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The racial undertones in Kofi Kingston’s world title run

Kofi Kingston’s world title run was about race, even if it wasn’t meant to be.

In honor of WrestleMania 36, pro wrestling is taking over the month of March at AIPT with WrestleMonth! Check back every day for new reviews, essays, and looks back at classic moments in both WWE and AEW!

An author’s intent when it comes to literary analysis is often important but not necessary when deriving meaning from a text. Sure, certain topics and themes are placed there by the author themselves, but often times certain things may be able to be derived from the text that the author hadn’t originally foreseen. And thus it is with any even remotely sincere attempt at finding certain themes within the stories of professional wrestling. And yet, there are themes to be found there. They can explain why certain stories did well or failed, because even though these ideas may have been unintended by the author, they can still be internalized by the viewer.

Right off the bat, as any time race and WWE (and even professional wrestling as a whole) is brought up, it is important to note WWE’s history with race. From its problematic use of blackface over the years to racist character gimmicks, to problematic storylines, WWE has had a race problem in the past and race issues arise now as well. In this article I will mostly be addressing the fictional universe that is kayfabe, but with wrestling it is sometimes impossible to separate the real and the fictional. This it is an important thing to keep in mind.

The promos around the start what would become “KofiMania” began with promos by chairman VinceMcMahon and then-WWE Champion Daniel Bryan calling Kofi simply a B+ player, that he was not worthy of a title shot. Of course, B+ player is a direct reference to what Daniel Bryan was called years ago. But with promos with Kofi saying “I have never complained that you have never let anyone like me compete or contend for the WWE title,” and off-handed comments such as Brian Saxton mentioning on commentary (during the Rowan portion of the gauntlet match) that Kofi has to work twice as hard for everything, it became obvious: “B+ player” was, in this scenario, a way of referring to McMahon’s predisposition toward Kofi, a black man, and seeing him as someone not worthy of the title.

Kofi squares off with Vince McMahon, a racist who plays a racist.

In a classic WWE authority move, McMahon takes the title shot Kofi had been given by Shane and forces Kofi to undergo a gauntlet match to try to get it back only to then change the rules yet again when Kofi wins, introducing Bryan as another competitor, leading to a Kofi loss. The authority takes on the role of institutional racism in this case, and not just in a passive role — Kofi is not fighting against the entropy of passive, unchecked systemic racism. No, Kofi is fighting against institutions which are being actively weaponized by a person who views him as only a “B+ player”. It was coincidental but fitting that this plot lined up with the start of the North Carolina lawsuit regarding racial gerrymandering, both being examples of people actively using power against people of color.

Up to this point in the plo,t I am convinced that the use of “B+ player” was intentional; a way to subtly hint at race without being explicit. And hinting at this throughout the run up to WrestleMania cemented race as a theme throughout this entire title run, even if it wasn’t called on as explicitly later on in the run. I doubt that anything past here was intentional, however allegories can still be found despite author’s intent in any piece of fiction.

Take for instance the Dolph Ziggler feud. Throughout the program, Dolph goes on long rants about how he deserves to be where Kofi is. He claims he likes Kofi yet it is clear that Dolph’s appreciation for Kofi is only on a surface level. Compare this initial promo where he seems to recognize Kofi’s skill and even realizes he is being rude “I know, if I was out there right now I would boo me too, I know”. But by the end of the feud Dolph has shed any respect he may have had for Kofi.

In this way, Dolph seems to embody the ‘woke’ white man who doesn’t understand why he isn’t the center of attention. He is willing to praise Kofi but is frustrated that the crowd isn’t spending time focusing on him. He cannot deal with the fact he is not the focus of everyone’s attention.

Gonna level with y’all: I got really tired of hearing ‘it should have been me’ fast.

The phrase ‘it should have been me’ is repeated ad nauseam, Dolph wishing he could be the focus of the crowd. By claiming that he should have been there in place of Kofi, he implies that Kofi was given an unfair advantage, that in a pure meritocracy he believes he would have been the one to earn a title shot. The phrase implies that opportunity was unfairly taken from him.

This element of Ziggler’s rhetoric mirrors the usual conversation that surrounds things such as affirmative action. There is always a belief among critics of such programs that we live in a perfect meritocracy while ignoring systemic issues. So too does Dolph mistake Kofi’s success and the crowd’s approval for an unfair advantage rather than Kofi achieving something in spite of what was before him. Despite Dolph being able to acknowledge what Kofi went through in his initial promo, he isn’t able to internalize what that means and realize why it shouldn’t actually be him.

The other feud that stands out in Kofi’s title run is that with Randy Orton. Orton doesn’t try to disguise his bias. He doesn’t claim that he was always behind Kofi; he doesn’t try to hide a single thing. Unlike Dolph, he comes out and says that Kofi isn’t worthy of the title. He makes it clear he has no respect for Kofi, nor does he treat him like a peer.

Randy Orton giving his initial promo of the feud.

And then, as the promo continues, the most telling part of it begins. Orton says “You talked about the work you had to do for 11 years. What about my 18 years on top? And just so you know, I never had to work hard a day in my life to get where I am in this company because all I had to do was be Randy Orton”. Unlike Dolph, Orton isn’t trying to hide his white privilege. He basks in it. He throws his privilege in Kofi’s face and equates his privilege to his talent. He gleefully says he has used that privilege to hold Kofi back. Orton, within the plotline of Kofi’s title run, embodies white supremacy.

Kofi’s title run was immediately established to be about race and it’s hard to kind of shy away from it when looking at WWE’s track record with the title belt. Whether it was intentional or not, those undercurrents were pervasive throughout the entire run. Which is why when we come to the last match, Kofi defending the WWE Championship against Brock Lesnar… well….

Kofi vs. Brock was problematic for two reasons. First, there had been constant unique encounters and angles throughout Kofi’s feud. Even his encounters with Samoa Joe, which seemed to lack any of the racial themes the other feuds embodied, still had some interesting dynamics that hadn’t been seen before (for instance Kofi not willing to play along with Samoa Joe’s game). But Brock felt, well…. meaningless. Almost all of the KofiMania period was about Kofi fighting against those who didn’t believe he was good enough. The feuds, for the most part, highlighted that. Lesnar, though, was not a part of that story. Instead, the only reason Lesnar was there, it felt like, was because WWE didn’t know how to end the run, shrugged and said ‘what about Lesnar?’

This is a thing that happened….

Second, the match was insultingly short. The entire title run was about Kofi rising above and proving he wasn’t just a B+ player, only to lose in seven seconds. All of Kofi’s opponents during his run have had longer matches with Lesnar. Kofi himself has had a longer match with Lesnar back in 2015. So to portray Kofi as literally jumping right into Brock’s arms and then not being able to take one F5 is simply undoing everything the title run had been establishing in the first place. It effectively proved all of Kofi’s critics right.

This is one of the issues with writing in wrestling. It’s easy to write a good angle for a match: in this case, Kofi confronting the institutional racism of WWE and Vince leading up to WrestleMania. But creative don’t seem to understand that once a theme is established in a plot, it lingers. It doesn’t go away, it continues on through. I don’t think many people explicitly saw the parallels to race in the other parts of the run, but people felt it there when Dolph complained it should have been him and not Kofi. People felt it when Orton made fun of Kofi for having to put on a Jamaican accent years ago. And people still had those themes in their head when they saw Brock win in less than 10 seconds.


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