Television

Changing Hosts Won’t Fix The Bachelor’s Race Problem

Replacing Chris Harrison with Emmanuel Acho is only the beginning.

Matt James and Rachel Kirkconnell
Matt James and Rachel Kirkconnell. ABC

The Bachelor franchise has long had a race problem. This is no secret to fans of the franchise, which took nearly 15 years to have its first Black lead and only recently began casting contestants of color with any chance of being chosen. In 2017, the franchise made its first full-fledged attempt at progress with its highly publicized, first-ever Black Bachelorette, Rachel Lindsay, a lawyer whose upper-class background and mixed-race family was highlighted during the penultimate episode of her season. While Rachel got her canonical (and interracial) happy ending, the season was contentious. Contestant Lee Garrett, the resident race-baiter, was used as a scapegoat for the franchise’s larger issues with racism. His outspoken and obvious attempts to provoke Black men and then claim a lack of malicious intent shifted the focus away from the show’s historical and structural racism and toward Garrett’s individual acts. Surely the producers felt they could no longer be accused of racism after having a Black protagonist and allowing her to confront a racist contestant during the season’s after-show. Even if she ended up with a white man, Lindsay was still a proud Black woman, and the show took pains not to hide that fact. The series even doubled down on atoning for its homogenous casting with a Black Latina Bachelorette, Tayshia Adams, added as a mid-season replacement in the 2020 season. And the franchise hired producers, crew members and a diversity consultant of color behind the scenes that same year, setting the stage for the first Black Bachelor to close the circle of the program’s racially problematic history.

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The 2021 season stars Matt James, whose pedigree as a biracial Christian and former college athlete who says his dating preferences are not “race-specific” qualify him for the same exceptional blackness that Rachel Lindsay was afforded because of her colorblind philosophy. While the season started with its most diverse cast yet, critics complained that a failure to flesh out the lives of characters of color left diversity mostly as a matter of optics and token representation. But it was not the first Black Bachelorette who could usher in a Black heterosexual love story for the franchise— but the first Black Bachelor. The frontrunners are two Black women, Bri Springs and Michelle Young, and a white woman, Rachael Kirkconnell.

After Season 15 Bachelorette Hannah Brown used a racial slur on TikTok in the summer of 2020, an unscripted scandal in the weeks leading up to the pre-taped season finale has forced a conversation about the relevance of race to the franchise. Kirkconnell, the long-speculated winner of the season, was recently exposed for liking racist posts on social media, denigrating a classmate for dating black men, blackfishing, sharing QAnon conspiracy theories online, and attending an antebellum slave-themed party held by a fraternity in 2018. On Feb. 11, Kirkconnell responded with a well-worded apology that included an admission of wrongdoing, an acknowledgment of her racist actions, and a commitment to antiracism moving forward. In response, other contestants on the season released a joint statement denouncing any defense of racism. The scandal, then, is not so much Kirkconnell’s problematic internet history and her refusal to acknowledge it, but the show’s noticeable silence, and its host’s failed attempt at justifying rather than condemning racism.

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Chris Harrison, the only host of the long-standing franchise, came under fire after a Feb. 9 interview on Extra with Rachel Lindsay. Leaping to Kirkconnell’s defense, he verbally attacked Lindsay and other “woke police,” saying “two wrongs don’t make a right here … who the hell are you that you demand [her responsibility]?” His insensitivity and disrespectful tone left Lindsay to defend her frustration and ultimately acquiesce to his gaslighting for the sake of professionalism. Instead of directing his disdain at Kirkconnell’s racist actions, Harrison directed it at Rachel and other people of color who were offended. Instead of a call for accountability, he characterized the reaction to Kirkconnell as bullying, and insisted that Lindsay herself was in no position, as a person of color, to determine what is and isn’t racist. He went as far as insinuating that Kirkconnell’s past actions should be ignored because of her relationship with James, a common tactic of using so-called colorblindness as a distraction from racism—she can’t be racist if she is dating a black man.

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The problem with colorblindness is that it almost always accompanies racism. It is often used as a mechanism to deny that racism exists or is even possible, because if we don’t “see” color, how can we respond to it? In turn, white people often assume that racism means something it doesn’t; they resist conversations about race, because it makes them uncomfortable, and they shift the responsibility of explaining and eradiating racism to people of color themselves. They refuse to take accountability by shielding themselves in presumed ignorance turned innocence. Robin DiAngelo, the author of White Fragility, uses the phrase “white women’s tears”  to describe the ways white women deflect their participation in racist acts during cross-racial dialogue, while white men use anger as a defense mechanism, refusing to admit or accept wrongdoing. What we see in Harrison’s interview with Lindsay is self-righteous indignation. His white man’s condescension is leveraged to deflect and defend racism. Harrison positioned himself, over a Black woman, as an authority on race and racism.

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Harrison’s interference with the public’s attempt to hold Kirkconnell accountable exposed the ways that both he and the show have been complicit and dismissive of racism. By implying that racism can be measured on a scale of purely racist and not really or intentionally racist, he suggested that racism should be acceptable under certain conditions. For example, when Lee Garrett’s racist tweets surfaced during Rachel Lindsay’s season, Harrison did not defend him or try to convince anyone that Garrett should not be held accountable. However, years later, he couldn’t help himself from coming to a white woman’s defense, as if she was somehow not racist, or less racist. He framed Kirkconnell’s racist wrongdoing as innocuous, and therefore worthy of a pass, arguing that the country was supposedly less racially conscious in 2018 than it is in 2021.

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However, there is no hierarchy of racism where only the most bigoted and intentional acts count. The danger of everyday racism is its ubiquity and seeming unintentionality—death by a thousand paper cuts. All racism is wrong, especially subtle forms of it that emerge as microaggressions (liking images with Confederate flags on social media, for example) and macroaggressions (attending “Old South” parties to celebrate slavery).

The additional layer at play is Harrison’s assumption that Kirkconnell needed to be protected, even saved, from her past. Sexism, which is also par for the course with a series as heteronormative as The Bachelor, was clearly on display as Harrison dismissed Lindsay’s attempts at educating him, implying that the franchise is okay with certain forms of racism but not others, and contestants of color are expected to just deal with it.

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The backlash was swift. Since then, Harrison has apologized for “perpetuating racism” in the interview with Rachel and taken a sabbatical as twin petitions call for his removal and retention; Rachel Lindsay does not plan to renew her contract with the franchise, and other current and former Bachelor and Bachelorette contestants have spoken out to condemn the ongoing racial animus of the show; Lindsay deactivated her Instagram account due the incessant harassment she received from Bachelor Nation fans in response to Harrison’s leaving, while Rachael Kirkconnell, by comparison, has been embraced by fans. She was strategically silent after her written apology, recently breaking that silence with a video calling for her supporters to stop defending her; Matt James has promised to say more about everything that transpired at the end of his season, and Emmanuel Acho, former athlete turned commentator, whose online series is called “Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man,” will moderate an uncomfortable conversation with James and the three finalists as host of the “After the Rose” episode, which will air after the finale. While it is still possible that a Black love story will emerge from these ashes for Bri or Michelle, it will be overshadowed by a season that will undoubtedly be remembered for whiteness and the racism that often comes with it.

It is unclear if the latest racial controversy will yield any real change for a franchise fraught with anti-Black sentiment and grounded in whitewashed fairy tales. The narrative shift from Kirkconnell’s culpability to Harrison’s egregious behavior serves as the distraction and protection needed for the franchise to capitalize, once again, by translating controversy into profit, Black love be damned.

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