Friday, August 28, 2015

Sasha Banks, The New Day, And WWE’s Black Revolution

Uproxx: I don’t think it’s breaking news to say that most black wrestlers in the history of WWE (and pro wrestling in general), have been saddled with stereotypical and degrading characters. Black wrestlers are asked to play caricatures and are rarely — if ever — given opportunities to be themselves. I was raised on a voodoo guy, a pseudo-black nationalist group, a fat Rachel Dolezal and Koko B. Ware. Nobody on TV who looked like me really acted like any black person I’ve ever known.

It’s easy to point the finger at Vince McMahon and Michael Confederate Flag Hayes, but that’s an easy way to ignore the way a large portion of America portrays black culture. Look no further than the stories told about victims of police violence and how stereotypes are used to justify murders of black boys and girls to know that there’s a substantial belief that Cryme Tyme is an accurate portrayal of black culture. So, simply blaming Vince allows fans to exonerate themselves from their complicity in contributing to stereotyping black characters. Combine that with the fact that wrestling only portrays the lowest common denominator of any type of character, and it’s no surprise that it’s been frustrating to be a black wrestling fan.

But things are changing in WWE, and it’s beautiful to watch. Nowhere is the change exhibited more than in the instances of Sasha Banks, New Day and a failed gimmick that got dropped almost immediately.

Ratchet To Ruler: Sasha Banks

It’s really hard to call white liberals out on racism. I’ve had to talk to racists about racism. A lot. And I’ve had to talk to white liberals or “allies” about their racism, and I’ll take talking to actual full-on bigots any day of the week. White liberals can sometimes wrap themselves in a protective shield of “I don’t say the n-word” or “I don’t listen to Iggy Azalea” that makes them feel impervious to slipping into privilege and spouting something that’s racist or plain ignorant. Calling them out on these affronts are so shocking that their initial reaction is to fire back because their comfort zone of not being racist is under fire. It happens a lot of times when I write for “liberal” sites and get blasted in the comments. Hell, it might happen in the comments to this post.

But here’s the thing: No matter how liberal or understanding a white person is, he or she will always be speaking from a place of privilege that won’t ever go away. And sometimes that leads to moments of insensitivity and even racism. As a man, I share this same privilege over a woman and have slipped into misogynist rhetoric without even knowing it. It happens. And being called out on it sucks. Sometimes resulting in rage-filled self-defenses that don’t solve anything. Just ask Wyatt Cenac.

I say all of that to say this: The “Sasha’s ratchet” chant is racist as sh*t. I know that people sort of say it now because they’re so used to it, so I’m not necessarily blaming the people who yell it without really knowing anything. But, like, that first guy who thought to call Sasha Banks ratchet? Yeah, he’s doing some racist sh*t. I don’t know the technical definition of ratchet, but it’s basically a way to describe a ghetto ass woman of low class, which wouldn’t be chanted at towards anyone else but a black woman. I know there have been ratchet chants for other people, but it started as a way to demean a black woman. And it was done by the most liberal, hipster “post-racial” audience this side of Chikara. The gimmick imposed on Sasha Banks was “ghetto black chick.” Again, this wasn’t done by Vincent KKK McMahon or Blackface Rock Helmsley. No, the ratchet chant was perpetrated by the crowd. The most “progressive” crowd around.

The ratchet chant could have killed Sasha Banks. She could have fully embraced the audience-imposed gimmick and gone “ratchet,” wrestling as Halle Berry in BAPS and using press-on nails as foreign objects or something. Instead, Banks flipped the “ratchet” moniker on its head and became a woman who felt superior to the audience. If they’re lame enough to grab a buzzy slang word they heard on their black friend’s Lil Boosie album and start chanting it at the first black person they see in the ring, then maybe they are inferior to Banks. Sasha turned the “ratchet” chant into “I’m a boss.” Banks became the real-life version of the black women whose tweets I follow. She’s using the vernacular of “snatching wigs” and “snatching edges” that feels authentic.

If I’d have told you months ago that the black women’s champion came to the ring in an Escalade, you’d roll your eyes and say “typical WWE.” But it happened and it was totally authentic. Sasha rolled to the ring — security in tow — in her Kanye shades and four-finger ring, doing her dance and owning an arena. She’s black culture, devoid of any pandering stereotypes.

Of course, when she got to the main roster, she was summarily grouped with the other ethnic divas faction. But I’m telling myself that’s a function of her needing to be part of a heel faction and just a coincidence. Regardless, if the Brooklyn crowd is any indication, Sasha Banks is going to be the breakout star. WWE may want Charlotte to be the crowned queen of the Divas division, but Sasha Banks has it and the fans are behind her. And she’s done it by being herself. A woman of color. No games. No gimmicks.

Interlude: The Love Song Of Angelo Dawkins

Angelo Dawkins debuted with a new gimmick on NXT in April 2014. He came to the ring dressed in a “black guy” costume from Party City and looked like a flyer to SAE’s “East Coast vs. West Coast Totally Not Racist” Saturday night beer bash. He came to the ring with his Beats headphones, a shooting sleeve and a backpack. He dougie’d all the way to the ring. He goddamn moonwalked on the apron. He danced and jigged in a way that made him look like an idiot. Compare his entrance to Sasha’s at TakeOver. He looks even more stupid.

Dawkins is the gimmick we’re used to seeing in wrestling. There was a universal eye roll when his match with Tyler Breeze started. I don’t know who to blame for his gimmick. Maybe there are tone deaf people still in NXT who came up with it. Maybe Dawkins felt like that was the only gimmick that would get him on TV because he’s watched wrestling long enough to figure that it was the only representation of blackness he could represent. Whatever the case, he failed. And his failure is as much a sign of progressiveness as any wrestler of color’s success.

Fans crapped on Dawkins and his dougie entrance. Black wrestling fans across Twitter bashed him. NXT crowds sat on their hands. And his shuck and jive gimmick lasted two NXT episodes before he was sent back to the drawing board. This was important because it showed that these gimmicks aren’t going to be tolerated anymore.

The Fall And Rise Of New Day

I always believed in the New Day. I really did. The talent was undeniable (even though I was skeptical over Xavier Woods), and I felt like they’d overcome any gimmick they were saddled with. But I can’t pretend like my confidence didn’t waver a bit when I saw the vignettes; each member acting like a black preacher backed by a fake Baptist choir. At first, I thought they were so campy that a heel turn was part of the plan from the beginning. And, according to the group, Vince’s original plan was for them to be popular as babyfaces the whole time. They never stood a chance.

When New Day turned heel, they were able to be themselves and they’ve been the most entertaining faction on TV every single week. Now, they’re as popular as anyone on the roster. Here’s the beauty of the New Day: They are just more exaggerated versions of people who look and act like I do. It’s hard to quantify how welcoming it is to turn on a TV and know that I’m going to see people who represent me and my culture. One day, they’re doing the viral “dunk on you” video. The next, they’re yelling “WHAT ARE THOOOOOSE” on RAW. They’re telling joke I tell. They’re bringing conversations I have with friends to life. They feel like me. They walk to the ring making jokes about hip-hop and yell “Peace up, A-Town down.” I’ve never seen anything like it on wrestling.

As we know, black culture pushes the rest of American culture, so of course the New Day is crossing over to become as popular as anyone in the entire roster. The beauty of New Day is that their blackness is just part of who they are. They’re not a group defined by black stereotypes. They’re a group of guys who reflect black culture. And they’re over. That’s a revolution.

The Televised Revolution

SummerSlam weekend was full of popular black characters who weren’t degrading or stereotypical gimmicks. On top of New Day and Sasha Banks, there’s Prime Time Players, with one member crossing his arms as a sign of LGBT pride, and another who goes on commentary and talks circles around JBL while repping his fraternity every time he goes to the ring. There’s Apollo Crews who, despite the fact his name came from Black Guy Name Mashup Generator, is loved for basically being LeBron James in the ring. And of course there’s Mark Henry, who may have started the damn revolution with his fake retirement angle that made him a legend a couple of years ago.

I’ve never seen this many popular wrestlers of color in the WWE, and none of them make me want to boycott things. The WWE is touting the Divas Revolution by yelling “this is a Divas Revolution” and not giving people any personalities besides “women who hit.” The Black Revolution happened organically and over time by having people show their personalities beyond their reproductive organs or skin color. So, whether it was intentional or not, the revolution is happening. And it’s being televised.

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