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Can The Bachelor Ever Really Change Its Racist Roots?

Between newly resurfaced photos of The Bachelor contestant Rachael Kirkconnell at an antebellum-themed Old South party and Chris Harrison’s disastrous interview with former Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay working overtime to excuse it, racism is once again at the center of Bachelor Nation conversation. This was, after all, supposed to be The Bachelor‘s big chance to prove itself as progressive after casting first Black Bachelor lead Matt James, in a clear response to heightened outcry over the show’s lack of diversity during last summer’s BLM protests. While that was never a fair burden to place on James, his season so far and the controversy surrounding it both suggest one reason the series seems to take two steps back every time it tries to outrun its roots.

In its very structure, The Bachelor is based on “traditional American family values:” dating with the goal of marrying and having kids, waiting to have sex until a more serious commitment, and even asking a father for his blessing before proposing. It barely needs to be said that these “ideal American families” have also always been portrayed as white, Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied, and thin, but that’s true too — in American culture and on The Bachelor, with notably few exceptions. If The Bachelor were to truly try and purge itself of American’s most problematic traditions, then what would be left?

While Kirkconnell’s decision to dress up as a southern belle for a themed fraternity party in 2018 technically kicked this latest discussion off, it was Lindsay’s Extra interview with Harrison that really added fuel to the fire. The host called for “grace and compassion” to be shown toward Kirkconnell, questioning whether an antebellum party was “[not] a good look in 2018 or is it not a good look in 2021?”

“My guess? These girls got dressed up and went to a party and had a great time, they were 18 years old,” Harrison continued. “Now, does that make it OK? I don’t know Rachel, you tell me. Were we all looking through [that lens] in 2018?”

While Lindsay had her opportunity to respond to the interview today, noting she’d held her composure to ensure she wouldn’t be labeled “angry” at the time, Instagram account The Blckchellorettes posted its own response video from Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew that’s quickly gone viral throughout Bachelor Nation calling Harrison out for his shameful defense of Kirkconnell’s actions.

“An Old South party was bad in 2018, Chris Harrison,” Bartholomew says. “Just like it was bad in 2021, just like it was bad when they used those parties to lynch n—– in the 1800s right? There was a reason they were banned in 2016…because they were racist.”

“You don’t put on an Antebellum Old South costume and say ‘oh wow this is so cute,'” the video continues. “‘Look at that tree, oh look it’s a tire swing’ — I wonder what that rope used to be used for.”

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste sheds further light on the incredibly common Old South practice that Bartholomew describes here: lynching parties, a social event for white mobs and their neighbors at which Black men were tortured, beaten, and killed.

'Caste' on Amazon $19.02 on Amazon.com Buy now

“She describes local lynching trees, schools letting out early so children could accompany their parents to watch murder, advertised by newspapers as though they were sporting events. Photographers brought portable printing presses to sell photos of the hanged men as souvenirs,” describes The Guardian. “Lynching postcards were a thriving industry at the turn of the 20th century, wish-you-were-here’s of the severed, half-burned head of Will James, lynched in Illinois in 1909 or of burned torsos from Waco. ‘This is the barbeque we had last night,’ a Texan wrote to his mother on the back on one such card.”

At a certain point in time, these Old South lynching parties were just another American tradition, the same way that fraternity parties play-acting them have been defended as tradition since — the same way it seemed Harrison specifically thought the cloak of “tradition” should protect Kirkconnell from criticism. But what is it that we really defend when we defend tradition, except a continuation of what came before? Is it possible to advocate for tradition and change at the same time?

When it comes to the goal of The Bachelor, maybe not. When James opened his first night as the lead of The Bachelor with a prayer, he signified the opening of a show that was now more open to people of all races — and perhaps, less open than ever before to people who didn’t share his Christian values. At the end of last season of The Bachelorette, lead Tayshia Adams sent home promising finalist Ivan Hall because he identified as agnostic, and didn’t want to raise kids in a religious home. And both Hannah Brown and Peter Weber’s seasons before featured a final contestant who backed away because the lead didn’t share their Christian values that precluded premarital sex.

Both James and Adams (and past contestants) are well within their rights to ask for what they want in a relationship. But watching James’ contestants, hailed as “the most diverse cast” yet, simultaneously burst into tears at his prayer belied this year’s promise that things would really be different. It may not be another group of all Laurens, but there’s a homogeneity nonetheless.

Since Harrison’s offending comments in his interview with Lindsay, he’s offered an apology on social media (see here). The contestants on James’ season and Adams’ season also released their own statements.

“We are the women of Bachelor Season 25. Twenty-five women who identify as BIPOC were cast on this historic season that was meant to represent change,” James’ contestants wrote. “We are deeply disappointed and want to make it clear that we denounce any defense of racism. Any defense of racist behavior denies the lived and continued experiences of BIPOC individuals. These experiences are not to be exploited or tokenized.”

In her response to Harrison’s comments, Lindsay also got to the root of what bothered her most on podcast Higher Learning: “He said, and I have the quote: ‘Who are you? Who is Rachel Lindsay? Who is Chris Harrison? Who are we?…Basically, saying, ‘Who are we to tell her when she should apologize? Who are we to tell her that we’re offended?’”

“Rachel Lindsay is a Black woman, the very person who is affected by this Rachael Kirkconnell,” she continued. “So, I have every right to speak out and say I’m offended. I have every right to say, ’This is what she should do.’ And, I have every right to demand the apology.”

When Harrison makes the mistake of thinking he and Lindsay share a “we,” he makes the same mistake the franchise does of trying to stuff our diverse, realistic world into a set of traditions that have only ever made sense from a privileged point of view. Harrison can’t see what he can’t see, and he’s not listening to Lindsay telling him what he’s missing. And as long as The Bachelor can’t see beyond the “American family values” to which they bind their contestants, they’re going to struggle to shed the American racism that comes along with them.

Before you go, click here to see the most dramatic splits in Bachelor and Bachelorette history.
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