For my entire life, I’ve been asked why I watch wrestling. I can answer that question from the perspective of an adult: I appreciate the athleticism, drama and moments real-life risks that athletes take in the ring. I can answer that question as an intellectual: The backstage politics and how they play out on screen is fascinating to watch. I can even answer that question as a parent: I can teach my son not to do what they do on TV because he understands they’re just entertainers and not trying to hurt each other.
But I’ve never quite found a way to explain to people why I watch wrestling as a black man.
A transcript of wrestler Hulk Hogan expressing racist opinions has surfaced, causing World Wrestling Entertainment to disassociate itself from him in ways they haven’t done since Chris Benoit committed suicide after murdering his wife and son. Though the WWE is attempting to bury the Hulkster’s history with the company, it can’t keep people from dredging up the racist stereotypes and storylines the company has trafficked in for years. And it has caused me to once again face the fact that I’m a black man who patronizes a company that doesn’t seem to regard its black characters or fans as more than broad, usually offensive stereotypes.
Since I’ve been a wrestling fan, I’ve watched racist characters and storylines come and go: The White guy who went by “African Dream” and jive-talked his way to the ring; Virgil, the Million Dollar Man’s butler who shined his boss’s shoes; Papa Shango, the witchdoctor who practiced voodoo on his opponents. Let’s not forget the time Roddy Piper wore half-blackface during a WrestleMania match. Or Shelton Benjamin’s momma. Or the black tag team that went by the name Cryme Tyme (I’m not making that up). Or the good guy wrestlers going to the ring in blackface to mimic the black bad guy group.
Shall I continue?
Calling wrestling’s “history” racist is a misnomer because so much of wrestling’s present is drenched in racist (and misogynist—please let’s not disregard this segment of their storytelling) stereotypes and stories. In just 2005, Vince McMahon called John Cena “my n*gga” live on a WWE pay-per-view. Every time I see black wrestlers, I prepare myself for the good chance that they’ll be involved in some sort of degrading storyline to “set us back” a few years. What else should I expect from a company that now employs a writer who used to wrestle with a confederate flag-painted face and called a wrestler the N-word?
Despite all of this, I still watch. I watch Monday Night RAW on Hulu every Tuesday and consume hours upon hours of wrestling on the WWE Network every week. And I’ve never stopped, even when it feels like I’m betraying parts of myself. Sometimes, I feel like a contradiction when I rally against movies like Exodus in between live-tweeting about Monday Night RAW episodes. I feel like a sellout sometimes when I try to combat how the media portrays Black America only to turn around and buy a pay-per-view showing black wrestlers as thugs and thieves.
I honestly can’t tell if I have a legitimate reason to watch wrestling despite its racism or if my conviction as a proud black man isn’t strong enough to trump my desire to see Brock Lesnar take someone to Suplex City. But here’s as honest of a reason I can come up with: I still watch wrestling because, despite the racist storylines and gimmicks black wrestlers are usually anchored with, I can still feel immeasurable pride in the black wrestlers themselves. To me, watching a black wrestler in the WWE isn’t much different than watching a black person in America—saddled with stereotypes and odds that he or she won’t ever truly succeed, but still somehow managing to be great. I can still watch wrestling because I love seeing Sasha Banks become a superstar (and one of the three best wrestlers in the company, in my opinion) even when the WWE feels like she is best served next to other women of color simply because of their ethnicities. I can still cheer for the New Day, who turned a shucking and jiving gimmick into one of the most entertaining aspects of RAW every week. I can still feel pride when Titus O’Neil gets on commentary and talks circles around people who try to call him uneducated. I feel proud of Booker T, who became an all-time great even after a “G.I. Bro” gimmick. And let’s not forget Junkyard Dog, The Rock*, Ron Simmons and other black wrestlers before him.
Hulk Hogan’s racism and the WWE’s perpetuation of racist stereotypes hasn’t stopped me from watching. And I’m honestly not sure what will. But I think the ensuing backlash will cause the WWE to rethink the way it approaches minorities and women going forward. If not, I’ll continue to root for these subjugated groups despite the fact they work for a structure that hasn’t shown a desire to see them truly succeed.
Who said wrestling doesn’t imitate real life?
*There has been a lot of…well…ignorant rhetoric that The Rock “doesn’t count” as a black man because he’s half-Samoan and that the WWE never had a black champion because he “passes” for something else. This is silly. The Rock’s father, Rocky Johnson was a black wrestler who went by the moniker “The Soul Man” and The Rock shared his black and Samoan heritages equally. Also, before becoming champion, he was booked into a Black Nationalist organization called The Nation of Domination. It was rumored that the night after Rock won his championship, Vince wanted him to kiss his bare ass on national TV. So he clearly wasn’t free of stereotyping on TV. The Rock should be celebrated for his crossover success despite the company he worked for instead of having his blackness diminished due to some inane idea of what it means to “keep it real.”