The Heartbreaking First Black Bachelorette

I hoped this season could find a way to change cultural perceptions of black love. I’ll be honest: I’m crushed.

In the show’s season finale, Rachel Lindsay gave away her final rose and got engaged.

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This season, I tuned in eagerly to The Bachelorette to see if Rachel Lindsay, the first black and oldest—at age 31—bachelorette in franchise history, would find love. Like me, and other professional black women I know, Rachel had pursued degrees and career success while waiting for love. Like us, Rachel had spent several years waiting for commitment from men who were incapable of offering it. And like us, Rachel was cynical about the possibility of love, in part because of deep-rooted insecurities stemming from how infrequently black women see ourselves portrayed as viable love interests in pop culture. Prominent, educated black women are often framed, in the public imagination, as undesirable (too independent), unattractive (too masculine), or unattainable (too stuck up). And so I was hopeful that a cast promoted as “the most diverse” in franchise history would yield a bevy of beautiful black men who would vie for the affection of a bona fide dark-skinned black girl. Now it’s over, and I’ll be honest: I’m devastated.

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Rachel Lindsay was clearly a strategic pick as the first black bachelorette. A Dallas-based lawyer and daughter of a judge, Rachel has all the trappings of upper-class white affluence alongside a black girl aesthetic and homegirl sensibility. She is black, but not black-black, not stereotypical black. She was recognizable to white women who related to her class experience and to black women who recognized her cultural cues. She seemed like the ideal female viewer surrogate on a show that otherwise erased race, with few consequences—a protagonist who could allow the show to satisfyingly portray black love without alienating white viewers.

Still, as early as the first episode, I began to feel skeptical. I was not alone. Black viewers expressed disappointment throughout the season about everything from racial “tokenism and tropes” to the implication that diversity equals black people assimilating into a mostly white world where there are no other black people. There were 11 black men in the original 31 contestants; after the first rose ceremony, there were only eight. The likelihood of a black love story began to dwindle from the beginning, and even though Eric Bigger, the charming pretty boy from Baltimore, made it to the final three, it was no surprise when he was eliminated at the start of the season finale. Over the course of the season, it became clearer and clearer that the decision to cast a black bachelorette was merely evidence of the network’s interest in pushing faux-colorblind love stories as fairy-tale fantasies; the show failed to account for the ways that race would complicate the existing narrative, including the real challenges that interracial couples experience—especially black women who date nonblack men. I was confounded by the ways the men (both black and white) talked about Rachel as an anomaly. The subtext of their praise seemed to imply that it is unusual for black women to be smart, beautiful, or successful, let alone at the same damn time.

For example, when Will, a 28-year-old black bachelor, admitted to only dating white women, and white bachelors, including Dean, confessed to having never dated a black woman, there was no discussion about what these confessions might imply about cultural and social norms, or about the desirability of black women. As the show spotlighted Rachel’s family, which includes a white brother-in-law and aunt by marriage, it reiterated that race is inconsequential and should therefore be ignored. Even though the final couple is interracial—smooth-talking Bryan, whose proposal Rachel accepted, is Colombian—the show never once addressed how racial and cultural differences can shape the everyday lives of interracial and interethnic couples.

In the end, the season reckoned with race not as it related to the central love story but only in the context of the men vying for Rachel’s affections. Take the contentious storyline between Kenny (a black wrestler and doting father) and Lee (a white songwriter with a penchant for bigotry). In what can only be described as race-baiting, Lee targeted Kenny and began to characterize him as “aggressive.” Lee provoked Kenny to anger and then shrank in seeming confusion when Kenny challenged him. It felt like Kenny was being gaslit. When called out for his racist rhetoric, Lee attempted to explain away his racism with so-called reverse racism, insisting that Kenny was playing the proverbial “race card.”

Viewers were expected to intuit his racism; egregious and obvious as it was, it was never named. The tensions between Kenny and Lee dominated the storyline for two weeks with an unreconciled ending. The two men became scapegoats of racial tensions, leaving race fatigue in their wake, for both the viewers and participants. By outsourcing racial tension to Kenny and Lee, the show seemed to think it could exorcise race as an issue, abandoning the topic altogether once they left the show.

As the season progressed and Eric was left as the last black man standing, my disappointment felt deeper and deeper. It was not until the “Men Tell All” episode that any significant discussion of race and racism happened on camera. The cast confronted Lee about his racism, insisting that he not only take responsibility for his actions and words but that he name their underlying cause.

It felt like an insufficient bone thrown in an overgrown graveyard. Lee is framed as misunderstood, and his smugness is replaced with overeager self-deprecation. We are expected to empathize with the racist and give him space for redemption. While there were persistent questions aimed at persuading Lee to admit his acts as racist, if not himself as racist, he never took personal responsibility, blaming his inappropriate actions on facetiousness and inexperience. While Chris Harrison praised Lee for his willingness to face down his own character flaws, the black men were forced to modulate their words, tones, expressions, and attitudes; the burden was on them to thwart and not reinforce racist stereotypes. I rolled my eyes at Lee’s pseudo-epiphany. If the men had responded to Lee with reasonable frustration instead of politeness, they would have been read as a group of angry black men wielding their black masculinity like a weapon. Instead, the result was a nicely packaged ending to messy and complicated circumstances. All is forgiven and eventually forgotten so we can move past race and the franchise can return to its whitewashed status quo.

And yet: This group of black men was also the season’s one saving grace. In many ways, this season of The Bachelorette was as much about the black men on the show as it was about the black protagonist. Black men have long been caricatures in the Bachelor franchise, depicted as disposable and unserious candidates for lasting love. This season, they came to the foreground. Their confidence, cool poses, and camaraderie challenged cultural representations of black men as angry, violent, and sexually aggressive. While cable reality TV shows like Love and Hip Hop and Basketball Wives still present black men as ignorant, unfaithful womanizers, the black bachelors on The Bachelorette offered an opportunity for black men to be re-imagined as future husbands, not baby daddies.

There was no animosity among them. And it was refreshing to see black men actively pursue a relationship with a black woman while defending and supporting one another. With the exception of DeMario, who was expelled from the show early because of his failure to disclose another relationship outside the show, the black bachelors were respectful, reasonable, and romantic. By refusing to engage each other as enemies, they successfully interrogated the troubling caricatures of black men that have become commonplace on reality TV. The Bachelorette helped to humanize black men and make them multidimensional. I’m grateful for that, even though I’m still waiting for a fairy tale that makes me really believe in black love.