Can ‘The Bachelor’ Ever Not Be Racist?

February 17, 2021 Off By Alex Zaragoza

After Bachelor viewers recently uncovered photos of series of frontrunner Rachael Kirkconnell attending an "Old South" Antebellum-themed sorority party in 2018 and evidence of the graphic designer from Cumming, Georgia, liking social media posts spreading QAnon conspiracy theories and supporting the Confederate flag, host Chris Harrison went on Extra to discuss the controversy with former Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay. "We all need to have a little grace, a little understanding, a little compassion," he told Lindsay, who was the series' first Black Bachelorette. "Because I have seen some stuff online—this judge, jury, executioner thing where people are just tearing this girl’s life apart and diving into, like, her parents’ voting record. It's unbelievably alarming to watch this." Harrison, who has hosted The Bachelor since its premiere in 2002, argued that the world was a different place in 2018 and attending parties like that was acceptable a few years ago. "Is it not a good look in 2018, or is it not a good look in 2021?" he asked Lindsay. His comments were a breaking point, and the fallout has made this the most dramatic season ever, but not because of events playing out on screen.

That call for empathy for Kirkconnell did not go over well with Lindsay, who went on CNN and to discuss the interview. "It was baffling to me that he was preaching grace and space and compassion, but you're talking to someone and you're not giving them that same thing, or the community that she represents," she said. Contestants from the current season also released a joint statement condemning his actions and racism overall, saying "Any defense of racist behavior denies the lived and continued experiences of BIPOC individuals," and highlighting Lindsay's ongoing efforts to "advocate with ‘grace’ for individuals who identify as BIPOC within this franchise." Harrison issued an apology to fans and to Lindsay, and announced he is "stepping aside" from the series for an unspecified amount of time and that he won't host the After the Final Rose and Women Tell All specials. Kirkconnell also apologized via a post on Instagram. 

But the damage had been done. Lindsay plans on cutting ties with the franchise once her contract expires, and a large swatch of viewers are left to decide if they want to continue to watch as the show chugs as chaos ensues off screen. In a series that has long been plagued by racism perpetuated by its own production, is it even possible to fix The Bachelor, and more importantly, is it worth it? 

Viewers had been skeptical about the measures the show was taking to change since the premiere, when James made it abundantly clear out of the gate that he felt the pressure to choose a Black winner. "People want you to end up with a certain type of person," he told Harrison before a roaring fireplace. His concern for "pissing off" both Black and white people set off a subtle alarm alerting viewers that this man was absolutely going to pick a white woman. He may not have known which one at that point yet, but he set viewers up for another season where Black and brown women weren't going anywhere near that Final Rose. This was not going to be the Back love story we wanted.

That's especially hard to stomach with this being the series' most diverse cast in its history, featuring a final four that includes three mixed race women of color along with Kirkconnell, who is speculated to be the ultimate winner. Overall, race has been largely ignored save for a few mentions this season, which has made it even more clear that James' casting was a rush job purely for optics following the murder of George Floyd and a national reckoning on racism. This was meant to be The Bachelor's big evolution into a more socially and racially conscious viewing experience, but the show has implemented no real change. It's the Biden presidency of let downs, in this very specific regard.

Kirkconnell is far from the first contestant to have been cast when they have an easily searchable, highly questionable background. In 2017, during Lindsay's own season, Lee Garrett, who had a history of abysmally racist tweets, including likening the NAACP to the KKK, made it to week 5 without Lindsay ever finding out about his online past until the show aired. And on Becca Kufrin's season in 2018, one of her suitors, Lincoln Adim, was cast despite having been convicted of indecent assault and battery on a woman. Production has consistently failed to properly vet potential cast members. It's hard to decide what's worse: that production isn't protecting the cast from engaging with a racist contestant, or that they may be doing it on purpose to use as a storyline.

It's the production's response to racist actions from contestants that's especially alarming. When Garrett Yrigoyen, winner of Becca Kufrin's season in 2018, was discovered to have shared racist, misogynist, transphobic, and overall hateful posts on social media, a fair amount of damage control was performed to rehab his image. It effectively spoiled the season based solely on the amount of crisis management required. (Kufrin and Yrigoyen are no longer together.) This tells us exactly where producers' minds are at, and where their concern lies. That same energy is surely being heavily handed out for Kirkconnell. The "grace" we were asked to give her and Yrigoyen protects white people from their ignorance, passing it off as a youthful mistake or lack of learning when it's far more damaging than that. That "grace" is simply not a luxury anyone who isn't white is afforded, on the show or in real life. The amount of effort ABC puts into making a racist contestant look redeemable and themselves faultless by playing both sides is a longstanding problem. It's not even the only way in which The Bachelor has been super fucking racist! The problem has been there for years, and it's painfully obvious showrunners just don't know how to fix it. ABC has long relied on Lindsay to be both their shield and educator in these difficult discussions, but they've lost that good will. This show is staying firmly three steps behind in the times. 

What ABC has done is gotten slightly wiser by using the "right" language. Harrison's apology mentioned intention, that he was speaking without being informed, that he realizes now that he was perpetuating racism, and thanking Lindsay and other members of Bachelor Nation for holding him accountable. The network being willing to part with Harrision to save some face shows a level of evolution in their style of crisis management, not a meaningful commitment to fixing deep seated problems. Harrison's apology may seem like an effort, but given everything we know about how things have played out this season, it's performative at best. Where is the acknowledgement of the show's racist past? Of the ways in which he was a figurehead and someone with some level of power might have been perpetuating racism behind the scenes for years? Of the work that he needs to do beyond taking a sabbatical to understand the harm he has caused and where he needs to do more? Of the work the entire production needs to do to get their shit together?

The rhetoric might have changed, but trust that the problems are the same, and they're likely not going anywhere. The show may be forced to address politics or social justice more, but it's clear they prefer to ignore it, or to use whatever buzzwords to evade what Harrison himself called the "woke police." There's no fixing this without scraping the whole damn thing and starting fresh, and I don't have confidence that the network is willing to do that.

Alex Zaragoza is a Senior Staff Writer at VICE.