Roman Reigns is one of the most popular (and most controversial) wrestlers working for the WWE today. Roman Reigns – whose real name is Leati Joseph “Joe” Anoa’i – has enjoyed much success in the WWE, first with the tag team/stable “The Shield” (with Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose) to headlining a wildly successful Wrestlemania 31 main event match earlier this year.
Reigns, also half-Italian via his mother, hails from the Samoan Anoa’i family, a multigenerational professional wrestling dynasty whose most famous member is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The WWE develops storylines around the familial relationships with all of these wrestlers. Currently, the company acknowledges Roman Reigns and the Usos as real-life cousins.
However, former WWE writer Kevin Eck recently posted on his blog that the company, allegedly, ordered the writers and broadcasters not to acknowledge Reigns’ relation to the Anoa’i family on the grounds that it would associate him with Samoan identity.
Yet, CEO Vince McMahon and COO Paul Levesque (better known as Triple H) vetoed the idea on the grounds that they could not acknowledge Roman Reigns as Samoan. As Eck said:
“[McMahon and Levesque’s] belief was that it would pigeonhole [Reigns] and damage his mystique. The inference was that the audience had a preconceived notion of what a Samoan wrestler is. You know, a guy in a grass skirt who wears a puka shell necklace.”
This statement is somewhat alarming because it reveals the ongoing struggles non-white performers face with race even to this day. While the WWE has yet to comment on these allegations, it is no secret that the WWE has a sordid history with race and racism.
Should we ignore one’s racial and ethnic identity to prevent stereotypes? What are the implications in ignoring these identities?
To answer the first question, not acknowledging one’s racial identity, or “colorblindness,” is not a viable option in preventing racism. Colorblindness does not prevent both interpersonal and structural realities of racism against people of color, which include stereotypes as well as disproportionate rates of unemployment, incarceration, and wealth disparities.
One cannot “unsee” race/ethnicity (as both skin color and culture) anymore than they can unsee other visible characteristics such as gender/sex and size. Rather, how people choose to act upon each other’s race is what defines interracial contact.
As such, ignoring Reigns identity would not have disassociated whatever the audience’s preconceived notions would have been at the time.
More insidiously, by erasing a person of color’s cultural identity, one is essentially problematizing their existence by not being white. “Whiteness” is summarized by Audrey Thompson who says:
“Whiteness-privileging mechanisms work in several, sometimes paradoxical ways. For example, on the one hand, whiteness is normalized; it is taken for granted and therefore invisible. On the other hand, it is treated as preferable.”
Some scholars tend to understand post-racialism or colorblindness as a pattern of which to establish a “default.” As such, any racial/ethnic identity that is not white is immediately “othered.” Sometimes, this othering can manifest in exoticizing identities (such as Asians, Latinos, mixed races, etc.) or criminalizing them altogether (Blacks, Latinos, etc.).
Whatever way the othering presents itself, the result is ultimately the same: the person’s identity is as too distracting to the norm. The “other” is not allowed to function as individual similar to those who inhabit the norm; rather that person must act as a representative, if not the very essence of their identity as preconceived by the audience.
Can people’s racial and/or ethnic identities be acknowledged in public without being attached to stereotypes? The answer is yes. As such, corporations, artists, and audiences alike must share the burden in imagining all groups of people of color as being a diverse range of personalities and appearances.
The Usos perform the traditional Samoan Siva Tau dance before matches while their cousin Roman Reigns remains a stoic powerhouse dressed in military garb. Their current success in presenting different versions of Polynesian men is indicative of how ignoring someone’s cultural identity is nothing more than lazy uninspired thinking