Living Color: How 35X Champ Booker T Conquers Racism

black wrestlers

In the final installment of his six-part series, Booker T. offers a candid look at the role race has played in his life both in and out of the ring.

It didn’t take very long for a rule to get around in the locker rooms when my wrestling career was going full blast: If someone felt like saying something racist, don’t say it around Booker. The reason was simple. I was always willing to be fired if I knew I was 100% in the right. If racism was going to get thrown in my face, I would handle it, either diplomatically or violently.

I remember on one Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a guy backstage decided it would be a good idea to wonder out loud what Martin Luther King Jr. ever did to deserve that honor. I could tell you a thousand reasons why a comment like that is unbelievably stupid, but I trust most people understand why. I confronted the guy — yes, he was white — and set up a meeting so he could repeat what he said in front of everyone. He got the message. That was the diplomatic way.

As someone who grew up in and around Houston and wrestled for some hostile crowds in the South for years, racism has been a part of my life both on and off the mat. I’ve had fans yell the N-word at me when I was just starting out and I’ve experienced subtler forms of prejudice later on in my career. When the recording of Hulk Hogan using a racial slur was leaked to the press a couple of years back, everyone asked what I thought. I’m one of a select few black athletes who have ever earned a major world title in a leading wrestling promotion — a storyteller in an industry that reflects culture and has culture reflect back.

If all goes well, I’ll be going to Lagos, Nigeria, soon to finalize a deal to bring a mentorship and pro wrestling curriculum to an underprivileged and underserved country. I want to help build good wrestlers and better people. If some of them beat the odds and make it to a major stage like the WWE, I expect that they’ll be asking me about the role their race will play in their lives and their careers.

There’s a hard truth there. Wrestling is less diverse now than when I got into it over 30 years ago, and it might be up to them to help change that.

black wrestlersSputnik Monroe via Memphis Wrestling History.

You probably haven’t heard of the guy, but Sputnik Monroe deserves a lot of credit. He was a wrestler who worked in and around Tennessee and Alabama in the 1950s and 1960s. He liked to play the heel, getting the crowd all riled up. And in that area at that time, there was no better way to piss a crowd off than be a white man like Sputnik and be seen hanging out in black neighborhoods with black friends.

That’s exactly what Sputnik did, even getting arrested in some spots when he refused to clear out of a black club during police visits. Another time, he was with a friend who, as a man of color, was supposed to take his hat off in a department store as a sign of “respect” to the white proprietors. Sputnik went in with him and, from all accounts, absolutely nobody told the guy to take his hat off. He basically integrated that department store.

He did the same for arenas in Memphis, refusing to show up unless black fans got to sit on the floor near the ring instead of being forced to go into the balconies. Sputnik drew money, and the promoters decided they liked the color green more than they disliked anything else. Sputnik got his share of the revenue not by fighting racism head-on, but by being a performer and letting that speak for itself.

A couple of decades later, I was working some of those same territories that hadn’t matured a whole lot. One of my mentors, Ox Baker, warned me that crowds in those Southern arenas might have some harsh words for me. Later, when I started wrestling at the Dallas Sportatorium for a small promotion called the GWF, I was told I might hear some things I wouldn’t like. That was an understatement. It was like Quentin Tarantino was writing dialogue for these guys.

It was like Quentin Tarantino was writing dialogue for these guys.

It wasn’t as though I was going to brawl with fans in the crowd over this stuff. I couldn’t control their view of the world, but what I could control was how I chose to navigate through the business. Early on, when some bigger promoters in Atlanta started courting me, they wanted my tag team to come to the ring in shackles and jumpsuits, “managed” by a plantation owner. Thanks but no thanks.

I could see other black wrestlers giving in to the easy persona. Some would dance; others would come out to thumping rap music. I stayed clear of all of it. I spoke proper English and let my athletic ability represent who I was and what I was bringing to the ring. Sometimes even the racist crowds at the Sportatorium would quiet down when I pulled off an impressive move. That’s how you break out of a stereotype — knowing who you are and how good you are at what you do. You rise above all that through talent.

By the time I started winning world titles in the WCW, I was conscious of the fact I was one of the few black champions in the history of the business. I knew about the people behind me and the people who would follow me, and I knew I had to represent myself a certain way. But part of the reason I became champ was because I was focused on becoming a better performer, not whether I’d make history or a statement by holding a belt. By the time it looked like it would happen, I just wondered if fans would buy me in that position. And they did. All they cared about was whether I gave them their money’s worth.

I was focused on becoming a better performer, not whether I’d make history or a statement by holding a belt.

Later on in the WWE, there would sometimes be references to my “nappy” hair during feuds, or other things that made my color a part of the story. Sometimes people will use that to label the business racist. To me, one has nothing to do with the other. If you really thought that way, you could never go see a movie like Django Unchained. It’s art — it’s a story. If racism existed in wrestling the way it did in Sputnik’s time, I wouldn’t have been a six-time world champ. I would’ve been a one-time world champ, or a no-time world champ.

A lack of diversity in wrestling isn’t about wrestling holding anyone back. The simple fact in my eyes is that we don’t see many black wrestlers on top of the card because few black athletes become interested in wrestling as a way to excel. Black kids don’t grow up thinking wrestling will be their ticket, their way out. People don’t say hockey has a diversity problem.

I still hear from people who complain there hasn’t been a black wrestler to hold the WWE world title, aside from the Rock. But let’s say I did hold that title during my run there. Then the question would be, “How come it was only Booker T?” And if there were five black athletes, then it would be, “Why only five?”

It’s true that there were more athletes of color near the top of the card when I was starting than there are now. Of course, I’d like to see the number go up, but that’s not a fault of the wrestling business.

black wrestlersBooker T endures La Resistance during Wrestle Mania XX at Madison Square Garden. Photo by KMazur via WireImage.

There’s always talk of Hulk Hogan coming back to the WWE, especially when a WrestleMania is coming up, and how the crowd might react. A more interesting question is how his fellow performers would react.

I’ll give you the plain truth here. When that incident happened — Hogan was recorded using the N-word in reference to his daughter’s boyfriend during what he believed to be a private conversation — I reached out to him and asked him to appear on my radio show. It would’ve been a big moment for him that he could use to do some good, to talk about eradicating this word that’s become way too common. I was even in the position of being able to reference the time I accidentally called Hogan a “nigga” on live television in WCW. It was a perfect opportunity to really break down some walls.

I haven’t heard from him, so if and when I see him, I’ll call him out on it. He missed a moment that could have helped a lot of people.

Although it’s for the best I never heard Hogan use that word in a locker room given my “diplomatic” attitude, he was ostracized for saying it while people just laughed when I used the same word toward him. It’s a double standard that makes no sense. In the heat of the moment, you might say anything. I’m going to tell someone they don’t deserve a second chance?

You can’t bury this stuff. Racism isn’t going anywhere, and I’ve been fortunate in my life to have forums to challenge that kind of thinking. My radio show just passed its 100th episode, and it’s a place where I can talk about anything that’s on my mind. My wrestling promotion, Reality of Wrestling, could soon be a reality television series. I’ve got guys headed to Qatar to compete soon, the first time we’re going to promote outside of the United States.

My mayoral run in 2019 is set to make a big, big difference in Houston. In Lagos, the mentorship program could see me going there up to four times a year for a month or two at a stretch. It’s a youth program about how to be successful in life, not just in wrestling.

Maybe the next WWE champ will be from there. Maybe not. In a way, it doesn’t matter. When you travel, you realize how similar different places really are. There are ghettos, there are rich folks, there are people living in the middle.

I put my thoughts down in this series so people might be able to relate to my experiences and maybe be inspired by the fact I was a troubled kid who wound up in prison before winding up on national television with an eye on city hall. What have I learned through 30 years of living, working, and being a person of color? That people are the same all over and that there’s no limit to how far they can go in life. end

Don’t miss parts one through five of our exclusive series with Booker T:

Part 1: The Newborn Identity of Booker T

Part 2: Miles Apart: Booker T and Son Share Relationship Struggles

Part 3: Reality Check: Booker T Mentors a New Generation

Part 4: The Reality of Wrestling with Leaving the Ring Behind

Part 5: Booker T Is Running for Mayor of Houston, and Here’s Why

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