Opinion: Privilege in Wrestling

“I’m not saying that white people are better but being white is clearly better! Who can even argue? If it was an option I would re-up every year.” – Louis C.K.

When I ask students in the political science classes I teach what they think of when they think about privilege, students respond with phrases like, “Having an advantage over someone else”.

I define privilege as having the luxury of not having to think about issues that another person or group has to consciously think about.

When my fiancé and I are walking down the street and holding hands, never once do either of us think to ourselves, “Hey babe! Maybe we should stop holding hands in this neighborhood because we might be discriminated against for being straight.” 

However, if we were a same-sex couple, it is something we might have to worry about because, let’s be honest, in the United States, there are plenty of neighborhoods where same-sex love is frowned upon.

I encourage everyone to think of privilege from this vantage point. If you are white, are you ever afraid of being pulled over for driving while Black? If you are a male, are you ever worried about walking into a job interview seven months pregnant and not getting the job because of that? Just some food for thought.

Abrahams Lawsuit

So you might be wondering why I’m asking these questions and what it has to do with former writer Britney Abrahams’ lawsuit against WWE. 

When I saw how long Abrahams’ 33-page complaint was, I Immediately regretted volunteering to write an article about this. After all, in a past life, I was a paralegal and I hated it. I would get cases way longer than this and found the work to be very tedious and boring.

But the more I read this case, the more intrigued I was. I actually read it twice just to make sure I understood the complexities of this case.

These things should not be “complexities” but, because of the way WWE — and society as a whole — is structured, they are.

Abrahams alleges “discriminatory treatment, harassment, hostile work environment, wrongful termination, unlawful retaliation against the Plaintiff due to her race, color, and gender.”

One idea pitched was to have dark-skinned African American male wrestler, Reggie participate in a storyline where he’d be hunted like an animal by Australian wrestler Shane Thorne. 

“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.’” 

Well, I guess if you’re Black, it’s good to know WWE’s stereotyping isn’t just limited to African American talent — if you want to look at that as the glass half full. 

Elsewhere, writers pitched WWE Raw champ Bianca Belair say a phrase stereotypical to Black women, there was an idea reveal Mansoor was behind the 9/11 attacks, a storyline where a Muslim woman would be subservient to a man, and more.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, these are claims about WWE in 2021 and 2022.

Later in Abrahams’ court filing, it states, referring to the idea of Reggie being hunted, “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.”

The above statement speaks directly to the privilege in a WWE writers’ room where none of Abrahams’ colleagues have to care or even think about how this might come off to Black audiences so long as it is “entertaining.”

With all that said, bad ideas are just par the course for writers, and, since a lot of what Abrahams alleges never made it passed the cutting room floor, it will likely be hard to prove racism on this front.

So I guess the question you might be asking is am I accusing WWE of being racist? 

The answer is a little more complicated than ‘Yes, they are card-carrying members of the Klan” or “No, they are the textbook definition of progressive,” which brings me back to the word privilege.

Mark Henry

Like in life, in wrestling being Black is a full-time job, especially in an environment where there are very few Black writers and no one there to advocate for you. 

On Huff Post Live back in June 2014, Marc Lamont Hill interviewed Mark Henry. In true Marc Lamont Hill fashion, Hill pressed Henry about the stereotypes in wrestling. 

Henry was initially reluctant but then finally brought up when WWE gave Henry the nickname, “The Silverback”. Yes, there was a point in time in WWE where they were calling Henry a silverback gorilla. In the interview, Henry recalls, “Honestly, I could not do it. I told them: ‘I can’t do that. I got two little Black kids at home.'”

This is the same Mark Henry who was in a storyline relationship with 70-year-old Mae Young, where she gave birth to a hand and the same Mark Henry who was made to look like the butt of a joke when he was lured into trying to get sex, in a segment that can best be described as transphobic.

I swear that Henry has the patience of Job for being able to withstand the onslaught of bad storylines that he was given during his WWE tenure, but it is good to know in 2014 that even Henry believed that comparing him to a gorilla was a bridge too far. 

There was also the time back in 2008 when Michael Hayes was suspended for 60 days for telling Henry that he was more of an N-word than he was. 

I swear Henry must’ve taken the path of least resistance approach to WWE, and how this idiot Michael Hayes still has a job in the company after saying something like that isn’t that much of a mystery when his boss said the same word on TV.

Bianca Belair vs. Becky Lynch: Hair vs. Hair?

I recall some WWE fans suggesting Bianca Belair be in a hair vs. hair match with Becky Lynch. I specifically remember Stephanie Hypes from TruHeelHeat’s Serving Face and Heels admonishing that idea. I also brought up the historical context of Black women and their hair.

As angry as I was at the suggestion, I understand there are a lot of fans who don’t know this history, but ideas like this are a prime example of the colorblind racism that exists in wrestling, where white fans and writers don’t even have to think about how storylines affect Black people or other people of color.

I was very happy with the way WWE course-corrected Bianca Belair’s loss to Becky Lynch in mere seconds at last year’s Summerslam. For all intents and purposes, Belair is the closest thing WWE has ever had and probably ever will have to a female version of Cena. But that someone thought that was a good idea is mind-boggling, and keep in mind this is after they did something similar to Kofi Kingston, just not giving any consideration to the Black kids who were inspired by Kingston’s title win, instantly defining him down by having Brock Lesnar squash him. I couldn’t even fathom Cena winning the title and then losing it in a matter of seconds; WWE would instantly think about how it would affect the kids.

Speaking of Cena, he got over using hip-hop culture. Even he admits that he was dead in the water until he adopted the rapping gimmick. King Eric from Off the Cuff Radio believes that John Cena owes hip-hop culture for the way he used it — and abandoned it — once he became mainstream. It’s hard to argue that point. If I were a guessing man I would say that Cena was following marching orders from McMahon but the point is that when Cena began wearing the Fruity Pebbles shirts and stopped rapping, he had the privilege of being able to turn into what McMahon wanted him to be. 

Jinder Mahal: A Heel for Being Indian

I recall back in 2017 when Jinder Mahal was given the WWE title. Fans and journalists scoffed and bemoaned this but I really liked the idea of Jinder Mahal being the first person of Indian descent to be world champion. 

In the beginning, I thought Mahal did a more than serviceable job in his new role as world champ. I then saw an episode of Smackdown where Jinder was made to go out to the crowd and get heel heat, not for being a bad guy, but for simply being an Indian.

I really scratched my head at this crap and didn’t understand it but then I listened to an episode of Talk is Jericho. In this episode from 2017, Jinder tells a story about Vince McMahon rewriting one of his promos.

“He had rewritten my promo. The original promo was something totally different. So when I finished calling the match, one of the writers was like ‘Hey, Vince changed your promo’. I was like okay, bring it to me. Can you please bring it to me? So they brought it to me and I had read the [anti-]American comment and all that, and, I was like, I like the old promo better. It was like, I tried being peaceful and nobody was listening but now I have everyone’s attention. I just beat five of Smackdown’s very best [wrestlers] and I did it all alone. Something like that. It was just a regular heel promo but then the new one was like, ‘You Americans,’ this and that. I was like, I don’t think we should go there but I’m like, Vince wrote it, it’s okay, but I did it and the reaction that I got, I was like ‘Oh man, Vince is a genius!’ He knows exactly what’s going to draw the most heat.”

Of course, Jericho agreed, and they both waxed poetic about how much of a genius McMahon is for the following four minutes or so.

All I could do was shake my head and think about the Jedi mind trick Vince played on Mahal to get him to think that going the cheap heat route that relies on outdated stereotypes is better than cutting an original promo that doesn’t rely on that type of antiquated bullshit.

Keith Lee: You Don’t Sound Black Enough

Keith Lee is a man that looked like he needed someone to give him a big hug his entire main roster run in WWE. He went from being the “Limitless” Keith Lee to “Bearcat” Keith Lee, the latter, a character he couldn’t relate to because he didn’t know what it was supposed to be. Bearcat Wright was a wrestler from the 1950s who is the disputed first Black world champion in professional wrestling (before Ron Simmons).

In another Talk is Jericho interview, this one from 2022, Lee admits that McMahon was not a fan of the way he spoke

Lee says McMahon told him that he sounded too smart for his own good. When I heard Lee say that, I was shocked but not surprised. I guess Lee didn’t fit the stereotype of what a big Black man should sound like. With the limited context that I have of this, it comes off as extremely racist. 

What’s Gonna Happen?

Privilege is a luxury in wrestling. I don’t think WWE is thinking about the fact these characters are minorities when they’re placed in these aforementioned gimmicks and storylines and unfortunately, that is the problem.

I’m not sure if Britney Abrahams will succeed with her lawsuit. Should the case actually make it to trial, I’m not sure whether Black wrestlers will testify against her and I seriously doubt any will stand in the gap for her. 

It’s my hope that all wrestling companies have a diverse writing staff, especially if they’re going to rely on the talent of minority wrestlers.

I hope that all the minority wrestlers and writers know their value. I’m not suggesting they need to fight the writing staff over every single thing but when something doesn’t feel right, they should be free to vocalize it without the fear of being fired the way Abrahams was.

The knee-jerk reaction for a lot of WWE fans is to say, “WWE is not racist” at the mere suggestion that something in WWE might be. I remember when Sasha Banks and Naomi walked out and so many fans just knew for a fact that it was not race related even though all we got was that ridiculous statement from WWE and nothing from Sasha or Naomi.

I cannot emphatically say that WWE is racist just like none of us can emphatically say that they are not racist. The one thing I can say is, WWE has a culture problem and this problem is not brand new.

Kristoffer Ealy is a political science professor and business psychologist with a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership. He co-hosts the Nubian Wrestling Advocates podcast on POST Wrestling.