WWE's sordid history of racism makes its swift justice vs. Hogan ring hollow
Everyone knows that the WWE and professional wrestling are fake—a group of finely chiseled athletes, orchestrated by a scripted theater of controversial plots, story arcs and over-the-top characters. Against that backdrop, cult icon Hulk Hogan became the most recognizable face of the WWE after winning the world championship against The Iron Sheik in January 1983, and last week its most stunning big-name dismissal.
Known previously as the WWF, the franchise branded Hogan as The Hulkster and capitalized off of his alluring, patriotic, good-guy persona. In the words of Hogan himself, “Hulkamania was running wild, brother!” Still, while Hulkamaniacs rejoiced, what wasn’t fake was the WWE’s sordid history of exploiting racial stereotypes. For decades the organization capitalized and profited off racist undertones, even while receiving countless criticism over its portrayal and treatment of minority characters. It also has been chided for the fact that in the company’s 63-year history there has never been a unified African-American World Champion. (The Rock, a seven-time WWE champion and noted Hogan nemesis, is bi-racial, having been born to an African-American father and a Samoan mother.)
Nevertheless, the criticism regarding professional wrestling’s premiere franchise never thwarted the company’s multi-million dollar cash machine. While Hogan—a blond, 6’7” Tampa native who first gained famed as Thunderlips in Rocky III in 1982—became an All-American folk hero (before he briefly went to the dark side with the nWo in the rival WCW in 1996), some of the WWE’s most popular characters have been its most controversial. Rowdy Roddy Piper, a Canadian wrestler who wore a kilt and was billed as being from Glasgow, Scotland, was a WWF superstar in the '80s alongside Hogan. Unlike Hogan, Piper was a textbook villain whose entire shtick was built upon spewing brash, lewd comments regarding race and gender. In his on-air segment Piper’s Pit, he once asked wrestler Tony Atlas, who is black, “To get them big arms, do you eat all of that soul food stuff? Do you eat pigs' feet?” After Atlas seemingly took offense to the line of questioning, Piper responded, “Let me tell you something in your own language, I don’t let the thieves stop me from enjoying my watermelon.”
In another interview segment, this time with Fijian wrestler Jimmy (Superfly) Snuka, Piper asked his rival if he grew up climbing trees like a monkey to get coconuts. Piper also once said that Mr. T’s lips looked like “a catcher’s mitt,” and later told him that he would “whip him like a slave.”
Then there was wrestler Ted (The Million Dollar Man) DiBiase, whose black sidekick/bodyguard Virgil was often subjugated and debased as a part of DiBiase’s emerging storyline. In a video from 1987, DiBiase can be seen boasting about how he could easily buy Virgil, to which Virgil responds “Yes-suh!” Throughout their pairing, DiBiase often referred to Virgil as a slave, even having him rub his feet.
And the list doesn’t stop there. Kamala, The Ugandan Headhunter, was billed as being from “Deepest, Darkest Africa,” and exhibited mannerisms and grunts that were almost inhuman. He wrestled with a spear and wore tribal paint on his face and belly. The Junkyard Dog’s gimmick was crafted in the frame of textbook Negro shuck and jive, with him prancing around wearing a dog collar and chains. Former WWE legend and color commentator Jesse (The Body) Ventura once referred to the Junk Yard Dog as having “a mouth full of grits.” Ventura also commonly called fan favorite Tito Santana, a Mexican-American, “Chico” and dubbed his finishing move the “flying burrito.”
Former WWE champ Triple H, who often mocked African-American wrestler Booker T for his "nappy hair, once said that “people like Booker T couldn’t win championships," and that in the WWE “they were just there to dance and entertain.” Then there was Cryme Time, a tag-team made up of wrestlers JTG and Shad Gaspard and who brandished themselves as thugged out, gangsta rappers. Their catch phrase was, “Yo yo yo, pop a 40 and check ya rollies-it’s Cryme Time,” and they were often shown assaulting police officers and committing robberies.
The Nation of Domination was a group of black wrestlers who acted as a parody of the Nation of Islam, with group members adopting Islamic names and wearing Muslim headgear. The Mexicools, a group of three Mexican wrestlers whose act exhibited the most stereotypical characteristics of Mexicans, made their debut in June 2005, when all three members rode to the ring on a John Deere lawn mower, but with a sticker that read Juan Deere.
For decades the WWE willingly played up to numerous racial stereotypes like these, with CEO Vince McMahon even appearing on the WWE primetime show SmackDown in 2005 using the N-word in a scripted backstage reference to Booker T. And as recently as 2014, The Real Americans existed, a tag team whose gimmick was based on American patriotism and xenophobia, with them constantly explaining that they were "Real Americans" because they were either born in the United States or entered the country legally.
Given that the WWE has never been shy about crossing racial boundaries and stirring up controversy, one has to wonder about the motivation behind its swift removal of a superstar such as Hogan. After reports emerged on July 23 that Hogan made racially charged statements eight years ago regarding his daughter Brooke’s black boyfriend—repeatedly using the N-Word and calling himself a racist—the WWE promptly fired Hogan, erasing him from its website and laying down the ultimate body slam by removing him from its Hall of Fame. The company has even ceased production and sales of his merchandise.
While Hogan’s words were vile and indefensible, and his public shaming fitting, it's odd that the WWE expunged him from its existence for using the same slur in private that McMahon used on live TV in a scripted skit. And what about Donald Trump, a frequent WWE personality, friend of McMahon and 2013 Hall of Fame inductee, who recently disparaged Mexicans by calling them rapists and drug dealers? Doesn’t he, too, deserve some type of admonishment by the organization? That's before we even get to Mike Tyson, who served three years in prison for a 1992 rape conviction, but was still inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2012.
While the WWE has yet to reveal its stance on Trump, a company representative addressed the 2005 McMahon skit by telling TMZ, everyone recognizes the 2005 segment with Vince "was an outlandish and satirical skit involving fictional characters, similar to that of many scripted television shows and movies."
If McMahon and the WWE are trying to maintain a somewhat family-friendly brand of entertainment via its swift justice with Hogan, the move rings hollow to me. It comes across as nothing more than a “Do as I say, not as I have always done” gesture to keep corporate sponsors and social media happy. Until the jokes in the ring stop offending and there is a level playing field as it relates to who is allowed to become a world champion, few should buy the WWE’s good guy spiel.