The New Day and Being Black in WWE

Are the New Day—a hand-clapping, hip-grinding, gospel-backed trio of black wrestlers—the latest example of the WWE's tone deaf handling of race, or is there something more to their absurd antics?

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Mar 21 2016, 10:25pm

Photo: WWE/YouTube

The best professional wrestlers know how to make an entrance, whether it's Stone Cold Steve Austin's shattering glass, the Undertaker's church bell "gong," or the Rock's "If you smell what the Rock is cooking." That's certainly true for the WWE's three-man tag champions the New Day, who have turned their entrance into a spectacle unlike anything else in the company.

The scene plays out on nearly every episode of WWE programming: "Don't you dare be sour. Clap! For your world famous, two-time champs, and feel the power!" bellows a voice over the PA. "It's a New Day, yes it is!" The group's contemporary gospel theme song—somewhere between Kirk Franklin's "Revolution" and "I Smile"—hits, and three black wrestlers in bold neon spandex enter the arena. Fans clap, and cheer "New Day rocks!" or "New Day sucks!" depending how they feel about the often-villainous group. It's one of the biggest reactions of the night.

But despite the quirkier elements of their gimmick—like wearing plastic unicorn horns and playing the trombone—there is a hint of a familiar song and dance: the hand-clapping and hip-grinding of black wrestlers, grouped together simply because they were black, and with a gospel theme, no less. Are the New Day the latest in a long line of unfortunate gimmicks for wrestlers of color, or is there something more to their absurd antics?

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Wrestling's past is littered with unfortunate roles for black wrestlers, from manservants and street thugs to voodoo priests and tribal boogeyman—and that's only looking back to the late 1980s. "The greatest achievement that a black wrestler could have in the '70s, '80s and '90s is not being seen as a black wrestler," explains David Shoemaker, the author of The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Pro Wrestling. Back then, there were producers backstage at WWE who would say, "Being black is the gimmick." "While no one would say that backstage now, it's not that long ago," Shoemaker told me.

The wrestling world manages to bring this part of its legacy back into the spotlight every year or so. Last year, it was Hulk Hogan's racist tirade and subsequent public shaming. In 2014, it was the rise of Rusev.

Nicknamed the Bulgarian Brute, Rusev was a monster heel who waved the Russian flag over his vanquished opponents—most of whom were black. A series of quick, effortless matches (known as "squashes") over low-level losers ("jobbers") is the typical method for building up a heel, but Rusev's opponents included veteran powerhouse Mark Henry, repeat champion Kofi Kingston, and Big E Langston, who was just coming off a run as Intercontinental Champion. Fans flocked to wrestling blogs and forums, asking why Rusev mostly beat black wrestlers. Big E tweeted, "I have a feeling [Rusev] hates Hip Hop and cornbread."

Aside from getting trounced by Rusev, these men also shared what some critics contend is all too common for black wrestlers in WWE: shallow characters that traffic in racial stereotypes and little else. "With these gimmicks," Shoemaker says, "it's almost less offensive that they exist than that they're so thin: a thin veneer over a non-gimmick, because of the idea that they already have a gimmick, and it's their skin color."

Kingston, one of the most purely athletic and acrobatic members of the roster, debuted in 2007 but his character—an all-smiles, erstwhile Jamaican babyface—never evolved. Langston bounced between heel enforcer and face strongman since his 2012 debut, never getting the time to develop either character. A third Rusev jobber, Xavier Woods, joined the main roster in 2013 and simply borrowed the funk-dancing gimmick of another wrestler.

The three men who would eventually become New Day chafed at being confined by their race.

"We didn't want to sing and dance, because for African-American athletes, you're either singing and dancing, or you're the big strong black guy, or the foreign black guy. Those are the three archetypes," Woods recalled telling WWE boss Vince McMahon on Chris Jericho's podcast last August. "We want to push some sort of message for all kids, but more specifically for young, black kids watching wrestling: you can be whatever kind of character you want, you come with a blank slate and you can be anything, not just these three things."

In summer of 2014, Woods began "managing" Kingston and Big E, who were by then losing together as a tag team. He preached and commanded from the sidelines and the tag team started winning. The trio described themselves simply as "smart athletic friends" on social media and in interviews—no racist tropes, no tired gimmicks. On commentary, Woods continued to take a hard-line position, noting how the three wrestlers were upset at their treatment by the powers that be. Enough was enough, and Woods was ready for a change: "You cannot move ahead by shaking hands, kissing babies, singing and dancing like a puppet. You cannot move ahead by always doing what you're told," he intoned in July. "It is our time to find purpose, because we do not ask any longer. Now, we take."

"I was giddy when I saw [them] debut," says Dion Beary, who had written about wrestling's race problem in The Atlantic just weeks before Woods, Kingston, and Big E first teamed up. "I was just happy that three incredibly talented dudes, all of whom I'd mentioned in my article, were getting a shot at doing something cool together."

Soon, however, the three disappeared from WWE's televised product, their gimmick apparently scrapped. Eventually McMahon called them into his office. "I want you guys to be preachers," Kingston recalled his boss saying on "Talk Is Jericho." "And all three of us were like, oh my God." Months after rejecting the stereotypical roles bestowed on black wrestlers, Woods, Kingston, and Big E found themselves saddled with a new one.

The New Day in the ring. Photo by Megan Elice Meadows/CC BY-SA

The New Day debuted in the ring that November in bright blue gear, backed by a gospel choir, all smiles and newly obsessed with clapping, sermonizing about positivity at every turn. Langston, the son of a preacher, had the most pronounced transformation, morphing from stoic strongman to a gasping, bug-eyed bombast who would pull a hankie out of his singlet and dab sweat from his brow.

Mostly, the New Day spent their time as secondary players, helping to tell the stories of other tag teams. As frustrated as they were, they tried their best to take advantage of the situation and mold it into opportunity.

"When we were given the gimmick and saw what it was," Kingston told Jericho, "we figured, if we throw everything that we can—smiling, clapping, happiness, everything—into this babyface gimmick, it will not take long to turn heel." They were right: fans quickly tired of the babyfaces and began chanting "New Day sucks" during their matches, in time with the group's incessant clapping. As the chants grew in intensity, the New Day embraced the fan response, cheating with more frequency while being cloyingly positive.

"So rarely are black wrestlers given an opportunity to shine in a unique, original role, I almost felt it was my duty as a black wrestling fan to like them," says Beary. "The heel turn, which I kept telling people would come—mostly trying to convince myself, honestly—was welcome."

Rather than ditch the New Day gimmick completely, though, they soldiered on as oblivious bad guys, preaching positivity on their way to winning with a handful of their opponent's tights and their feet on the ropes.

"We gotta smile, we gotta keep positive, because if not, the rage comes out," Woods said on his way to the ring one night. "And if the rage comes out, everybody on the roster goes to the hospital."

"We clap," Big E promised, "or we snap."

Chanting "New Day rocks" through gritted teeth and clapping to keep from snapping, Woods, Kingston, and Big E offer a self-aware commentary on being black, not just in wrestling but in America. After toiling in the mid-card, the members of the New Day decided to play the game, giving their bosses and their fans what they wanted—the old song-and-dance—and it still wasn't enough. Booed at every turn, showered in "New Day sucks" chants, the three turned positivity, and clapping, into armor: a way to survive in a world where a margin of error barely exists, where they have to be twice as good to get half as far.

Wrestling and unicorns, what more could you want? Photo: WWE/YouTube

Accusations of backstage racism are not exactly a relic of WWE's past. Just last month, black wrestler Titus O'Neil received a 60-day suspension for playfully grabbing McMahon's arm; the harsh punishment—the same penalty given for two failed drug tests—caused many fans to accuse the WWE of racism. ("The suspension of Titus O'Neil had nothing to do with race and everything to do with unprofessional conduct," the company said in a statement to the New York Post.) In 2014, Mexican wrestler Alberto Del Rio was fired after he slapped WWE social media manager Cody Barbierri, reportedly in response to a racist joke Barbierri made backstage. Barbierri wasn't punished, though he did leave the company shortly after the incident. In an interview that fall, Del Rio claimed that racist remarks and jokes were common, including from top executives. (He returned to WWE in 2015.)

Also notable is ex-wrestler Michael Hayes. As a member of the Fabulous Freebirds, a tag team of good ol' boys in the 80s and 90s, he came to ring with Lynyrd Skynyrd on the sound system and Confederate flags painted on his face. (Perhaps ironically, one commentator has dubbed the New Day the "Fabulous Glee-birds.") Since then, Hayes has had a prominent role in the company, even after several incidents with black wrestlers: when Bobby Lashley, in the prime of his career, left WWE, many speculated his departure was due to Hayes. Later that year, Hayes was suspended for 60 days after what the WWE called "inappropriate behavior"—allegedly he told Mark Henry, "I'm more of a nigger than you are."

The WWE is a hypercompetitive work environment often governed by backstage politics and carny traditions; it's difficult enough to succeed without factoring in systemic racism. Despite all that, the New Day are finally a prominent part of the WWE product, possibly because the promotion is distancing itself from on-screen and backstage racism. Shoemaker suggests that the WWE, as a publicly traded company that "prides itself on being responsive to fans," is doing what's best for business: "They realized that having a positive public image keeps you afloat in the marketplace"—a marketplace over which WWE has significant control.

"We respond to what they teach us to respond to, and putting the New Day in front of us week after week and letting them do what they want to do, letting them be very human characters, they're resetting the fans' perception of what it means to be a black wrestler," Shoemaker says. "Inasmuch as they steer us and they teach us what it's okay to cheer and boo and react to, that's a significant shift."

The New Day have remade the script they were given—be positive, clap constantly—into something legitimately funny, infusing their characters with personality and their own interests. Woods, who hosts a video game show on his UpUpDownDown YouTube channel and is obsessed with '90s culture, has referenced everything from NBA Jam to DuckTales. Memes like the dunk cam and "what are those!?" worked their way into routines. The New Day injected current hip-hop, sorely missing from a promotion where John Cena once played a rapper, into their act, doing the whip and the nae nae and making references to the beef between Drake and Meek Mill. (Turning 2 Live Crew's "Hey, we want some pussy" into "Hey, we want some New Day," on the other hand, may not be current, but it is certainly audacious.)

"New Day is now like the embodiment of Black Twitter: reactive, quick-witted, obnoxious, referential," Beary says.

As the New Day grew more popular, their gimmick became increasingly absurd and outlandish. Woods, who had already embraced the role of sideline loud mouth, began playing the trombone in time with the action. They've christened themselves unicorns ("We have brought magic back to WWE") and now sell light-up unicorn horns as merchandise. They've taken to gyrating lasciviously, threatening to fight children, and insulting people by calling them "booty." The latter has led to their latest merchandise, a box of Booty-O's cereal, which has allowed them to add butt stuff jokes to a PG-rated program.

Whatever they do—from promos and matches to interviews and commentary—has become a must-watch part of the WWE product. The three seem grateful for the opportunity. "The fact that people will never know how much work, behind the scenes, that we had to do to even get to this point," Big E said on the WWE program "Table for 3," "and to think that now we're out there being ourselves, having fun, and people are digging it, it's pretty cool, because this didn't seem like it was going to happen."

To be sure, the New Day hasn't solved wrestling's racism problem. If anything, their struggles to get to this point just show how much work there is to do. But their success is encouraging, at least: Today the New Day are anchoring most shows and sharing the stage with everyone from John Cena to the Rock. They are currently feuding with the League of Nations, an international stable that features Rusev—the Bulgarian Brute who trounced them back in 2014—and will battle the team at WrestleMania in April. It's a battle they should win, because this is exactly the New Day that the WWE needs.