other, echo each other’s exaggerated moves and gestures, and create something that is on the border between a pro wrestling match and a divine dance.

How can anyone not realize, watching this contrived confrontation of bedazzling behemoths, that the whole question of an identity’s genuine truth is entirely beside the point, that “Dusty Rhodes” and “Akeem” and all our identities are just gimmicks we adopt to play passing parts in our mutually interdependent spectacle? Roland Barthes’ famous 1984 essay on pro wrestling said it well: “It is obvious that at such a pitch, it no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself.” Barthes went on to conclude that:

When the hero or the villain of the drama, the man who was seen a few minutes earlier possessed by moral rage, magnified into a sort of metaphysical sign, leaves the wrestling hall, impassive, anonymous, carrying a small suitcase and arm-in-arm with his wife, no one can doubt that wrestling holds that power of transmutation which is common to the Spectacle and to Religious Worship. In the ring, and even in the depths of their voluntary ignominy, wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible.

The heightened absurdity and nonsense that pro wrestling welcomes with open arms exposes the greater and far more sanctimonious absurdity and nonsense to which we might otherwise remain oblivious. Pro wrestling, this debased form of low entertainment, will, if we let it, ironically point the way to a higher order which we might yet enjoy.

Right now, Rachel Dolezal is “The African Dream” Akeem. Sensing deception and insincerity, we greet her with boos and jeers. Later she might be redeemed and play Dusty Rhodes’ part as well. And so might we all. Let us be amused and entertained by these many masks, and, as appropriate, cheer, jeer and laugh at the spectacle. But let us also not forget that it is, after all, no more than a spectacle, that race and ethnicity and all the ways we identify ourselves and others through the mechanism of such superficial, fictional abstractions must, when all is said and done, fall away.

We cannot afford to take them as seriously as we often do. They cannot define us. They are gimmicks. We can play the parts of such heroes and villains for a day, but when we turn these parts into the subject matter of quotas, laws, suits, threats, speech codes, deep hatreds, puritanical crusades, lifelong missions and violent acts, we, like Dylann Roof, unwittingly assume the role of villains for a lifetime.

Alexander Zubatov is a practicing attorney specializing in general commercial litigation. He is also a practicing writer specializing in general non-commercial poetry, fiction, drama, essays and polemics. His interests include literature, literary theory, philosophy and metaphysics. He makes occasional, unscheduled appearances on Twitter @Zoobahtov.