Hogan's racist remarks aren't a shock: Wrestling is "a sport with both overt racism and bizarre racial ideas and practices"

Acclaimed playwright Kristoffer Diaz on how Hulk Hogan's racist comments made explicit something deep in wrestling

Published July 24, 2015 5:24PM (EDT)

Hulk Hogan         (Reuters/Danny Moloshok)
Hulk Hogan (Reuters/Danny Moloshok)

When professional wrestler Hulk Hogan unleashed a racist tirade, he didn't just damage his own reputation. He brought back bad memories of the awkward relationship with race and ethnicity that professional wrestling has had since it broke in the 1980s.

The New York-based playwright Kristoffer Diaz knows this bleak linage well. A longtime fan of pro wrestling and, more recently, the playwright behind the Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist "The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity," Diaz spoke to Salon about the big larger context. His play, about professional wrestlers in a fictional league, deals largely with themes of racial politics and ethnicity inside the professional wrestling world.

The interview has been edited and condensed slightly.

You've followed televised wrestling for a long time -- when the news of Hulk Hogan's racist rant, and his departure from WWE, broke, were you surprised? 

The first thing that I heard was that he had been released from his contract with the WWE; he had been doing some work for them lately... That's shocking. He's the reason that most of the big fame of professional wrestling exists. For them to sever ties with him officially, as he's working on a show for them, "Tough Enough," was really shocking.

But the reason why -- racist comments -- that is not so shocking. You're talking about a big, famous muscle-head from the '80s, in a muscle-head sport. And a sport with both overt racism and bizarre racial ideas and practices: So I can't say it came as a shock.

It's not just that they cut loose just anybody, then. How big is Hogan to the sport in 2015 -- like Elvis and the Beatles put together? Are there significant economic consequences?

It is significant, but not as significant as if this had happened in the '80s, and it's not the first time they've parted ways. He's gone to work for other companies, he's done his reality shows... This, though, has a final feeling feeling.

The economic consequences are not as serious as losing Stone Cold Steve Austin, or The Rock... But it's large.

It's not altogether different from what's going on with Bill Cosby, right now -- the level of iconography that is being just decimated. The same way no one is going to look at "The Cosby Show" the same way, I imagine that Hogan takes a similar fit.

Hogan's a figure from the past who has a resonance for people who know pro wrestling and for people who don't.

Absolutely. Most wrestling fans who became fan in the '80s were Hogan fans first. I was a Hogan fan first, and then I moved on. He was the cartoon character, the larger than life figure who brought people in.

Pro wresting has had a lot of stereotyping in its performers, but is Hogan's blatant, name-calling racism something different? How do you see them connecting?

It's a form that's been around for a long time -- in the early days of television wrestling it was not uncommon to have a wild savage from the jungles of Africa, who didn't speak English and didn't understand the rules of wrestling. Or the Wild Samoan. Or African American wrestlers playing pimps. Or Latino wrestlers playing gardeners... It was based on a fear of the Other... They do what they can to get the audience behind the "all-American" good guy.

And then you've heard rumors of great professional  wrestlers who could have been champions, but weren't. The WWE has a really poor track record on African American champions.

We'd describe this as institutional racism, but it's different than what we heard from Hogan. How do they relate?

It's different. The WWE is the brainchild of one man, Vince McMahon, who does not have a great track record on race: He created these stereotypes, and has been accused of things behind the scenes... This is different. It's someone, in a private conversation, some real complicated ideas, I think, but out and out racism.

In our society right now, there's no way around using that specific language in a recording. The WWE is very invested in optics and public relations... they cut ties immediately.

Tell us a little about your own experience with wrestling and how it led to your play.

I grew up watching professional wrestling; I had a friend in my apartment complex who had an older brother... We started right around the time of the first Wreslemania... Muhammed Ali was there, Liberace was there, the spectacle of it... That's what I did for most of my childhood, was watch professional wrestling. I'd go with my mother to see theater in Manhattan to see theater, and I'd go with my dad to see wrestling at the Garden. The connections between the two were unstated but kind of obvious.

So I was into it, I followed it, and years later I came back to it. This was a field where people said racist, sexist, homophobic things, but millions of people were drawn to it. So I decided to write a play sort of unpacking that idea.

Given all of the unpleasant elements, do you still follow professional wrestling? And does it seem different to you than it used to.

I still follow it, mostly because of the play...

When my friends and I started watching in the '80s, it was still a small subculture, still exploding into the national consciousness. It goes through cycles... There are still millions of people who watch a three-hour wrestling show on a Monday night.

I don't know if in the '80s a wrestler going out and using the n-word would have caused the backlash it does now, now that they are a multi-billion dollar, international conglomerate. That's a big change.

What kind of consequences could this have on professional wrestling and the WWE in the long term?

I think this has zero consequences for the WWE. They got out ahead of it, they severed their ties, they've milked Hogan for millions and billions of dollars already.

They've got history of eliminating wrestlers from their backstory... They have an opening clip where they show opening moments from their history. Hogan will be gone by Monday night -- he just won't be there. It's a machine, and I don't think this impacts them one bit.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

MORE FROM Scott Timberg

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Hulk Hogan Professional Wrestling Race Theater Vince Mcmahon