NAI Counterpoint: The Rock is WWE’s First Black Champion- by Shane Thomas

By Shane Thomas #OneNAI

Years before he committed some questionable stand-up to Netflix, Dave Chappelle penned one of his finest ever comedy sketches in “The Racial Draft”. At this time, there were an increased number of famous biracial people in America, leading to debates on what race that person should be defined as.

What made the sketch inspired was that it realized how race can be understood as being about culture as it is skin color. So in this draft, the Black Delegation try to draft Eminem, before trying to get the White Delegation to take Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice off their hands. It culminates in the high farce of O.J. Simpson becoming “black again”, while the Wu-Tang Clan are now officially Asian.

If this all seems weirdly political for this website, it’s to give some context to the topic at hand. Regular listeners to the New Age Insiders podcast (and if you’re not one, you should be) will know that the pod’s general view on The Rock is that he can’t be considered as a black WWE Champion. While I always find Jason, Liam, and Bill’s thoughts on wrestling always worth listening to, there is the odd occasion where I disagree with them. This is one of those occasions.

While there is a strain of thought – maybe the dominant strain – that Dwayne Johnson was presented as Samoan, I can look to my lived experience to underscore my belief that his black heritage isn’t in question, any more than his Samoan heritage.

The Attitude Era coincided with my sophomore and senior years at high school. This was a brief period where it was broadly acceptable to be a wrestling fan. Not so much of the, “I can name the last six Intercontinental Champions” variety, but acceptable where imitating the wrestlers of the day, or sneaking up behind someone and trying to give them a Stunner or a 3D, wouldn’t turn you into a social pariah.

During this time, Stone Cold Steve Austin was the undoubted top guy (The Rock has even has admitted as much). But it wasn’t Austin my peers spent most of the time emulating. It was The Great One.

From the eyebrow to the elbow. Trying to hit unsuspecting classmates with a Rock Bottom. Telling people to know their role, or that their name didn’t matter. This was all part of the language of my teenage years. And like most schools in South London, it took place in a school that had a majority black student faculty. It’s not that we didn’t love Austin, but Rock was our guy.

Questions around The Rock’s ethnicity never came up. Not just because issues of society and culture don’t tend to be at the forefront of the minds of teenage boys, but also, the answer felt so obvious that it didn’t need mentioning. And in a company where black stars were conspicuous by their absence, it doesn’t seem mere coincidence that almost without exception, all these black boys gravitated towards the Brahma Bull.

To return to the earlier point about race being as much about culture as skin color, elements of The Rock’s in-ring character aligned with easily understood black cultural expressions. Not just in terms of his ostentatious attire and fast-talking narcissism, which fit nicely in the mould of the mainstream hip-hop of the time; not just his (underrated) work in the Nation of Domination; but I even remember him being a guest on TRL (ask your parents, kids) and – loosely in kayfabe – proclaiming the music he was listening to was Jay-Z, DMX, and Dr. Dre.

Of course, plenty of non-black people listened to them too, but if the point is to present this wrestler as not black in the minds of your audience, this was hardly the best way to go about it.

To be fair to those who disagree, Johnson’s biracial background means we shouldn’t analyze this simplistically. In a recent interview, his cousin, Nia Jax said, “When I look at Dwayne, I see a Samoan man”, but also stated, “It sucks when people put people in categories.”

It’s true that The Rock has a strong connection to his Samoan background, which is in part due to him having grown up closer to his Samoan mother than his Black father. And me saying I believe he’s black doesn’t mean that he’s not Samoan. To use my own upbringing as an example, I resonate more with my (mother’s) Jamaican heritage than my (father’s) Mauritian heritage. Yet I feel – and am – part of both.

If parsing the identity of biracial wrestlers means the Rock isn’t black, does the same apply to Jason Jordan or Sasha Banks (who both have white mothers)? Banks was clearly black enough for this photo.

An extra factor we must acknowledge is that being lighter skinned has probably helped Johnson in his career. Maybe he wouldn’t have had the same opportunities if he was as dark as Mark Henry, and having a, shall we say, ethnically ambiguous look may have played a part in convincing Vince McMahon (and Hollywood casting agents) that he could sell The Great One to Middle America.

However, even if you still believe The Rock to not be a black wrestler, the whole reason for the NAI trio raising the topic remains extremely valid. Because even if I’ve managed to convince you to see things my way, that still means WWE have only had one black holder of their primary title, which is hugely insufficient.

And that’s why it’s so important to me to recognize the Rock as a champion who’s black and Samoan. I can’t speak to how he resonated with African-Americans, but for black kids in London, he always felt like one of us. It’s long been slim pickings for black wrestling fans, and when you don’t have much to begin with, you don’t want it taken away. I understand why some of you may feel The Rock isn’t black. I hope you can also understand why I feel that he is.

Shane Thomas
@TokenBG on Twitter