This is not intended as a comprehensive response to the recent situation involving Tony Khan and Big Swole, but is rather a general framework for the issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in pro wrestling’s unique culture, annotated with examples from this incident. Ideas presented may deviate from standard practices in the field and strong language may be used.
I have been outspoken in viewing this latest generation of pro wrestling specifically less as a conventional “sport for sport’s sake” (a phrase I borrow from Yale skateboarding professor Dr. Neftalie Williams) and more of an alternative sports culture similar to sports like skateboarding and surfing. In my opinion, this is an extremely important distinction to make when it comes to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), as these cultures present very unique opportunities to improve attitudes across society that conventional means of political communication simply cannot, and practices to improve outcomes within these cultures must be designed in a very specific way so as to achieve the present DEI objective while not compromising the culture’s ability to do what it does best. Specifically, alternative cultures lend themselves to a blending of communitarian and individualistic ideas, while operating on principles of self-governance and a free-flowing quasi-anarchic form of expression. These highly authentic spaces create unity among people in different intersectional categories that is not seen in conventional means of creating dialogue. I first observed this while analyzing skateboarding culture and punk rock as I was working in youth and minority outreach for political organizations and more extensively while studying at the University of Southern California, and now I see many of the patterns of these cultures existing in the AEW “Elite Era” of the sport. When I first observed these cultures and ideas, they radically transformed my approach to politics and social change.
These cultures operate largely upon spontaneous order and do not follow the linear assembly line, rule-governed logic of the industrial age, which is the theoretical lens of most corporate thought. And this is why I strongly believe that they can be used to cause attitudinal change vis a vis issues like racial equity while programs that can be seen by their intended targets as forcing them into believing a certain way. When issues occur, it is often the knee jerk response of people outside and sometimes inside the culture, most typically scared corporate leaders to drive a wrecking ball to authentic and alternative cultures, then apply a sterilized, corporate diversity system that is largely based on the same oppressive cultural norms that helped cause the harm it seeks to remedy. These solutions would include the use of strict rules against any dialogue other than corporate-style communications, bureaucratically governing creative expression out of the picture, and poorly designed quotas. This falls into what social scientists will call a “fixes that fail” pathology. In the short term, this will, in fact, “shut up the marks.” But in many cases, token representation or claims of making racial equity changes are used to cover up criticism of other more serious social justice issues in an organization. As in the ring when a wrestler seeks to stop the taunts rather than to win the match, this is a losing strategy. There is a big difference between the idea of slapping in “diverse people” quickly to meet a public demand and truly including those of diverse backgrounds in the creative process. True inclusion in the creative life of a culture or organization is widely understood to be a net positive in terms of progression and innovation, as well as revenue for businesses that can serve a broader clientele better, but mechanized, reactionary approaches may not realize these benefits. Any expert or research report on diversity in the workplace will highlight that lack of diverse executive leadership is one of the biggest and least addressed issues, and Tony Khan does get the win here. Having a black female in the C-Suite in Brandi Rhodes and an authentically designed storyline with Cody, a second-generation wrestler with much cultural legitimacy, embracing anti-racism based on a deeply personal basis is a great example.
However, with self-governance comes tremendous responsibility and various potential pitfalls. Some of the issues in these cultures include aggressive or improper language and not displaying diversity in the same way that a centrally planned product would. The other issue can be that a newcomer may not be able to immediately incorporate themselves into the group, with its special language and systems of operation that have organically developed and perhaps do not follow common logic. One cannot learn the rule book when no rule book exists. This can be as true in punk rock shows where swearing is a norm and the moshpit is the definition of “unscripted violence,” to use a term from Jon Moxley, as it is in pro wrestling. People not acquainted with the culture will look around at these scenes and believe “there is no way diversity is respected here,” all the while the people who make up the culture embrace highly progressive ideas above and beyond those in the mainstream spaces where everyone has a diversity plan and portrays the exact ratio of people from different populations that marketing researchers determined makes a group look “diverse” to average consumers. More importantly, there are often better opportunities for leadership and more concern for improving the material conditions of the workplace that disproportionately affect minorities in these alternative spaces, especially those that have a less hierarchical structure, than in professional organizations that check all the boxes of a diversity plan beautifully designed by well-intentioned and astute PhDs but in their hearts do it only to avoid backlash.
“There’s very little difference in people, and that little difference makes a big difference, and that difference is attitude.” - Toby Morse, H2O
So, how does one seek to improve diversity in a self-governed environment? By using the existing ideas and principles of the culture to promote first an immediate cognizance of diversity and then using passionate and experienced members of the culture to bring persons of diverse backgrounds into the dialogue and the lifestyle of the scene. Participant observation of the culture is the key method of analysis for determining intervention points, as each intervention must be customized rather than using pre-existing tools alone or just using conventional commercial philanthropy to remediate harm. This sort of mentorship must not be forced but should be based upon pre-existing common interests. There should always be an understanding that historically cultures that have organically collaborated with underserved populations have greatly benefitted from doing so, and taking that positive attitude changes both perceptions, processes, and outcomes. An example of mentorship on common ground to draw from is the relationship between Darby Allin and Sting. Within wrestling, undoubtedly there will be a favorite storyline, era, or stable of each developing athlete, which can guide who can be a natural mentor or team placement. Then utilize people of diverse backgrounds who have learned the culture to work with others who share their background. This is already happening with staff members like “The Captain” Shawn Dean, wrestler and extras coordinator at AEW, working on embracing diversity with athletes participating on Dark. This approach would likely remediate some of Big Swole’s concerns. However, leaders must be extremely careful not to overburden people of color and others of diverse backgrounds with mentorship work that is not part of their job functions and instead provide needed support.
Those who have leadership roles of any kind should be open and responsive to feedback, addressing concerns skillfully, but understanding the value of what already exists in the culture and how spontaneous order leads to better outcomes in seeking to combine the experiences of people across intersectional categories. Changing the creative process here to a scripted system like WWE with managers who rigorously control how athletes discuss issues, create “arranged marriages” of wrestlers, and abandoning storylines that positively impact fans’ lives, including fans of color, in order to promote “diversity” is not the way. In fact, doing this can severely worsen the problem, as the backlash from taking away the culture they love will drive those fans who were learning and becoming better through the sport away from appreciating diversity at all. Keeping your attitudes and desires top of mind when making decisions naturally guides the collective mind of a culture to better decisions more than any rule book can. As Will Washington stated on the Grapsody podcast, we want to see the path similar to the long-term booking of World Champion Adam Page, not necessarily rushing something inauthentically to cover an alleged issue.
Learning from those who can be affected by your words and decisions makes an emotional impact that sticks. Tony Khan clearly values what has been done with diversity in AEW, and he should, but at the same time maybe for a moment he forgot what he truly desired in writing that response. The Twitter message that was posted should have been instead sent to another member of staff who is trusted and willing to help process raw thoughts towards a more constructive approach.
Notes to Outside Advocates on Assessing Overall Impact and Intersectionality
It is important for outside observers and advocates who may be calling for extreme actions (such as a boycott or closure of AEW) to understand that pro wrestling’s value toward DEI objectives is not just within the sport, it reaches far outside the sport. Given the current state of political polarization and how it effectively creates different nations within nations, I view wrestlers and promoters as having the potential to take a public diplomacy-like role to disenfranchised members of society who may be on the verge of embracing ideas that harm people of color and other minorities. We have seen narratives of wrestling through many anecdotes, including that from my own life, have transformed people’s attitudes and beliefs substantially. I have written at length about how authentically developed storylines can change perceptions of groups most vulnerable to hateful ideologies. This makes inclusion done the right way even more important, but it also adds to the importance of avoiding overcorrection. In the absolute worst-case scenario, sanitizing the sport of its existing cultural fabric would take a developing young mind who was attracted to wrestling out of his preferred social outlet, tempt them toward anger and hatred, then turning heel in real life against the positive ideals wrestling was slowly burning into their mind before the change.
Years ago, when I was working for the conservative Tea Party in the wake of Trump’s election, skateboarding and punk rock culture and the ways it related to my current frame of mind helped me to see things differently. Had these cultures been made in the perfect academically social justice oriented way, I may have never had this change of heart. Same thing can be true with someone else who is watching AEW right now. Though I certainly do not recommend a mass media culture use the level of design for specifically communicating to a target population that may be taken to reach a public diplomacy objective, I believe taking the diplomatic and outreach role into account is helpful in assessing impact for critics who may be tempted to throw in the towel.
Given how Khan identified himself as a person of color due to his Pakistani heritage, some have reacted negatively saying he does not deserve similar treatment in terms of narrative legitimacy as compared to other more oppressed persons. This line of thought tends to come from a very common misinterpretation of intersectionality. Intersectionality seeks to bring together persons from differing backgrounds based on the forms of oppression they have experienced and identities they have. Through doing so, common struggles can be identified, differences in individual-institutional relations between oppressed and dominant groups can be addressed, and people with seemingly disparate lived experiences can find common ground to advocate for change. It also identifies notable differences in the nature of oppression between groups. As such, this does not detract from the legitimate concerns about a lack of African-American leadership or representation. It is not a quantitative system of analysis to determine who is the most oppressed. There is no ranking system or elimination death match of intersectionality to determine who is the most oppressed. The “Oppression Olympics” concept has been debunked by top intersectionality scholars like Dr. Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro.
Solving Diversity Failures
In terms of correcting wrongs within a culture, the way to communicate should be first crafted with the right attitude, and everything else follows. Sometimes this leads your mind to follow a traditional PR practice, sometimes it sparks creativity outside that. Understand what your position is and have the solution in mind to an extent before it becomes a problem. Whatever is done, it should be done from love.
An artist screaming from the stage “Nazi punks fuck off” when racists are in the audience at a punk show is not what would be normally advised but works well because it is said in the tone of the culture, making the message more valid and motivating action. Aggression, when it is part of your culture, should be part of your DEI approach, not thrown away because it doesn’t fit a model. It should all feel natural, like embracing these ideas are a part of what you already love. The aggressive approach may paradoxically be seen by core participants as less intrusive and more foreground than trying to make everyone behave neatly using a kinder tone. It’s not the typical “by the book” method that involves HR desperately searching for the only two black managers in a corporation to stand and smile behind an executive explaining a diversity plan, but it can work in the right context.
To sum it up, when working on DEI efforts in creative cultures like wrestling, seek to authentically include in the process of the culture through emphasizing existing attitudes of inclusion, let spontaneous order do its job, don’t react to things too quickly, acknowledge and learn from existing successes, and see the whole picture of the value collaboration between groups in your culture delivers for these objectives outside of superficial representation. Much of the progression and style of alternative creative cultures has come from their diversity, and I look forward to seeing that happen in pro wrestling as well.
Greyson Peltier is the host of The Fixerpunk Podcast, a communications consultant specializing in social impact, and founder of Laguna Beach, CA-based consulting firm Off Speed Solutions. Here, he writes analyses of social movements and subcultures through the lens of kayfabe. Peltier holds a BA in Political Science from the University of Southern California and has been featured by media outlets like Vice, ESPN Radio KLAA, USA Radio Network, and Street Fight Radio.