Racism Is Nothing New In 'Bachelor Nation,' And It's Time To Change That

Op-Ed: ‘The Bachelor’ Needs To End The Racism — Before Racism Ends ‘The Bachelor’

MATT JAMES, CHRIS HARRISON
Scary Mommy and Craig Sjodin/ABC

If you’re a fan of the “Bachelor” franchise, you can’t help but be aware of the most recent round of racist behavior demonstrated by current contestant and season frontrunner, Rachael Kirkconnell, and, more significantly, by the show’s host, Chris Harrison. In January, shortly after the season premiered, photos surfaced of Kirkconnell attending an antebellum party – basically, dressing up like a daughter of the Confederacy to party at a plantation, an act that Harrison did backflips to defend in an insensitive, tone-deaf interview with the first Black Bachelorette, Rachel Lindsay.

Over the years, contestants on “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” have demonstrated racism both on and off the air. Garrett Yrigoyen, James Taylor, Lee Garrett, Hannah Brown and now Kirkconnell have all drawn attention for racist behavior, and calls to diversify the cast led to this season’s casting of the first Black Bachelor, Matt James (Rachel Lindsay’s run as the first Black Bachelorette in 2017 was followed by Tayshia Adams in 2020). While racism in “Bachelor Nation” is nothing new, it’s Harrison’s behavior that may be the event that finally instigates a seismic shift in the way “The Bachelor” engages with race in America.

If you’re in need of the TL;DR version, past contestant and first Black Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay asked Chris Harrison about the Kirkconnell controversy in an interview for “Extra.” This inspired a long rant from Harrison about the perils of “woke culture,” proclamations that 2018 (when Kirkconnell did her best Scarlett O’Hara impersonation at an antebellum themed party) and 2021 are somehow light years apart in what is considered racist or not, requests for grace for white women like Kirkconnell and Brown when their racist actions come to light, and basically a very gross gaslighting of Rachel Lindsay with weird claims that “50 million people” attended antebellum themed parties in 2018 — and questioning who Rachel, a Black woman, is to criticize Kirkconnell’s behavior.

As Harrison doubled down on defending Kirkconnell, he breezed right past Lindsay questioning who she, as a Black woman, would be in the antebellum scenario. His dismissal of her extremely relevant and poignant question lies at the heart of his offense: in defending the right of a white woman to party in the (racist) manner of her choosing, he chose to protect racist sorority antics over the humanity and hurt of a Black woman, even as he demanded to know who she was to be offended.

As you can imagine, the internet exploded. Chris Harrison has stepped down temporarily from his hosting duties, though the impact for the current season will be negligible since most of the season has already been shot. And unfortunately, fans’ reactions mirrored the racism we’ve seen from the show’s host and contestants, with racist innuendo and stereotypes lobbed at Lindsay by defenders of Kirkconnell and Harrison on social media platforms.

The racism of “Bachelor Nation” is magnified on Instagram, where Rachel Lindsay – arguably one of the franchise’s most accomplished, personable stars – has 957,000 followers to Hannah Brown’s 2.5 million. These defenses revealed a disturbing, though unsurprising, lack of empathy for Lindsay and Black people in general, and a fundamental lack of understanding about American history and the problematic nature of glorifying the Confederacy and the antebellum period in American history.

Facebook groups dedicated to “The Bachelor” are full of comments dragging Lindsay in every racist way imaginable, from the micro-aggression to the macro. Blame is laid at her feet for asking the obvious question of Harrison, as though posing the question makes her responsible for his racist response. People who are upset with Rachel Lindsay for initiating the conversation with Harrison are focusing their outrage in the wrong place.

The real culprit here is the racism the “Bachelor” franchise has failed to act meaningfully upon throughout its history, racism that Chris Harrison exemplified in his comments without coaxing or any sense of consternation. These people must realize that when we talk about racism in “Bachelor Nation,” it doesn’t mean that Chris or Rachael or Hannah B are terrible people with no redeeming qualities. It’s not about canceling anyone.

The reality is that every last American lives in a culture steeped in racism and white supremacy. Some of us benefit from it and some of us suffer for it. As James Baldwin wrote, “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” The “Bachelor” franchise is faced again with the opportunity to make the meaningful and necessary changes to produce a show that does not promote and perpetuate the most damaging parts of our culture, and voices calling for them to finally act decisively are justified in their requests for ABC and “The Bachelor” producers to do so.

In a moment where the first Black Bachelor is widely expected to choose a woman who has engaged in Confederate cosplay as his future wife speaks to the lack of sensitivity and awareness in the contestant vetting process, and the lack of concern the franchise has for the physical and emotional safety of its Black stars and contestants. The inability of fans to see how this is problematic and, rather than “listening and learning” (the method of reparation most popular by those whose racist past has come back to bite them in the ass), choose to blame the Black woman who called the issue out as the problem, speaks volumes about the need for change within the franchise, and our culture.

This sentiment was echoed by this week when, approximately two months after Kirkconnell’s story broke and two weeks after the Chris Harrison fiasco, Matt James broke his silence. James called the behavior of Kirkconnell and Harrison “incredibly disappointing” and described the experience as “devastating” and “heartbreaking.” These words feel mild, even as they ring with authenticity.

At best, the “Bachelor” failed to protect Matt by properly vetting contestants for a history of racism – an act of negligence in the casting of their first Black Bachelor that is as dangerous as it is insensitive. At worst, they were aware of the photos of Kirkconnell, and selected her anyway to provoke drama in the season, which is disgusting and an act of violence towards Matt and the women of color in the cast. Matt has every reason to be livid, and I hope he is.

However angry he might be, Matt and every other Black person in America knows the truth Lindsay described about her experience on the show: that no matter how harmful the behavior, the emotional reactions of Black stars and contestants must always be muted, so as not to feed into the harmful stereotypes we know white viewers harbor about how Black people behave; there’s also a contractual element Lindsay referred to in her recent AMA preventing her from responding authentically to the racist behavior of contestant Lee Garrett from her season, which is problematic in its own right.

I realize that for many, this reckoning means being confronted with the way things they know and love are problematic. That when you’re on the side that is not obviously harmed by racism, it seems stupid to be upset about an antebellum party, or the use of certain words. If your understanding of the history is incomplete, there’s a lot of context that you don’t have to inform your perspective. However, that doesn’t mean that what’s happening isn’t real, or that people’s upset isn’t justified.

ABC can do better. They have the opportunity – to say nothing of the responsibility — to evolve the “Bachelor” brand into one that is inclusive of its viewers and contestants. And requesting accountability when one makes a mistake isn’t “mean” or “race-baiting” — it’s something we should all learn to be comfortable demonstrating when we cause harm to another, which we all do at some point.

Consider the fact that if this controversy doesn’t make sense to you, or feels overblown, it may be because you don’t have the life experience that affords you insight into the experiences of those who are offended, but that you can learn. If you choose to. And that learning will extend past how you view “The Bachelor” into the empathy and understanding you have for your fellow citizens as well. Racism is real, it still exists, and it’s a disease we all suffer from, in one way or another. The only way to eradicate it is to identify it, name it, and act intentionally to end it.

The “Bachelor” franchise has the opportunity now to play its role in ending racism, before racism ends “The Bachelor.”