Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Conflicting Images of Race

Professional wrestling has frequently used racial or ethnic characters, either to appeal to a particular local demographics or as a quick means to create a immediately despised heel (the Foreign Menace as described William C. Martin's article "Friday Night in the Coliseum").  In many of these cases the race or ethnicity of the performer was the extent of the characterization. To paraphrase the comments of one wrestling insider, ethnic characters did not need a gimmick as their ethnicity (e.g. African American, Puerto Rican) was their gimmick.  In other cases, the audience was simply not aware that the performer’s race or ethnicity diverged from the ethnic characterization being portrayed. For example, most Native American characters were not Native American, but Hispanic (see the Youngbloods), Italian-American (see Jay Strongbow), or even Iraqi (see Billy Whitewolf). Similarly, while an audience may have suspected that the Soviet wrestlers were not Russian (most were American or Canadian), in most cases the performers’ physical attributes and attempts to speak with an accent led plausibility to the characters.

Chief Jay Strongbow (Italian American)

Wahoo McDaniel (Native American)

This latter case where the ethnic background of the performer conflicts with the character presented immediately reminded of a Mick Foley interview from his Cactus Jack ECW days (1995), where he begs Tommy Dreamer to sign with World Championship Wrestling (WCW) where:
you truly can be anything you wanna be! I've seen it all a hundred times Tommy. I've seen a tough Jewish kid from Brooklyn become a black man from Macon! I've seen a farm kid from Nebraska become an overnight pop star sensation! I've seen a kid from New Hampshire become a Frenchman. And one particular wrestler who went through 5 different incarnations before finding himself heavyweight champion of the world.

Foley’s first reference—converting a Jewish kid to a black southerner—references Marc Mero. A golden gloves boxer, Mero was portrayed as a Little Richard character in WCW and for all intents and purposes portrayed as an effeminate African American. If memory serves, Mero (in character) was interviewed by Black Entertainment Television (BET) during his run in the 1990s in WCW. 

 Whereas Mero could arguably pass as black (just as Russians and Native American characters could pass), George Gray could not. George Gray, a white wrestler from South Carolina, spent most of the 1980s as a mohawked character the One Man Gang. However,  in 1988, his character in the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) found his ethnic roots in “deepest darkest Africa” and reemerged as the dashiki wearing, jive talking Akeem the African Dream.  Although these cases may be the most extreme examples in the 1980s and 1990s, other cases emerge of Asian characters portrayed by non-Asian wrestlers (e.g. Yoshi Kwan, Makhan Singh,  Kwang).
The need to repackage performers who no longer draw an audience in part explains Foley’s tongue-in-cheek claims of WCW’s magic, but also perhaps explains the willingness for promoters to consider characters which conflict with the physical attributes of the performer in the first place. Wrestling after all creates characters already, so it is not a logical leap that promoters would use the talent they have to fill such roles, ethnic characterizations or otherwise. It also speaks to the abilities of the performers to transition to new characters.  Such diversity for example would be considered a strength in other artistic forms (e.g. acting). 

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