People of colour are breaking records, main-eventing pay-per-views and selling tickets right now in WWE. It’s easy to point out a handful of them that are stealing the shows and have ascended to the top of the hierarchy. But is it so black and white? Is the success of the few the success of the many? And how much does colourism play into which of the select few are chosen to succeed?
In comparison to its origins, WWE’s current product places a good portion of its minority talent at the forefront of the show. After holding onto the NXT Women’s championship for 523 days, it’s clear that Japanese star Asuka is a top-tier talent. Samoan “Big Dog” Roman Reigns is a grand slam champion, Royal Rumble 2015 winner, and a three-time WrestleMania main eventer. We’ve also had Sasha Banks, the Usos, Bayley, Shinsuke Nakamura and more doing things like holding championship gold, headlining pay-per-views, and performing in show-stealing matches. It’s a good time to be a person of colour in WWE. But is this opportunity apparent for everyone? Or, like the majority of signed talent, is it mostly available only if one has light skin?
Some may disagree. The New Day, three dark-skinned African American men, are currently the longest reigning Tag-Team champions of all time. Not only that, but they’re the only team to win both the RAW and SmackDown tag titles and were the biggest merchandise sellers at WrestleMania just last year. They were a part of the very first tag-team Elimination Chamber match and embarked on the very first tag-team Hell in a Cell contest.
Naomi, a dark-skinned African American woman was the third woman to win the SmackDown Women’s championship, making her the first black person to hold the title. The star was also the first and only woman to have a customized belt, the lights turned out during the entirety of her entrance – an aesthetic mostly reserved for top-tier talent such as The Undertaker – and walked out of WrestleMania 33 as the new women’s champion in front of her hometown crowd. First Indian WWE World Heavyweight champion, Jinder Mahal, is a dark-skinned Indian man who has held the title longer than some of the biggest stars in WWE history. Of course, these are all brilliant success stories (and they aren’t the only ones), but there’s more to the story than the happy endings.
Prior to the New Day’s work as a team, the three men were placed in individual gimmicks that were stereotypical of their race and/or hard to make work. Big E Langston was the silent bodyguard for AJ Lee and Dolph Ziggler. Whilst the other two did the mic work, Langston stood still and took down anyone when necessary. At times, he would literally be stood outside of the ring whilst his counterparts would be speaking inside. Not only does this play on the “angry black man” archetype, but it literally makes him feel so irrelevant that it’s hard for crowds to care for him.
Xavier Woods previously was partnered with R-Truth as a comedic tag-team. The two men would gain a few wins here and there, but that would only lead to them being dominated by stronger-looking opponents such as Rusev. Kofi Kingston, whilst having the most individual success of the three, was still made to conform to racial or comedic stereotypes. Initially, the Ghanaian-American Superstar was made to speak with a heavy accent and portray himself as Jamaican. Whilst he was somewhat popular with crowds, Kingston’s successes quickly lead to him putting over other stars such as Randy Orton.
Although the three had moderate levels of success as individuals, their solo roads weren’t quite so clear-cut. And even as a trio, they were placed in a box. The initial New Day vignettes had the men dancing with a gospel choir, with forgetful matches following them. Not the idealistic run for a hopeful tag team. But with perseverance and risk-taking, the group became one of the biggest teams the company has ever produced.
Although Naomi has found her way up the ladder, it took almost seven years for her to get a title belt around her waist. Confined to either being a cheerleader for a comedic tag team, being the aggressor that never got anywhere, or putting over newer talent, the 2-time Women’s champion didn’t have the easiest journey to success.
Jinder Mahal was placed in a trio whose job it was to perform in a “band”, get beaten up by bigger guys and to manage the competitors of a “WeeLC” match, a match intended to make an exhibition out of little people. But, after six years since his debut, he was given his first championship in 2017.
And whilst these few have had a long-winded public struggle to the top, other minorities have walked a different path. Since her NXT debut in October 2015, Asuka has yet to be defeated in WWE. Roman Reigns was immediately a dominant force that gained championship gold and went on to take down The Undertaker, Triple H and John Cena. Sasha Banks and Bayley were portrayed as saviours of the women’s division before they even set foot on RAW or SmackDown. Pretty soon, they went on to being headliners of pay-per-views and winning multiple championships. The list goes on.
It appears that whilst there is a struggle for those of colour to get representation, the lines are further divided when one’s skin is darker. Would Naomi have been pushed to the top of the division sooner had she had lighter skin? Would the New Day have been given the treatment of The Shield if they looked different? Maybe Jinder would’ve had a bigger return if, like Shinsuke Nakamura, he wasn’t so dark.
So whilst WWE does put minorities forward and is changing their ways, there are still some issues to overcome.
What do you think of this? Does WWE have a problem with colour? Is race still an issue? Let us know your views in the comments below!