What was supposed to be just another amateur wrestling match held in southern New Jersey on Dec. 19 turned out to be an act of unspeakable violence, prompting a viral response on Twitter.
A white male referee, Alan Mahoney, gave a white woman a pair of scissors to cut off the dreadlocks of 15-year-old African-American wrestler, Andrew Johnson, 90 seconds before his match. Johnson’s white coach stood by and let it happen. Johnson was given what amounted to an ultimatum — either cut your hair or forfeit your match. The “reason” given for this was that the cap that Johnson had on did not meet “regulations” in covering his “unnatural” hair, although most of his hair was covered.
The incident created such outrage that Mahoney is indefinitely suspended from calling any future matches until a review is carried out by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association. Johnson’s wrestling team at Buena Regional High School had announced before the suspension that they will boycott any matches involving Mahoney.
Mahoney was criticized for using a racial slur against a Black referee during a match in 2016, but was still allow to call matches. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy felt compelled to respond, saying, “No student should have to needlessly choose between his and her identity and playing sports.” (Washington Post, Dec. 21)
Cultural genocide, an attempt to erase one’s identity if you are a person of color, usually starts with the very young. Just think about all the Indigenous youth who were kidnapped and forced to attend Westernized schools. These children endured the deep pain of having their hair cut off, wearing clothing foreign to them and being forbidden to speak their original languages. The aim of these schools was to torture Indigenous youth and erase from hearts and minds their cultural heritage, including heroic resistance of ancestors to racist genocide dating back to the days of Columbus.
Millions of kidnapped Africans, brought to the U.S. to endure chains and the lash under slavery, suffered a similar kind of cultural genocide. There was not only the physical torture but also the psychological torture of the slave master’s attempts to erase African roots from one generation to the next.
Shireen Ahmed, a Black sportswriter, wrote in The Guardian, “ I thought about all the ways that racists have invoked vacuous and bigoted reasons for hacking the young people’s hair in order to maintain systems of white privilege. I remember stories of how Indigenous children’s long braids, which had spiritual and traditional significance, were cut off in order to appease colonial white powers. Those were acts of violence, this was too.” (Dec. 21)
This same article quotes Dr. Amira Rose Davis, a Black assistant professor of history, gender and sexuality studies at Penn State University: “What we see with Andrew Johnson is reminiscent of what we saw with, say, Venus Williams incurring a penalty for beads falling out of her hair. [T]he constant demand to ‘tame’, conform and change their natural hair to accommodate or assimilate into white dominated sports spaces is an all too common demand of so-called integration and a power move designed to remind athletes of color of their place and the terms of their inclusion.” Eighty percent of all amateur wrestlers in the U.S. are white.
Johnson won his match but will not be wrestling anytime soon while he deals with this traumatic experience.
What happened to Johnson was not an isolated incident but part of a centuries-long societal pattern of cultural genocide within a capitalist system riddled with white supremacy.