Alberto Del Rio & WWE's Treatment of Non-White Performers
Posted by Len Archibald on 08.23.2014
Alberto Del Rio was released by WWE for "unprofessional conduct" after slapping a fellow WWE employee who made culturally insensitive remarks. We have not heard about any repercussions from the employee in question. It is time for WWE and its fans to take a long, hard and real look into its history of treating non-white performers.
In making my grand return to contributing for 411, I had my first column mapped out and ready to go. It would have been a good re-introduction of who I am as well as my point of view towards this crazy spectacle we all love.
Then this little tidbit was released that made me re-examine everything:
The Wrestling Observer has more details on Alberto Del Rio's WWE release. The site reports that Del Rio was, as has been heavily reported, fired after slapping a WWE social media employee. That employee is Cody Barbierri, the WWE's Manager of Social Media Live Events, and the incident occurred last week on the night of the Smackdown tapings (August 5th). The report of Barbierri making a racist joke about Del Rio's job being to clean plates is accurate; one performer for the company notes that the firing wasn't as much about the slap but how hard it was, enough to knock Barbierri to the ground.
Del Rio was told after the incident that he would be suspended until just past SummerSlam, but the belief is that Barbierri threatened to sue the company and that forced the company's hands for legal reasons. Triple H called Del Rio on August 7th to let him know and he was reportedly furious.
The Observer notes that Barbierri isn't well-liked backstage because he frequently talks down to the talent, but he is a high-ranking person in the company and has the support of the McMahon family.
For those familiar with who I am, it is not very often that I use a public forum to discuss my personal beliefs, nor go on a soapbox about social issues. I keep those to myself. However, in light of this incident, along with other points that have been raised – the brief formation of a "New Nation of Domination" (according to fans) between Kofi Kingston, Big E and Xavier Woods, and an article discussing race in the WWE – something is pulling at me to discuss an issue that is touched upon but has never fully made it to a real public conversation. I'll just put it out there:
I am a person of color. One who loves professional wrestling. Even though I consider myself well versed in its history and have been immersed in Maple Leaf Wrestling, NWA, WCW, ECW, WCCW, AWA, New Japan, Stampede Wrestling, ROH, SHIMMER, CHIKARA and TNA, it has been the antics and superstars of the WWE that has shaped my childhood and my perception of what a well-produced professional wrestling show is all about. As the worldwide leader of this industry, it is the WWE who has the eyes of the entire world on them. Their content, staff and business strategies is what ultimately shapes the overall perception of professional wrestling to the outside world. When the steroid trials happened in 1992, it was WWE and the face of Vince McMahon – not WCW or Ted Turner that was examined. When Chris Benoit murdered his wife and child in 2007, it was the WWE, not TNA that had the magnifying glass on them. Perception decides how the outside world digests any entity – in some cases, it is not right – but that is how it is.
Right now, the WWE is suffering from a massive perception issue – and this particular situation has not made it easier. With all the hoopla of the WWE's financial woes, from the misjudgment of the number of WWE Network subscribers, to budget cuts and staff releases – the company finds themselves in a realm where they are not in the most favorable light; from the business world or their fans. And then this happens.
We wrestling fans have been more than aware of the stigma wrestling has had with the mishandling of cultures different from what I would consider to be the All-American Caucasian Male. We have seen Samoan savages who eat raw fish, African hunters with handlers stuck in the ways of the 1800's, foreign antagonists from high-risk Middle Eastern cultures, Asian superstars who lack the acumen to learn English and whose only offense consists of some form of martial arts and hot-tempered Latino men who have a penchant for ending every statement with "Esse!" That's just a few examples – and we as fans have pretty much accepted these tropes. These stereotypes have permeated through generations of wrestling fans – shaping the perception of these characters to those who consume this form of entertainment. For decades this has just been the way it has been. We have accepted it as such. Not many, though, have bothered to examine WHY it has been this way – and WHY, in the year 2014, in the midst of the United States' first President of color in his final years of office, are some of these archetypes – albeit more subtlety – are still in existence.
This was not subtle...and I was in attendance that day.
The incident with Del Rio will hopefully shed light on an issue within the world of professional wrestling that have been quietly discussed among fans and performers "in the know" but has never made it to a full-out public forum: there is still a cultural divide between the promoters of professional wrestling – more specifically, the WWE, and its worldwide contingency of fans. And as the years go by, this cultural divide is widening, and it is becoming more apparent to those same fans.
Let me make one thing crystal clear – when an incident between two representatives of a company escalates to a physical confrontation in any given situation, it is perfectly within the company's right to reprimand that employee to the full extent of their HR policy. If that means termination – so be it. Del Rio should have taken this up with the WWE's higher ups and made a complaint. When Michael Hayes and Mark Henry got into a confrontation based on a racially insensitive comment, Henry verbally escalated his concerns to the right channels and Hayes was reprimanded. Granted, I admit I do not know all the details or even the context of the physical confrontation. Maybe Del Rio was looking for an excuse to make his exit. Maybe Barbierri truly believed he was making a harmless "joke". The point of the matter is that BOTH Del Rio AND Barbierri was in the wrong. And both should have been reprimanded for it. The issue right now is that Del Rio has been fired. And we have heard nothing about any repercussions for Barbierri. This is where the dangerous precedent of perception lies.
What does it say about a company – a supposed global company - that prides itself on an anti-bullying platform when it is unable to properly dissect, investigate and react to a culturally sensitive situation? Especially when that company already carries the stigma of being culturally insensitive with its product and how they depict specific characters based solely on a culture? This isn't even an issue with performers of color. Sheamus, as an Irish character is depicted based on the age-old stereotype that all Irishmen "love to fight." Fit Findlay's WWE intro music began with him proclaiming as much. Russev is now the latest in a long lineage of characters the WWE has used to portray their version of the "Evil Communist Russian Who Hates America". Santino played up the bumbling comedic Italian, akin to Roberto Benigni. It also does not matter the cultural background of any of the WWE Divas – not one of them are portrayed as a fleshed-out three-dimensional character. They are either jealous, "ghetto" or crazy. None of them have any history with each other – there are no "rivalries"; two fight for whatever catty superficial reason they have, and then once their issue ends, those Divas move on to the next superficial issue they have with another Diva. It has been this way since 2000, with the very rare exception of Trish vs. Lita.
When a character the likes of Muhammad Hassan arrives, and is introduced as a multi-layered portrayal of an American-born Muslim man living in post-911 and quickly devolves into nothing more than a terrorist stereotype, is the WWE even aware of the indirect contribution they are making to perpetuating that stereotype and alienating over a third of the world? Or how they are simply feeding fire to fans that are too narrow-minded to view peace-practicing Muslims as human beings and justifying their hatred? Same goes with a short-lived tag team like Cryme Tyme, who portrays stereotypical gangbangers. The difference between them and a tag-team like The Usos is that while they embrace and celebrate their Samoan culture – that culture does not define who they are, and strange things happen – they are loved by their fans because of how they perform – not because of where they come from.
While I have no doubts the WWE has taken measures to be perceived as more culturally inclusive, the actions they have taken with their diverse set of superstars have done them no favors. Think about this: out of all the African-American talent they have acquired and showcased, how many of them are multi-dimensional? Kofi Kingston has been in the WWE for eight years and he is still portrayed as nothing more than a happy-go-lucky high flyer. Other than his brief (and red hot) feud with Randy Orton in 2009, when has he ever had the opportunity to grow beyond that? R-Truth loves to dance and rap. He was briefly psychotic during his very short main event run when he feuded with John Cena, but once Truth went back to the powers of good, he was more than happy to dance and rap again and showed no character progression. Big E is a behemoth of a man, yet when he feuded with Russev earlier, suddenly his natural cadence mimicked that of a southern preacher – despite never alluding to any reason as to why. Don't even get me started on the natural "coincidence" that Russev plowed through all the African-American superstars, and yet it wasn't until he collided with Jack Swagger, the Caucasian "Real American" that he began to face a challenge. Now Mark Henry has stepped up to face Russev. If Henry winds up losing the feud, Russev's video package highlighting his path of destruction will be interesting to see the least.
These superstars are of a different breed than the likes of Ahmed Johnson, who was powerful and could connect with the audience but whose lack of in-ring prowess and multiple injuries made him a liability; or Shelton Benjamin, who was a natural athletic god in the ring but could not get the crowd behind him to save his life. These modern performers have displayed they are more of a total package. Sure, they have their flaws, albeit those same flaws seemingly never stopped the WWE from pushing a Caucasian superstar that they wanted to showcase. And I'm just hovering to 1996 – I won't even touch on the obvious examples, like Slick eating watermelon and fried chicken while performing Jive Soul Bro, turning a world-renowned powerlifter and former tag champion, Tony Atlas into Samba Simba, transforming a smooth athlete like Tito Santana into a matador, the MexiCools entering the arena via an oversized lawnmower, the various moments superstars perform in blackface, Greg Valentine calling out the Junkyard Dog as a "dirty black man" or Kerwin White. We know the stories of those portrayals – and it furthers the perception fans have of how the WWE treats "others". The only exceptions I can honestly recall of performers who became multi-dimensional characters outside of cultural perceptions was King Booker – who took winning the King of the Ring literally and transformed himself into a delusional monarch, and Mark Henry – who was just a destroyer of anything in his path and placed victims into his Hall of Pain. It is no coincidence that those transcendent personas connected with crowds and led them to a World Championship (even if it was the "second tier" Big Gold Belt.) Speaking of Booker, I don't even need to discuss his WrestleMania XIX feud with Triple H. That pretty much speaks for itself, despite the (justifiable and arguable) claims that Triple H was calling out Booker T's "people" as WCW rejects and not African-Americans (unless Triple H was lumping Disco Inferno in that group when he asked Booker to "do a dance" for him.)
Of course the other WWE superstar of color that did not fall into this trap and the main anomaly within this issue is The Rock. A man of African-American and Samoan heritage, Dwayne Johnson is considered by some to be the most successful professional wrestler of all time. The Rock can easily lay claim to being the most successful outside the realm of the 20'x20' ring. Even if Hulk Hogan is the first name to pop up when asking someone to name a pro wrestler, it's pretty much a given that no one in this industry has generated more mainstream buzz and made more money than The Rock. His resounding success though is perhaps the most glaring example of how some perceive the WWE and how they treat superstars of a different heritage other than the All-American Caucasian Male. Why hasn't there been another superstar of color to even come close to reaching The Rock's status? Is there no one else?
There are certainly a few factors; first off, The Rock is a "Once in a Lifetime" performer. He has "it" naturally more than any professional wrestler in history. On a deeper level, though – we can examine how superficial factors – like The Rock's light-skin tone and cadence when he speaks as reasons why he would be considered more "appealing" and less "threatening" visually to a company that grades performers on first impressions more than anything else. When The Rock joined the Nation of Domination – a faction built upon the notion of Black Power, it was jarringly obvious he seemed out of place compared to the darker-skinned Farooq, D-Lo Brown, Mark Henry and Kama Mustafa. The Rock never was seen wearing garbs or colors alluding to Afro-centric empowerment. He also rarely alluded to joining The Nation because of prejudice. He was more angry at the fans who chanted "Die, Rocky, Die" at him. When The Rock outsted Farooq as the leader, it was when the rest of The Nation stablemates began to break away from the group-think of the "militant, angry black man", and slipped more into their own personal identities. Owen Hart, a Caucasian, joined The Nation. At that point, everything about why The Nation of Domination existed became a moot point.
I would also like to direct your attention to something as simple as entrance music. Try and come up with another WWE superstar of non-white heritage that did not make his entrance to music that was more identifiable to his culture other than The Rock. He struts down the aisle with rising guitar riffs. Mark Henry: Rap. Kofi Kingston: Reggae. Big E: Rap. Brodus Clay and Xavier Woods: Funk. Men on a Mission: Rap. R-Truth: Rap. Koko B. Ware: R&B. We already have made jokes about recent signee, KENTA entering the ring with the same "Generic Asian Theme #7" that Taka Michinoku, Tajiri, Funaki, Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat, Hakushi, and countless other Asian-portrayed superstars have introduced themselves. When a Latino superstar makes their presence known, it has been pretty commonplace for their theme music to make obvious callbacks to salsa and merengue. I can't recall a superstar representing the Middle East coming down to anything but sounds and styles reminiscent of Tajwid music, complete with chants that seem closer to Qur'an readings than anything else – or an East Indian that saunters down with a soundtrack out of A.R. Rahman's reject pile. It would be nice to have a pro wrestler of a different culture arrive with entrance music that doesn't cue the audience in immediately that they are "different", but more transcendent or against the grain – like a white-meat babyface sprinting to the ring as hip-hop permeates through the arena.
I vividly remember the moment when John Cena briefly befriended Cryme Tyme during his feud with JBL. As a superstar who fully embraced hip-hop culture, it made sense for Cena to identify with them. It was a unique opportunity to add another dimension to all three performers as they banded together to disperse JBL's semi-bigoted leanings. Despite their skin color being different, Cena, Shad and JTG showed a united front because the culture they identified with had been attacked and insulted. What could the three learn from each other? Unfortunately, we never found that out as the collaboration was dropped within a couple of weeks – Cryme Tyme went back to their "thuggish" ways and even more disheartening, Cena slowly but surely began to phase out the one major identifier that brought him to the main event; almost as if the higher-ups in the WWE realized the natural psychology for their alignment and instead decided to distance their top star as far away from urban culture as possible to not make waves. Cena, losing this part of his identity, which is still a very real part of his actual persona – has still never recovered from the backlash of fans who noticed the hypocrisy. John Cena talks about "staying real" and "Hustle, Loyalty and Respect" – but when push comes to shove, and to appease those in power who put him at the top of the card, he can't even stay true to himself. In some fans eyes, John Cena represents the "New Slave" – a man who is shackled by his masters by embracing their ideology of what makes a top tier superstar, while completely forgetting the barrier-breaking persona that got him there in the first place.
I remember when this...
...became this. And we never heard about it again.
How does this all tie-in with the scenario between Alberto Del Rio and Barbierri? The WWE is reaching a boiling point with fan dissention. We have become increasingly more vocal about what about their product pleases and displeases us. Gone are the days where we cheer "babyfaces" and boo "heels" and also gone are the days where we could be manipulated to cheer for a performer. We care more about the performances than the characters. We are (admittedly vaguely) more aware of the inner-workings of a promotion. The death of kayfabe and the allowance of clearance into the lives of professional wrestlers through documentaries, roundtable discussions and podcasts have made this world more accessible to the masses. That accessibility opens the door to more frequent debates of not so much what is going on in the ring, but the actual culture of professional wrestling as a whole itself. Ironically, with the WWE embracing social media, they have perhaps unknowingly opened the floodgates to criticism from not just us superfans, but of the entire world. If the WWE was still a privately-owned company, they may have been able to brush aside the incident and allegations of cultural bias since under the law they could hire and fire whom they pleased without provocation. As a publicly-traded company, though – the WWE cannot afford the stigma of a hostile work environment based on cultural insensitivity to hang over them like Emmitt Till's noose.
The total imbalance of reprimand between Del Rio and Barbierri has drawn a clear picture of a company that does not embrace the very diverse cultures they cater to, despite being considered a "global entertainment company". Consider a massive base of fans – strangely enough from the same Latino culture the WWE covets – that have decided to no longer spend their money on the company based on these events (and probably AAA instead.) Speaking of which, Del Rio made his first public statements about the incident at AAA's recent TripleMania event – where another Latino superstar, Rey Mysterio also made an appearance. Even if Mysterio is past his prime as a performer, being able to utilize his in-ring knowledge to teach future superstars would be priceless. Is it a possibility that for Mysterio – who also reportedly is on the outs with the WWE – viewed this situation is the straw that broke the camel's back for him? Mysterio is well known for promoting and uplifting the Latino culture. I would not be surprised that he would have been just as insulted as Del Rio was at the whole incident.
There is also an elephant in the room that has not been addressed – in all honesty as well, we as fans have not helped matters. When Xavier Woods – literally – appeared out of nowhere weeks ago on Monday Night Raw and proposed that he, Kofi Kingston and Big E join forces to "take" what they deserved, we frothed at the mouth and speculated at the formation of a "New Nation of Domination". Why do we feel the need to assume that anytime two or more people of color decide to join forces that they need to be a militant group who have banded together based on their skin tone? TNA's main program revolves around three performers, all of color who have joined forces to dominate that promotion's landscape. Yet MVP, Bobby Lashley and Kenny King are not basing their alignment on their skin color, nor are they airing their grievances out on the fans because of prejudice. They are simply three men who feel they are the best of the best and feel they should be treated as such. It is a strange thing to witness; a southern-based national wrestling promotion showcasing three well-spoken people of color who are letting their actions in and outside the ring – and not their cultural upbringings – define who they are as characters. We need to do a better job of being cognizant of what will expand our fandom. We all talk about how things were great during the Rock n' Wrestling and the Attitude Era because that stigma attached to wrestling did not exist and it was acceptable to be a wrestling fan. Funnily enough, if we continue to sweep incidents like this under the rug and not open an honest dialogue on sensitive issues like this, it will be impossible to make an argument about how inclusive professional wrestling actually is.
The perception of the modern day wrestling fan is still represented by the idea of the uneducated, the "rednecks", and the bloodthirsty. The silence from not just the WWE - but we the fans - on the matter is deafening, and is the prime reason this story is not gaining the traction it could. I am fearful that based on the current events in Ferguson, that the mainstream media will begin to search for connections of "racial tension" in the United States wherever they can find it. If they look hard enough, the WWE will be placed under the microscope again, and history is not on their side. If the allegations break into mainstream coverage, the WWE will get obliterated and the divide that separates super-fan and casual fan will widen. North American Wrestling will become even further stigmatized. It will not matter how many Jon Stewarts, Ronda Rouseys or Flo Ridas are fans of professional wrestling, the notion that this form of entertainment caters to old-school xenophobic ideals in 2014 will stick. How will we defend ourselves for allowing it to get this far? When do the fans say enough is enough? I am not asking for affirmative action – I don't believe in it. Demanding that ANY organization give more emphasis on their performers based on their culture is just as ignorant as an organization that willingly ignores performers based on the same idea. What I am encouraging is that we as fans finally decide to hold the artform we grew up with accountable for its lack of vision – internally with its performers – and externally to its fans in regards to business conduct in and out of the ring. For some reason, we are still petrified to have an open discussion about culture (note, I have not used "race") in North America. The United States is over 230 years old – it's about time we grow up.
Ironically, the WWE was on the right track when Alberto Del Rio debuted. As a "Mexican Aristocrat", Del Rio appeared as another incarnation of "The Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase. He had a great entrance, was talented in the ring and with him being an ambassador for the Latino audience, the potential to bring in a new, untapped market of fans in was unlimited. His face run where he represented the idea of immigrants who work hard and earn their keep in the United States leading up to WrestleMania 29 showed promise and uncovered a new layer to his character (strangely enough, at times the villains, Zeb Coulter and Jack Swagger's bigoted, over-exaggerated stereotype of the Tea Party Movement was cheered by fans, further exposing the perception that they are just as guilty of being behind the times.) The double turn between Del Rio and Dolph Ziggler was masterfully done, exemplifying a new viciousness when it came to winning championships. Then, as it usually happens, everything that made Del Rio unique and multi-layered was taken away from him and he just became – as our fearless leader, Larry would like to say – "just another guy". If the WWE could see the forest from the trees, they might have been able to see the goldmine they had with him. Del Rio may have been the easiest license to print money the WWE had in a while if handled correctly. Instead, he is now the focal point in a series of events that could potentially harm the WWE and the state of professional wrestling in North America in general.
The next few months will be interesting, and seeing how they ultimately approach Barbierri and his role will be telling. Even if it is not right, perception is everything. A company that willingly picks the side of an alleged bigot over the individual he wronged will not be well-received in a global market that allows its fans to interact in a forum without borders. Those in power will need to treat this situation as delicately and as seriously as it really is. The perception is already there. The precedence had already been set. It is time for the WWE to examine its progress and analyze its internal perspective. To be a "global leader in sports entertainment", the WWE will need to truly embrace what is means to be "global" on camera and behind the curtain. That is what's best for business.
Len Archibald is the former Executive Director of the Northwest Ohio Independent Film Festival, and is a current movie reviewer for WLIO in Lima, Ohio.