Don’t Hinder Jinder (with xenophobia)

Jinder Mahal isn’t a wrestling villain to western millennials of colour. He’s the hero, there’s nothing “fake” about that.

On Sun May 21, 2017 I watched history unfold. I had told my friend that Jinder Mahal ( Yuvraj Singh Dhesi) was going to become the WWE Smackdown Live World Champion. He was skeptical. In truth until Jinder got the 1–2–3 so was I. Watching together on my TV we were stunned. So was the live audience in Chicago. A moment decades in the making. It caused an eruption online of people in favour and against the move. It quickly moved from wrestling fans into mainstream territory. My Facebook wall lit up after I posted it while excitedly trying to make sense of it all. The Monday morning after, my friend and I are still buzzing about what we saw.

Both of us are first gen Canadian millennials of Pakistani parents. We are in our early 30’s, Muslim, working professionals, from Toronto, and are hardcore wrestling fans (yes culture snobs we know outcomes are scripted). We have seen three decades of white American audiences see “ethnic wrestlers” as villains. Nobody who looks like us has ever come close to sniffing the title since the days of the Iron Sheikh.

Jinder has been a pro wrestler for a long time and this was his second stint with the company after being fired. His second run started as poorly as the first with him being booked as an “enhancement talent”. Basically there to have other wrestlers beat him on their way up the ladder. He operates under the gimmick of the Modern Day Maharaja: an Indian Sikh Turban wearing arrogant villain, but no one has ever taken him seriously because he never wins. This despite the fact that when he returned his physique had grown leaps and bounds as had his demeanor.

So about a month ago when Jinder won the #1 contender slot to face established Champion Randy Orton, millions of wrestling fans were stunned. He got assistance that night from the “Bollywood Boyz” another forgotten ethnic act. Overnight a group formed.

Fans in the audience booed Jinder, I jumped up and cheered at home.

Jinder seized his moment and as each week progressed the boo’s continued. So did the chants of “USA,USA!” from mainly white audiences who didn’t like Jinder saying that Americans didn’t respect him because of their lack of tolerance and their ignorance. Even though the “foreign villain” has been a wrestling trope for years, this time it cut close to the bone for many of us watching from around the world in a new Trump America.

The formula works because the primary live audiences at wrestling shows are white and working class America. Insulting their patriotism as a foreigner is a textbook way to garner what is called “heat”. The legendary Bret Hart often played up the America Canada divide when he became a villain. Kevin Owens, a French Canadian is the United States Champion, and routinely says he is the face of America. He antagonizes audiences by speaking in French, and insulting them.

But Kevin Owens is a cool heel. He is a celebrated independent wrestler and fans boo him but also many cheer him. He is also white.

Jinder is not white. This is his first ever push up the wrestling hierarchy …

…and he is going to be viciously hated.

Progressive wrestling fans will trip over themselves insisting this has nothing do with race, religion, or ethnicity, that Jinder is a “ traditional bad guy” doing his job to make people hate him. They will ignore their cognitive dissonance and 30 years of being programmed to see white male babyfaces as the hero with the odd Black (Booker T), Hispanic (Eddie Guerrero) , or Polynesian (The Rock) exception sprinkled in. They will ignore the fact that African American, Indigenous,Middle Eastern, Eastern European, South and East Asian, and Latino wrestlers all have had to to be caricatures for them to “get over” with live white audiences, despite global ones watching from every corner of the planet. White wrestlers don’t have to pretend they are from a foreign country when they come onto the roster. They are often vanquishing the “other”.

Make no mistake the white American audience is the primary audience. Everyone else is second. All the exceptions people will point to are just that exceptions, to try to make themselves not feel apart of the racist discourse.

Don’t believe me, okay try to imagine Jinder as a hero wrestler champion, who wasn’t from India, but brown skinned and from Alberta? Would it work?

If you hesitated (person of colour or not) while reading this you answered your own question.

Because that’s where Jinder’s actually from. Alberta, Canada.

I am sure he is proud of his families Indian Punjabi heritage just like I am of my parents, but he is a Canadian millennial kid of diversity. So are his henchmen Samir and Sunil Singh ( Gurvinder Sihra, Harvinder Sihra ) who are from British Columbia, Canada and have Sikh Punjabi heritage as well.

Does Jinder’s push have a lot to do with dollar signs of promoting WWE in India? Of course it does.

But he also speaks to western wrestling audiences of millennials of colour like me too. Every time he comes to the ring, he represents my lifetime of feeling “othered”. That my voice was always secondary and that people who I identify with just didn’t count as much in wrestling, and therefore notions of cool in real life. I am as western as anybody else, but never saw myself reflected in the art I loved.

Jinder is interesting in that he has no foreign accent, and is now a champion in a social media era where fictional pop culture has become a battlefield for diverse audiences demanding broader inclusion in every type of nerd sphere from film, comics, tv, books and more. Wrestling is no exception.

Whereas Jinder is now an anomaly, fans such as myself from around the world who aren’t white won’t hope for once in a generation moments: we are starting to expect them daily. We don’t care about openly white racist dude bros, or white passive aggressive nerds who insist they aren’t racist but can’t see past their white filters.

Eventually Jinder is going to lose the belt, to a good old white American boy. White America will be relieved and cheer when he finally falls. I will be saddened.

But until that moment, every time he calls out the racist undertones that dominate all of our whitewashing pop culture, I will cheer as loud as I can, while the boos rain down.

Nadir Shirazi is the creator and executive producer of MultiFacet. An anime and transmedia property elevating characters of colour and diversities not represented in white mainstream pop culture.

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