Captivated by the gimmicks, fireworks, story lines and choreography, as a child and as a teenager I never noticed how pro wrestling furthered a dangerous racial stereotype and limited black wrestlers’ identities and professions. Particularly the former World Wrestling Federation seemingly invited their white counterparts to run the gamut of portraying both mundane and memorizing characters. Over time, for white male wrestlers there’s been an opportunity to play farmers, a dentist, a clown, a tax collector, a trash man, an undertaker, a correctional officer, a cult leader, a snobby blue-blood, a pseudo-country music star, and even the dean of a college – just to name a few – but for black men the choice is a binary: either buffoon or brute.
Growing up, my favorite black wrestlers didn’t have professions; they were just tough guys whose gimmicks were simply an extension of the stereotypes associated with their race: aggressive, criminal, savage, athletic, aloof, nationalist, religious, the laughing stock, and hyper-sexual.
That’s not to say however, that no black man in professional wrestling had a gainfully employed gimmick, the-then WWF, now marketed as WWE, after all, once had The Godfather, who worked as an ostentatious, jive-talking pimp, and a character named Virgil who served as the valet for The Million Dollar Man.
Race, wrestling and the gimmicks caught in between them is a subject long written about from a place of noticing it, but notice not, it seems, is whether the threesome is influencing society’s view of black men in a way that’s problematic and/or inaccurate. No such particular study exist, yet there is one, which was this week published by the American Psychological Association, that notes that people perceive black men as larger, more threatening and more capable of harm than white men of the same height and weight.
By no means is the professional wrestling industry solely responsible for the results of the aforementioned study, but they certainly don’t mitigate the findings; in fact, they perpetuate and exacerbate it. White male wrestlers have portrayed gimmicks that also fed into the stereotypes black wrestlers are often relegated to, but there’s at least, for them, a balance: for every white monstrous heel introduced to fans, there appears to be one or two characters that aren’t; moreover, brute force isn’t seen as germane to whiteness, whereas the opposite is true for black men in the professional wrestling industry.
Black wrestlers don’t benefit from a balanced portrayal; in the wrestling ring, they’re either dominating opponents, or demeaning themselves via dancing, uttering slang or gyrating. Pro-wrestling isn’t as big as Hollywood, but it’s certainly a large enough media business, given its broad television distribution and online presence, where its portrayals – inaccurate, racially insensitive or otherwise – will be noticed and could influence social interactions, like that which involve the police and black men: online participants of the study – there was 950 of them from across the country – who were shown color photos of white and black men of identical height and weight believed the police would be justified in using of force regardless of whether or not those black men depicted were unarmed.
New generations of wrestling fans are here, and more are on the horizon. For their benefit, and for the sake of society, race relations and cultural understanding, the black body in the wrestling ring should be seen as boundless and capable of more than jumping high, talking shit, exhibiting rhythm and causing carnage. Pro-wrestling, more often than not, is racially insensitive and its entertainment value should no longer overshadow this truth.
Thanks for reading. Until next time, I’m Flood the Drummer® & I’m Drumming for JUSTICE!™
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