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The Bachelor's Cluelessness About Race Comes To A Head In Season Finale

On Monday's <em>After the Final Rose</em> special, bachelor Matt James revealed why he broke things off with Rachael Kirkconnell after photos of her at an antebellum South-themed party surfaced on social media.
Craig Sjodin
On Monday's After the Final Rose special, bachelor Matt James revealed why he broke things off with Rachael Kirkconnell after photos of her at an antebellum South-themed party surfaced on social media.

It's a safe bet this wasn't the conversation that producers of The Bachelor expected would cap Matt James' season when they named him as the unscripted dating show's first Black star.

But the tense, emotional exchange Monday night between James and former girlfriend Rachael Kirkconnell — where he revealed why he broke off their relationship after photos of her at an antebellum South-themed party surfaced on social media — is the kind of conversation about race and white cluelessness that The Bachelor has been avoiding for far too long.

Rachael might not understand what it means to be Black in America.

"Rachael might not understand what it means to be Black in America," James told host Emmanuel Acho during the show's After the Final Rose special Monday, dropping a line that felt like the understatement of the year.

Indeed, the show's refusal to appreciate what it means to be Black on The Bachelor is what made this moment.

It led producers to stumble into a roiling, race-centered controversy that has sidelined the show's longtime host, Chris Harrison; obliterated the storybook romance set up by months of pre-taped episodes; and forced the white woman James selected from a field of nearly 40 contestants to tearfully explain herself on national television.

"I see someone who was living in this ignorance, without thinking who it might be hurting," Kirkconnell said, looking at a photo of herself hanging with friends at that fraternity party in 2018, decked out in frilly dresses, celebrating the spectacle of a bygone era.

Civil rights activists have criticized these kinds of parties for many years, noting that they elevate the beauty of the Old South's plantations while erasing their roots in the bondage and brutal oppression of Black slaves. It's similar to the denialism among some who seek to honor symbols of the Confederacy while downplaying or ignoring its role in fighting to maintain slavery.

Kirkconnell admitted as much on Monday, noting some supporters told her they didn't think attending such parties was racist because they personally were not racist.

"I did get a lot of people saying, 'This is normal where I grew up,' " she said. "People need to realize that just saying, 'This is normal where I came from' ... that doesn't make it right. That doesn't make it OK."

The Bachelor stumbled into this mess because the show has refused to face how deeply centered on white culture the whole enterprise truly is — naming James as its first Black star in 25 seasons, after years of criticism for the omission. It has seemingly shown little regard for the extra pressure nonwhite people face in trying to compete on the program.

Worst of all, the show seems to have no clue how deeply embedded racism is in the fabric of American life — and how dating, especially across racial lines, can bring out those issues in ways that are explosive and damaging if not handled well.

Acho, a former pro football linebacker who wrote a book and hosts a webcast called Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man, led Monday's discussion with the deft charm of a man used to untangling complex racial dynamics for clueless white people. He explained thorny concepts and sympathized with James, who spoke about the extra burden of avoiding stereotypes while starring on the show. ("It's just what we're conditioned to do as Black men," James said. "Making people comfortable with your Blackness.")

Acho stepped up when longtime host Chris Harrison announced he would step away from the program — a move that came after Harrison tried to defend Kirkconnell by suggesting that antebellum parties weren't considered offensive in 2018 and criticizing the "woke police" for targeting her.

It was a clumsy attempt at damage control that only made the controversy worse. Now Harrison's future with the franchise is in doubt — he won't be hosting the next two seasons of The Bachelorette airing this summer and fall — even as his dismissive attitude seemed completely in tune with how producers have shrugged off past criticisms regarding race on the show.

Rachel Lindsay, who became the first Black woman to star in the spinoff series The Bachelorettein 2017, found her season marred by the antics of a white man who antagonized many of the show's Black male contestants and had a history of inflammatory social media posts. Lindsay, who was interviewing Harrison for the TV show Extra when he dropped his "woke police" comments, has emerged as a consistent critic of the franchise's handling of race.

Why doesn't the show do a better job of screening its white contestants' backgrounds? And why did it take so long for the show to name a Black man to star in The Bachelor in the first place? These are questions that are tough to answer for another reason: The show's producers don't talk openly about what they do or why they do it.

James has perfected the show's style of speaking in vague platitudes. So it was tough to discern from his answers Monday exactly what happened between him and Kirkconnell when the pictures surfaced; they both implied that she didn't take the controversy seriously enough at first.

"It was in the context of you not fully understanding my Blackness ... and what it would mean for our kids when I saw these things floating around the Internet," James told Kirkconnell about his decision to end their relationship. "I didn't sign up to have this conversation."

That may also be part of the problem, because The Bachelor is basically a princess fantasy — a soap opera featuring non-actors centered on a hunky guy choosing a romantic partner in the most idealized settings possible.

But talking about and understanding how race works in America is the opposite of fantasy. It's a difficult, challenging process that often requires facing uncomfortable truths. And James admitted in an interview on ABC's Good Morning America on Tuesday that he didn't discuss race or the challenge of dating across racial lines with Kirkconnell before the controversy emerged.

It's tough to know whether a franchise as manipulative and problematic as The Bachelor/Bachelorette can ever correct itself enough to consistently handle racial issues well.

But with another Black woman scheduled to star in a future season of The Bachelorette — Michelle Young, the runner-up in James' season, was announced as star of the show's 18th season Monday — ABC's high-profile franchise better raise its game in a hurry.

Or it won't be long before another season goes down in flames, felled by its ignorance of race in a world that will no longer tolerate white cluelessness.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.