Former writer suing WWE, says she was fired for pushing back against racist creative ideas

Photo: CT Insider

Former WWE writer Britney Abrahams is suing the company and individual staff, including executive chairman Vince McMahon, alleging “discriminatory treatment, harassment, hostile work environment, wrongful termination, unlawful retaliation… due to her race, color, and gender”.

Abrahams, who is Black, says she was wrongfully fired, purportedly for taking a commemorative chair at Wrestlemania in 2022. She alleges that reasoning was a pretext and her termination was actually in retaliation for pushing back against racist creative ideas.

Besides WWE, the complaint is levied against McMahon and current members of WWE’s writing staff: Christine Lubrano, Ryan Callahan, Jennifer Pepperman, as well as other former writers for the company, Chris Dunn, Mike Heller. Finally, Stephanie McMahon, former co-CEO, is also among the named defendants.

Abrahams began working for WWE as a temporary writer, working on Smackdown, in November 2020. She became a permanent employee in May 2021, until her dismissed in April 2022.

In the complaint filed Monday in federal court with the Eastern District of New York, Abrahams details multiple instances in which WWE allegedly had talent act out racist stereotypes and pitched other racist concepts that didn’t make it to the screen.

Abrahams described working with Bianca Belair and her interactions with fellow writer Chris Dunn, and Smackdown’s lead writer and Abrahams’ supervisor, Ryan Callahan.

[W]ithin or around Plaintiff’s [Abrahams’] first two (2) weeks of employment with WWE she shadowed a male, white, Caucasian writer, Defendant DUNN, who wrote a backstage scene for Ms. Bianca Belair (hereinafter referred to as “Ms. Belair”), a black, African American female WWE wrestler.

Upon information and belief, Ms. Belair is one of two (2) dark-skinned black, African American female wrestlers.

The said scene included offensively racist and stereotypical jargon which Plaintiff found objectionable.

By way of example, according to the script, DUNN intended Ms. Belair, the said black female WWE wrestler, to say, “Uh-Uh! Don’t make me take off my earrings and beat your ass!” which are lines based upon cruel, ugly stereotypes of dark-skinned, black women.

Plaintiff asserts that Ms. Belair uttering that line was, and still is, negatively stereotypical of race and gender, and Plaintiff found it offensive, and still finds it offensive.

Prior to the writing of this scene many of the WWE writers commonly complained that they didn’t know what to do with Ms. Belair.

As a result, Plaintiff undertook researching Ms. Belair’s background, and discovered a fascinating family tree, including an aunt who helped desegregate her high school in the 1960s, and an uncle whose contributions to science were world-renowned.

DUNN allowed Plaintiff to write a first draft of Ms. Belair’s scene, so Plaintiff included positive references to Ms. Belair’s rich family history and sent it to DUNN for feedback.

DUNN told Plaintiff that the draft “looks great. I’m going to make some edits and submit it to [CALLAHAN].”

However, DUNN subjected Plaintiff’s draft to substantial editing, including inserting the said racial and gender stereotypes.

That same night, Plaintiff complained about the racially offensive and discriminatory nature of the scene to one of her WWE superiors, Defendant CALLAHAN.

Plaintiff emailed CALLAHAN and said, “I know I’m new, I’m not trying to be disrespectful or step on [DUNN]’s or anyone’s toes, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that [Ms. Belair]’s scene includes racial jargon and offensive stereotypes, particularly her go-home line.”

Plaintiff also requested clarification for protocol on moving forward with her complaint.

In conversation with Ms. Belair the following day, Ms. Belair informed Plaintiff that she told DUNN “3 DIFFERENT TIMES THAT I DON’T WANT TO SAY THAT LINE! BUT HE NEVER LISTENS TO ME! HE PUTS THAT LINE IN EVERY WEEK.”

Ms. Belair said the script’s discriminatory line(s) made her look “ghetto.”

Plaintiff relayed this information to DUNN and politely offered to edit the line(s).

However, despite Plaintiff’s complaint, Defendants failed and/or refused to take any immediate or appropriate corrective action in response.

Plaintiff never received any form of response from CALLAHAN, verbally nor via email, and CALLAHAN never spoke to Plaintiff about her email or the line(s), or the scene.

Additionally, WWE’s failure and/or refusal to address Plaintiff’s complaint emboldened WWE employees, including DUNN and CALLAHAN, to further discriminate against and to retaliate against Plaintiff in response to her protected conduct.

By way of example, WWE kept the discriminatory line in the script. Plaintiff was scheduled to shadow DUNN on two (2) scenes that day, one of which was the said scene with Ms. Belair.

However, around halfway through the day, DUNN  informed Plaintiff that she would now shadow CALLAHAN.

When Plaintiff requested DUNN’s assistance, he told Plaintiff “YOU HANDLE IT. IT’S YOUR SCENE NOW.”

CALLAHAN showed up for the taping of Plaintiff’s scenes about 90 seconds before they went live, and he never once mentioned Plaintiff’s email.

The complaint details discussions about having Reggie dress in drag, an idea that was shot down only after a white writer pressed the issue, Abrahams says.

[I]t was discussed in the WWE writer’s Slack channel before a show, that a new wrestler, Reggie, would dress in drag complete with wig and tights, “so he could partner with Carmella, a female wrestler, in a tag-team match against other female wrestlers.”

Reggie is a dark-skinned, African American, black straight male wrestler.

Given this pitch was shared via the Slack app, Defendants MR. MCMAHON and MS. MACHON [sic], as well as other WWE higher-ups, including Mr. Pritchard, and Mr. Ed Koskey were included on the thread.

Plaintiff’s co-worker, Ms. [Andrea] Listenberger, responded to the thread, observing that putting a straight black man in drag might perpetuate harmful stereotypes that would offend viewers. 

WWE eventually scrapped the discriminatory pitch, but only in response to a white, Caucasian individual’s protected conduct in the form of Ms. Listenberger’s complaint.

Apollo Crews’ being directed to speak with a Nigerian accent is pointed to as another example of racist stereotyping.

WWE forced wrestler Apollo Crews to speak with a Nigerian accent, just because of his Nigerian lineage. Apollo Crews is a black, Nigerian-born male.

Plaintiff emailed CALLAHAN and complained about the offensive nature of the requirement for

Apollo Crews to speak with a stereotypical and exaggerated Nigerian accent.

However, despite Plaintiff’s complaint, CALLAHAN failed and/or refused to take corrective action.

As a result, CALLAHAN and WWE forced Plaintiff to require Apollo Crews to speak with a racially artificial Nigerian accent.

An idea to present Shane Thorne as a wrestler who would “hunt” and capture Reggie was outlined as well, an idea that apparently didn’t appear onscreen.

[I]n or around the spring of 2021 CALLAHAN pitched that a white Caucasian male wrestler with a “hunting” gimmick would hunt a black, male wrestler for fun.

In a nutshell, the said hunting gimmick pitch for new wrestlers, Shane Thorne, and Reggie was, “since Shane is Australian, we should make him a crocodile hunter, and instead of crocodiles, he hunts people.”

Subsequently, a storyline was pitched by CALLAHAN where Shane would capture Reggie and constantly beat him up, but Reggie would always escape after being captured. 

Holding Reggie captive in cages was also discussed.

Plaintiff found CALLAHAN’s pitch highly offensive and objectionable.

Plaintiff again objected to her superior’s racially motivated misconduct, specifically stating that a gimmick where a white man hunting a black African American man for sport is racist.

CALLAHAN laughed and sarcastically responded, “OH, WHAT? IS THAT A BAD THING?”

CALLAHAN’s comments and conduct had the purpose and effect of humiliating and intimidating Plaintiff, and dramatically altered her work environment for the worse.

As the WWE writing team’s sole person of color, Plaintiff was devastated that none of her white, Caucasian co-workers stepped in to complain about this discriminatory and offensive pitch.

Afterwards, Plaintiff spoke with Mr. [Brian] Parise, a white, Caucasian WWE writer, who revealed that he agreed with Plaintiff that the pitch was racist, but he felt too nervous to speak up about it in front of CALLAHAN.

Abrahams alleges in the early months of her WWE tenure she was discriminated against by Jennifer Pepperman, which she raised to Human Resources.

PEPPERMAN discriminatorily treated Plaintiff and other black, and African American WWE employees poorly compared to their similarly-situated white, and Caucasian counterparts.

PEPPERMAN routinely and unjustifiably raised her voice at Plaintiff, and made rude comments about Plaintiff and other black, and African American WWE employees.

PEPPERMAN would just snap at Plaintiff and her similarly situated black, African American counterparts, or deliberately berate them in front of everyone else.

PEPPERMAN had zero patience for Plaintiff and her similarly situated black, African American counterparts.

PEPPERMAN’s tone and countenance routinely differed from when she spoke to or engaged with Plaintiff’s white, Caucasian counterparts.

PEPPERMAN’s comments and conduct were discriminatory, given she did not treat white, and Caucasian WWE employees in this manner.

PEPPERMAN’s comments and conduct had the purpose and effect of humiliating and intimidating Plaintiff, and their severity and pervasiveness dramatically altered Plaintiff’s work environment for the worse.

However, despite Plaintiff’s complaint, WWE failed to take any immediate or appropriate corrective action in response.

Abrahams says she wasn’t the only Black woman who was wrongly fired from WWE’s writing staff, which, she says, led to an investigation. Abrahams details being interviewed by HR but says, again, her concerns weren’t heard.

In or around November 2021, a black female writer’s assistant was fired after reporting WWE lead writer, CALLAHAN for creating a racially hostile environment against African American employees.

Shortly thereafter WWE questioned Plaintiff about her experiences with CALLAHAN, purportedly pursuant to an investigation into the said black female writer’s assistant’s protected conduct.

Plaintiff was asked if she “witnessed or was the victim of harassment on the creative writing team.”

Plaintiff described the discrimination and hostile work environment she had been subjected to by PEPPERMAN and had witnessed by PEPPERMAN towards other minority employees.

At a different time, Plaintiff received a call from WWE Human Resources representatives. They said, “It was brought to our attention that you called some pitches racist, and I want to know if it was directed at you or a part of direction for a storyline?”

Plaintiff told them it was for a storyline but that it came from WWE lead writer CALLAHAN, so it really shouldn’t have been said once, let alone twice, no matter serious or in jest. Plaintiff told them it was an offensive “joke.”

However, WWE Human Resources kept repeating, “but was it said about you?”

WWE never agreed that it shouldn’t have been said at all by someone of authority.

WWE also never asked if Plaintiff was okay after hearing those racist and sexist pitches.

Abrahams says Callahan made casual “racially discriminatory comments”  about a Muslim wrestler. The complaint doesn’t make clear who the wrestler was but goes on to detail a “love storyline” pitch she made with Sylvers. Abrahams says she and Sylvers were the only Black writers on the team at the time. The storyline would involve wrestlers Aliyah, Mansoor, and Angel Garza.

Ms. Sylvers and Plaintiff pitched that Mansoor has a secret that he’s keeping from Aaliyah [sic].

CALLAHAN disagreed with the secret Ms. Sylvers and Plaintiff wanted for the character.

Instead, CALLAHAN suggested, “how about his secret is he’s behind the 9/11 attacks?”

Ms. Sylvers nervously laughed and said, “let’s not do that. Let’s talk about the other part of the pitch.”

CALLAHAN said, “Oh, I guess you’re the lead writer now.”

Ms. Sylvers again laughed nervously, and said, “for just this moment so we can talk about something else.”

Following this, whenever a writer asked CALLAHAN a question, he would reply, “ask [Ms. Sylvers], she’s the lead writer now.”

CALLAHAN’s comments and conduct in this regard were clearly discriminatory given Plaintiff’s similarly situated white, Caucasian counterparts were not treated in this manner.

Additionally, HELLER shared a sexist pitch for a Muslim female wrestler wherein the said female wrestler lacked authority over her own mind and body.

Again, Ms. Sylvers and Plaintiff created a love storyline between wrestlers, Aaliyah, Mansoor, and Angel Garza.

In this pitch, Aaliyah and Mansoor were meant to fall in love, while a jealous Angel tries to break them up. The pitch made Aaliyah appear intelligent and confident in herself and desires, containing Aaliyah speaking up for herself against both Angel and Mansoor, and having her love and affection earned.

Ms. Sylvers and Plaintiff pitched this storyline to HELLER, who expressed confusion about Aaliyah and her choices, particularly her never wanting to be with Angel, who is the obvious villain in the story. HELLER was also confused that Aaliyah wasn’t “crying on the stairs after her breakup with Mansoor.”

HELLER then counter-pitched that Plaintiff make the storyline a love triangle objectifying and bimbofying Aaliyah. HELLER’s sexist counter-pitch included Angel being forward and aggressive in his efforts to date Aaliyah, Aaliyah being easily swayed by Angel’s evil tactics, and Aaliyah being confused about which guy she should date, oscillating between the two men until the end of the storyline.

HELLER and CALLAHAN made these discriminatory comments while Plaintiff and other female black, African American employees were in his presence in the writer’s room.

HELLER’s and CALLAHAN’s comments and conduct were clearly discriminatory.

Plaintiff immediately complained about these racially discriminatory comments.

Plaintiff spoke up and asked, “Doesn’t that take away Aaliyah’s agency?”

Plaintiff told HELLER that she wanted to make a pitch that was “more feminist, especially because Aaliyah’s character is already marketed as being ‘super-hot.’”

Plaintiff along with a number of her co-workers, including Ms. Sylvers and Mr. [Chad] Barbash also complained about the discriminatory nature of their lead writers’ comments.

This led to Abrahams and Sylvers meeting with Christine Lubrano, WWE’s senior vice president of creative writing.

LUBRANO met with Plaintiff and Ms. Sylvers and deliberately downplayed HELLER’s and CALLAHAN’s discriminatory remarks by claiming that she “heard it was a joke. And wacky things are said in the writer’s room all the time!”

When Plaintiff indicated that, “it doesn’t make it okay,” LUBRANO responded, “I know but look at the waves we’re making in the company. 4 years ago, no woman worked on the writer’s team!”

LUBRANO followed up and told Plaintiff she was doing a great job and that “[Pritchard], [MR. MCMAHON], and [MS. MCMAHON] love [Plaintiff’s] writing. But [Plaintiff] should be careful to pick and choose [Plaintiff’s] battles.”

The remainder of the complaint outlines Abrahams’ firing after taking a commemorative chair at Wrestlemania in April 2022.

She says Pepperman told the writer’s room they could take a chair after the event was over. Another writer, Michael Kirshenbaum said that writers were allowed to take chairs at the prior year’s Wrestlemania, according to Abraham, and Pepperman recounted another employee checking a chair at the airport.

Multiple white male employees took chairs as they left Wrestlemania, Abrahams claims, but they weren’t reprimanded.

Abrahams says her firing on or about April 7, 2022, for purportedly taking a commemorative chair wasn’t the real reason for her dismissal. She alleges she “was targeted for a pretextual termination by WWE’s executive management team and her direct supervisors.”

Abrahams says she had trouble finding employment after leaving WWE “due to Defendants’ discrimination and defamatory statements regarding her work performance.”

Abrahams is seeking an award of damages in an amount to be determined at trial.

We reached out to WWE for comment but haven’t received a response.

Abrahams is represented by the Cochran Firm.

Brandon Thurston has written about wrestling business since 2015. He’s also worked as an independent wrestler and trainer.

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