When you’re not supposed to be there, strictly speaking.
Photo: WWE

Kofi Kingston isn’t the sort of wrestler that gets to compete for a WWE championship, which is why his quest for that title stands out as one of the most interesting angles on Sunday’s WrestleMania slate. A long-time midcarder who found his greatest success as one-third of The New Day, Kingston caught fire over the past couple of months in an organic and unplanned fashion that mirrored his WrestleMania opponent Daniel Bryan’s rise five years ago. At some point even Vince McMahon can’t ignore thousands of people rabidly chanting a wrestler’s name, and Bryan, the champion, didn’t have a ready-made opponent for the title prior to Kingston’s jump into the main event picture. Everything locked into place in that serendipitous way that pro wrestling (sometimes) does.

This would all be a normal wrestling story, except for the fact that Kingston’s path doesn’t really mirror Bryan’s. Kingston is black, and The New Day are as consciously and joyously black as any group in WWE’s history. In the long history of WWE champions, there has been only the The Rock, of mixed race, whose father Rocky Johnson was a black wrestler of no small fame in the 1970s and early ’80s. WWE also put the World title, a secondary championship created shortly after the promotion absorbed WCW, on Booker T and Mark Henry. All three of those wrestlers are retired, now. Beyond them, there has been a distinct and striking paleness to the WWE title scene over the decades.

Rather than putting that history aside, WWE has leaned into acknowledging it, albeit with some tactical rephrasing and a great big wink. The six-week run-up to Mania has been filled with promos and vignettes in which McMahon, in a return to his classic heel persona, has stymied Kingston’s run at every chance. Not coincidentally, Bryan has taken part in that effort and become decidedly less interesting as a result, quickly morphing from an arrogant heel telling uncomfortable truths to an arrogant heel repeatedly shouting “you people” at the audience. In the process of all this, Kingston has been called a bit player, not good enough, and, in some thinly veiled language, an undeserving performer asking for a handout. Subtlety is not what professional wrestling is about, but these are far thornier themes than usual for WWE.

In response to McMahon’s stonewalling, Kingston and The New Day have gone much further in placing race at the center of this feud, without quite mentioning it by name. The repeated refrain from Kingston and company has been that WWE doesn’t give a shot to “people like us.” In a group promo confronting McMahon, Kingston put it plainly—“I have never complained about the fact that you’ve never let someone like me to compete or contend for the WWE title.”

Kingston’s fellow New Day member, Big E, went further in a follow-up delivered on Twitter. “People like us will only get so far,” he said to a webcam. “People like us, historically and moving forward, clearly, can only get so far.”

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This works as a storytelling device because it is pretty much true. There is the aforementioned Rock, but there is also an unmistakable subtext that The Rock, who is half Samoan and whose father is Canadian, isn’t black in the same way that The New Day are. But there are meaner and much uglier things in WWE’s past, too, none of which fit quite so cleanly into the story being told here. The alleged racist jokes by WWE employees, the continued employment of Michael Hayes—who used to wave a Confederate flag around and was temporarily suspended from his backstage role in WWE when he dropped the n-word in a conversation with Mark Henry—and the long-running godawful stereotype-driven gimmicks have all long been common knowledge. You can read about them in the pages of The Atlantic, VICE, and who knows how many other places, and whenever something from pro wrestling penetrates the middle-brow consciousness this much, it’s clear that something’s up.

Kingston and The New Day incorporating this history into a white-hot angle makes for thrilling viewing, but also risky stuff. Pro wrestling is always at its best when it flirts with the real, and the promo work from The New Day has been so effective that it certainly feels like an engagement with WWE’s actual history. This has also all come at the right time: WWE has muddled the Becky Lynch–Ronda Rousey feud with aimless storytelling, and while Seth Rollins versus Brock Lesnar should deliver the appropriate violence and noise, it feels strangely flat. That is not an issue where Kofi Kingston’s rise is concerned.

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But there is also something quite a bit tawdrier going on in all this. WWE’s standard move is always to incorporate its worst elements into its storylines—not to reckon with them but to defang them. How bad can the racial issues in WWE’s past be, after all, if they’re fodder for a storyline? If Kingston wins the title, as he’s very likely to, isn’t that tantamount to laying the past to rest and creating a new, brighter future? This is an attempt at a scripted solution to a persistent and ongoing real-world problem, and in that sense it’s nothing new for WWE. As the Wrestlesplania co-host Kath Barbadoro has said, WWE commodifies dissent, both from its workers and its fans. If the workers are unhappy, if something terrible happens, if the promotion’s institutional bigotry is too glaring to ignore, the fix is right there—simply leave it alone until it can be incorporated into the broader story, at which point it is just part of the show, and no realer than the rest of it.

WWE’s lauded women’s revolution, with its culmination in the headlining Lynch-Rousey-Flair bout at WrestleMania, is only a revolution if there’s a recent past in which women were very truly treated like dogs. A stable of wrestlers lightly modeled on a union only makes sense if WWE treats its employees like shit. Randy Orton can only say that “Eddie is in hell” if Eddie Guerrero dies on WWE’s watch. In the constructed world of wrestling, all these real-world travesties are both much easier to deal with and much easier for fans to dismiss.

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When John Oliver’s callout of WWE’s treatment of its employees went viral this week, WWE’s first response wasn’t to hide or send out the lawyers. Instead, the company invited him to come down for WrestleMania, and you could almost hear the gears turning on how to snag candid footage of Oliver meeting the crew for the inevitable WWE Network backstage special. Oliver demurred, which makes it much likelier that a caricature of a Nosy Media Snob will get flattened by Braun Strowman in the coming months, for some reason to be determined. Oliver will then join many others who have been lampooned over slighting the promotion.

Think of it as an autoimmune response: confronted with any uncomfortable truth, WWE reflexively drags it into the ring and into the show, where that truth becomes another storyline to twist as needed. Pro wrestling, and especially WWE, exists in the liminal space between real and not. Everyone knows this. Fake feuds become real ones, only to slide back again. The racism that’s added meaning and depth (and heat) to Kofi Kingston’s rise is both very real and safely not, and control of the story is back in WWE’s hands. The ease with which wrestling slips between reality and “reality” is what makes the form so endlessly compelling. It’s also what makes it, and keeps it, so terrible.

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Ian Williams is a freelance writer who covers pro wrestling, culture, and labor politics. His work has been featured in Jacobin, Vice, and The Guardian. He lives in Raleigh, NC.