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‘The Bachelor’s’ first season with a Black lead is swept into a firestorm over race

Two men in the woods
“The Bachelor” host Chris Harrison, right, with leading man Matt James. Harrison ignited controversy this week after a contentious interview with former “Bachelorette” Rachel Lindsay on “Extra.”
(Craig Sjodin/ABC)

When Matt James was introduced last year as the first Black lead of ABC’s “The Bachelor,” the announcement came with great fanfare, as executives hailed it as a pivotal move to reverse the franchise’s troubled history around issues of race.

“We know we have a responsibility to make sure the love stories we’re seeing onscreen are representative of the world we live in and we are proudly in service to our audience,” said then-ABC Entertainment head Karey Burke. “This is just the beginning and we will continue to take action with regard to diversity issues on this franchise.”

Midway through James’ season, though, “The Bachelor” has been swept up in a firestorm about race involving host Chris Harrison and one of the frontrunners for James’ affections, Rachael Kirkconnell, that has angered both devoted fans as well as current and former cast members. And subsequent apologies from both Harrison and Kirkconnell for their missteps have only heightened the outrage.

A multicultural coalition of contestants from the current season issued a statement via Instagram on Thursday saying they were “deeply disappointed” about “this historic season that was meant to represent change.” The controversy also now involves former Black “Bachelorette” Rachel Lindsay, who said on her podcast for the Ringer — she also co-hosts a “Bachelor"-branded podcast — that the show’s continuing “race problem” would prompt her to cut ties with the franchise after her contract expires.

Also weighing in with a post on Instagram was James, who praised Lindsay: “Your advocacy of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) people in the franchise is invaluable. I stand with you and the rest of the women advocating for change and accountability.”

ABC and Warner Bros., which produces “The Bachelor,” did not respond to requests for comment.

The explosion comes after ABC and its parent company Disney heavily promoted new and existing diversity and inclusion programs showing sympathy with the Black Lives Matter movement last summer, and only three years after one of the network’s top stars, Roseanne Barr, sent out a series of racist tweets. The network swiftly canceled “Roseanne” and fired Barr.

For ‘The Bachelorette’ and ‘Big Brother,’ two series with fraught histories around race, meaningful treatment of the subject has been a challenge.

Rachael Kirkconnell, left, with "Bachelor" Matt James.
Rachael Kirkconnell, left, with “Bachelor” Matt James. Kirkconnell’s attendance at an antebellum South-themed party in 2018 is at the center of a controversy that engulfed Bachelor Nation this week.
(Craig Sjodin/ABC)

The “Bachelor” furor erupted Tuesday during an interview on “Extra” after Lindsay questioned Harrison about Kirkconnell’s delay in addressing several allegations of racism in her past, including attending and being photographed at a 2018 antebellum-themed fraternity party. Harrison strongly pushed back, defending Kirkconnell and saying “this judge-jury-executioner thing is tearing this girl’s life apart.”

Harrison continued to challenge Lindsay, suggesting that attending a party celebrating the South’s racist, slave-owning past has only recently been defined as socially unacceptable. “Is it a good look in 2018, or is it not a good look in 2021?... 50 million people did that in 2018. That was a type of party that people went to. We are not looking under the same lens.”

While Harrison acknowledged in the interview that Kirkconnell should have raised an objection with partygoers as to the inappropriateness of the theme, he repeatedly declined to condemn her actions or her failure to speak out about the controversy, at one point situating the plantation houses of the Old South within the same conversation about historical memory as Confederate monuments.

“Do you go tear all those places down and tear up the dirt and dig deep enough that it erases it? I don’t know,” he said, also referring to San Francisco’s recent decision to rename 44 of its schools. “The woke police is out there and this poor girl Rachael has just been thrown to the lions.”

“When is the time, and who is Rachel Lindsay and who is Chris Harrison and who is whatever woke police is out there?” he added, when pressed further on Kirkconnell’s silence. “I hear this all the time... ‘I think he should, I think she should.’ Who the hell are you? Who are you that you demand this?”

The following day, Harrison issued an apology on Twitter, saying, “To my Bachelor Nation family — I will always own a mistake when I make one, so I am here to extend a sincere apology. I have this incredible platform to speak about love, and yesterday I took a stance on topics about which I should have been better informed. While I do not speak for Rachael Kirkconnell, my intentions were simply to ask for grace in offering her an opportunity to speak on her own behalf. What I now realize I have done is cause harm by wrongly speaking in a manner that perpetuates racism and for that I am so deeply sorry.”

But Lindsay, who in addition to her podcasting duties frequently appears as a special guest on the TV franchise, said she did not believe that Harrison was sincere, and that what he said during their “Extra” interview was indicative of his insensitivity. The apology was also blasted on social media and by past contestants of color in the franchise who maintained the apology was a public relations maneuver.

Also criticized was Kirkconnell’s apology, which she posted Thursday on Instagram, saying “I was wrong.”

“At one point, I didn’t recognize how offensive and racist my actions were, but that doesn’t excuse them,” she wrote. “My age or when it happened doesn’t excuse anything. They are not acceptable or okay in any sense. I was ignorant but my ignorance was racist.”

ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox have pledged to improve diversity in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s the latest chapter in a decades-long struggle.

During her hosting stint on the “Higher Learning” podcast Thursday, Lindsay expressed her frustration with the franchise.

“As far as me, I’m f— tired,” she said. “I’m exhausted. I have truly had enough. My entire reason for doing ‘The Bachelorette’ ... is that I wanted to be representative as a Black woman to this audience... I wanted the franchise to be better I have a love/hate relationship with it. I’m connected to it. It did stuff for me, and I’ll never forget that. But how much more do I want to be affiliated with this? How much more can I take of things like this?”

Lindsay also spoke about changes the show had made, including hiring a diversity consultant. “Who didn’t attend the class? Did Chris Harrison not sit through that? I’m confused as to how you could have a whole consultant — consultants — working for you, yet what happens just happened. I can’t take it anymore. I’m contractually bound in some ways, but when it’s up, I am too. I can’t. I can’t do it anymore.”

Times staff writer Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.


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