“Will you accept this rose?”
A simple, oft-heard question on ABC’s “The Bachelor” franchise, the bachelors and bachelorettes hand roses to contestants they want to keep dating. But perhaps the response should be another question: “Yes, but can you forgive me for my racist social media posts a few years ago?”
Racism is ingrained across many American institutions – which is why the trickling, troubling revelations about problematic contestants who appear on “The Bachelor” franchise shouldn’t come as a shock. The real shock about racism and “The Bachelor,” as we’ve seen this season, is how long it’s taken for meaningful action to happen.
Chris Harrison tells ‘Good Morning America’ if he plans to return to ‘The Bachelor’
Chris Harrison told ABC’s “Good Morning America” about plans to return as host of “The Bachelor,” a job he’s had since 2002.
Entertain This!, USA TODAY
Matt James’ season of “The Bachelor” was meant to show signs of progress – he’s the first Black male lead in 25 seasons, joined by the most diverse cast in franchise history. Instead, the historic season found itself at the center of the show’s biggest controversy to date, heading toward Monday’s finale marred by racist comments and actions from this season’s front-runner and the show’s longtime host.
Rachael Kirkconnell, the front-runner, faced backlash after fans found she had “liked” Confederate flag-related TikTok videos and attended an Antebellum-themed fraternity formal in 2018.
Days later came an “Extra” TV interview between the show’s longtime host, Chris Harrison, and Rachel Lindsay – who in 2017 became the first Black “Bachelorette” – in which Harrison slammed the “woke police,” called for “compassion” for Kirkconnell and excused the party she attended as a product of a different time.
“It’s not a good look, ever,” Lindsay countered. “She’s celebrating the old South. If I went to that party, what would I represent?”
Following backlash from the interview, Harrison announced last month he would be temporarily “stepping aside” from his role as host, though he said on March 4 he “plan(s) to be back” and is “excited to be part of that change.” Representatives at producer Warner Bros. and ABC did not respond to requests for comment or interviews with Harrison and James.
As the host and franchise reflect on how to more fully address issues of racism, former contestants and fans are calling for specific actions they believe will bring positive change: further diversifying behind the scenes and being more conscientious about not giving the bulk of screen time to contestants with dangerously problematic views.
Chelsea Vaughn, a Brooklyn, New York-based model who was eliminated earlier this season, told USA TODAY the Harrison interview was “really hard to watch.”
“Especially as a Black woman, I can just imagine myself sitting in (Lindsay’s) shoes, and I don’t know how she dealt with it so well and professionally, but she was amazing,” says Vaughn, 28. “I couldn’t even get through the interview, to be honest, because it was so upsetting to me that I had to turn it off.”
Harrison’s words were disappointing but ultimately not surprising, says Taylor Nolan, a psychotherapist who in 2017 appeared on Nick Viall’s season of “The Bachelor” and “Bachelor In Paradise.”
“My first reaction was at first kind of laughing. Like, is this for real?” Nolan says. “No way that we’re actually getting this out of him. And then part of me felt relief: ‘Wow, people are going to see and there’s no way people are going to just excuse this.’ But a lot of people don’t see anything wrong with that.”
Lindsay has become the de facto voice to weigh in on racial issues involving “The Bachelor” and its spin-offs: She called for the franchise to cast its first Black “Bachelor” and called out former “Bachelorette” Hannah Brown last year after she recorded herself on a livestream singing the N-word. A smattering of other former cast members have shown support, but Lindsay is often alone – or the loudest voice – in calling out racism on the shows.
On Feb. 26, she deactivated her Instagram account after receiving a deluge of hateful comments in the aftermath of her Harrison interview. Three days later, “Bachelor” executive producers condemned the “unimaginable hate… rooted in racism” that Lindsay faced in working for “racial equity and inclusion.”
“I really don’t think it’s fair that all of this responsibility has had to be placed onto Rachel Lindsay,” Vaughn says. “She’s amazing, and I think that her ability to be this person and this voice for seemingly every Black person, or every diverse person in this franchise for the past five or six years … is astounding.”
After Lindsay’s interview with Harrison, six of this season’s contestants drafted a statement denouncing “any defense of racism” and showing support for Lindsay’s advocacy, which many other contestants then shared. Cast members of the previous season of “The Bachelorette,” including winner Dale Moss shared a similar statement, and dozens of other alums weighed in, too.
Following the uproar, Harrison issued an apology and announced he would be “stepping aside for a period of time” and wouldn’t take part in the post-finale “After The Final Rose” special on Monday, which was pre-taped earlier this month. (The rest of this season was taped months ago.) Emmanuel Acho, a former NFL player, Fox Sports analyst and the author of “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man,” will step in.
Kirkconnell apologized on Feb. 11 for her actions, which she called “offensive and racist.” Following further backlash from fans and former contestants for not taking real action beyond a statement, she addressed followers two weeks later in a 7-minute video asking others to stop defending her, and sharing educational resources “to explain my offenses.”
“I’ve come to realize that sitting aside and hiding in the corner and (avoiding) being called performative, that doesn’t help anyone or anything,” she said.
James spoke out on Feb. 22, writing on Instagram his “greatest prayer is that this is an inflection point that results in real and institutional change for the better.”
Historically, minority contestants rarely made it past the first few weeks. Some seasons featured no minority contestants, while most others included only a few.
Earlier contestants have also come under fire for racist comments. Lee Garrett was scrutinized in 2017 for referring to Kenny King, a Black contestant, as “aggressive” before Lee’s past racist and sexist tweets resurfaced. In 2018, “Bachelorette” winner Garrett Yrigoyen came under fire after fans discovered he had “liked” racist and transphobic Instagram posts.
Most racism scandals connected to the show occur outside of filming, though Nicole Julien, a 42-year-old fan from Washington, D.C., noted the racially-coded dog whistle language Jubilee Sharpe faced on Ben Higgins’ 2016 season. One contestant said Sharpe, who is Black, couldn’t marry Higgins because she wouldn’t be “friends with all the other soccer moms.”
Equity for the franchise wasn’t going to happen overnight, but some “Bachelor” fans are demanding more inclusivity from the franchise.
Many fans came together via the online petition Bachelor Diversity Campaign last summer to demand, among other changes, a Black Bachelor, which may have helped spur James’ casting.
Brett Vergara, of New York, and Ayanna Maddox-Semper, of Florida, are among 13 members who regularly work on the campaign, which aims to encourage the franchise to be more inclusive. Vergara is a self-professed “sucker for dating culture” and started watching the show in 2016.
Maddox-Semper is Black and is dating someone who’s Black, and says it’s mind-boggling that hasn’t surfaced onscreen more often. “Why are we not seeing what is portrayed everywhere else around us on TV?” she says. “Just makes no sense to me.”
Only three of the 43 leads in the franchise’s 19-year history have been Black. And Black Americans have few options when it comes to meaningful representation in reality competition series.
“For a long time within reality television, ‘The Bachelor’ has commanded the cultural conversation, so it’s forced in front of me; I can choose to ignore it, or I can engage with it,” says fan Joy Ofodu, 24, who lives near San Fransisco. “If I only watched programs in which we were adequately and beautifully represented, I would have five shows to watch.”
Major reparations have not been swift, but the most recent seasons of “The Bachelorette” and “The Bachelor” demonstrate signs of progress.
Producers vowed in September to take measures to shut down “racism, bullying and hate in all of its forms” on social media.
During Tayshia Adams’ tenure as “The Bachelorette” last fall, she and contestant Ivan Hall had a candid conversation about the Black Lives Matter movement and their experiences with racism. Fans online said they “never thought” they’d see the show tackle such a topic.
“I did not expect a rapid diversity, inclusion and equity overhaul from ‘The Bachelor’ with the arrival of Rachel Lindsay, Tayshia (Adams) and Matt James,” Ofodu says.
This season, Vaughn opened up to James about deciding to shave her head after years of feeling like she had to conform to white beauty standards.
After growing up watching the show, Vaughn was amazed at the response, not only from Black women but those of different races who went through chemotherapy or dealt with alopecia and found solace in her words.
“Before the last couple of seasons, there really weren’t that many women of color on the show at all,” she says. “So where I’m actually having a substantial relationship with the lead and sharing my feelings and sharing something that important … I didn’t know if I would even make it to that point.”
Julien has watched since the series’ first season in 2002 because she went to college with one of the first contestants. But she complains of the slow pace of real change in representation. “Anything that happened in the 2010s or later as a first is a bad look. Why has it taken this long?”
Vaughn, like other fans and former contestants, notes that the crux of diversity efforts so far seems to be on casting. In that vein, this season has been a success: 25 of the 37 women on James’ season identify as minorities, and Abigail Heringer became the first deaf contestant in franchise history.
“I think the casting part, like, nailed it – we got that down,” Vaughn says. “They cast amazing, diverse, incredible women. But I think it needs to go a lot further. There has to be diversity behind the camera: production, whoever’s in the editing room, whoever is at the top making the main decision. … A lot of things could have been prevented or called out if there was somebody that looks like me in one of these rooms.”
Others say producers should do a better job avoiding cast members with past offensive social media posts. Nolan says her vetting process was thorough – though days after speaking with USA TODAY, she apologized for newly-resurfaced tweets from 2011-13 with racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic language, which other members of the franchise swiftly condemned.