Illustration:Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost; Photo: Getty
WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS ABOUT THE ENDING OF MATT JAMES’ SEASON OF “THE BACHELOR.”
In a powerful statement posted on his Instagram account on Monday evening, Bachelor Matt James stated unequivocally that “The Bachelor franchise has fallen short” when it comes to its handling of race. After host Chris Harrison defended a contestant who had a troubling history of racist behavior on “Extra,” James said the current moment of reckoning for the franchise “has also pushed me to reevaluate and process what my experience on The Bachelor represents.”
James and contestant Rachael Kirkconnell ended up together at the end of the season, with the 24-year-old graphic designer receiving the final rose in the yet-to-air finale, as Reality Steve reported on Jan. 21. HuffPost has since learned that James and Kirkconnell are no longer together, and that their breakup was ultimately precipitated by recent revelations that she had attended an antebellum-themed fraternity formal in 2018 and liked photos containing Confederate flag imagery in the past.
James’ statement marks the most vocal he has been publicly about the franchise’s relationship with race since being cast as the first Black Bachelor in June on the heels of nationwide protests against police brutality and racism. (“It’s an honor,” James told “Good Morning America” at the time. “I’m just going to lean into myself and how my mom raised me, and hopefully when people invite me into their homes on Monday night they’re going to see that I’m not much different from them and they see that diverse love stories are beautiful.”)
It’s also a highly unusual step for a franchise lead to publicly criticize the show before their season has finished airing.
But in the wake of host Chris Harrison “stepping aside” temporarily from the franchise after going on a 15-minute rant about the “woke police” to the first Black Bachelorette, Rachel Lindsay, on “Extra,” the stakes became higher. As James wrote in his statement, he felt compelled to “address the troubling information that has come to light since we wrapped filming.”
“As the season has progressed, it’s become clear that Matt’s presence on the show was exemplary of what so many POC face daily. He and the Black women had to take on the extra responsibility of helping ‘The Bachelor’ address issues of diversity and were often exploited,” a source close to James told HuffPost. “‘The Bachelor’ executives have failed to realize that casting a diverse set of contestants is not the same thing as creating equitable conditions and opportunities. If they want to change, that means change behind, and in front of the camera.”
James has drawn the ire of some fans for not being more vocal about the franchise’s racism, especially in light of his obvious connection with Kirkconnell on the show. But he’s also been placed in a painful position because his journey as the first Black Bachelor has been overshadowed by controversy over the racist actions of both the woman he chose as the winner and the show’s longtime host.
James can neither bear the burden of the franchise’s ills nor the weight of saving it. “The Bachelor” has had a fraught relationship with race — and particularly Blackness — far before James’ season, and more diverse casting does not address the racism built into the structures of the show and the entertainment industry as a whole.
James isn’t even the first Black lead to be put in the position of dating a white contestant with a history of racist opinions and behavior on social media. In 2017, Lindsay’s suitors included Lee Garrett, whose tweets comparing the NAACP to the KKK and calling Black Lives Matter a “terrorist group” (among many other racist, Islamophobic, homophobic and misogynistic posts) surfaced as the season aired. Lindsay has publicly stated that she felt like she was framed as the “angry Black woman” on her season. This month she said that after her contractual obligations to “The Bachelor” are fulfilled, she will be done with the franchise.
Other contestants of color have reported similar experiences of tokenization, exploitation and racist backlash that some say the show failed to prepare them for or support them through. Both Kupah James, a contestant on Kaitlyn Bristowe’s season of “The Bachelorette,” and Taylor Nolan, a contestant on Nick Viall’s season of “The Bachelor” who is now a major advocate for racial equity within the franchise, told HuffPost over the summer that they felt that they had been framed as “aggressive” villains, and thus set up to receive massive backlash. LaNease Adams, a Black woman cast on the very first season of “The Bachelor,” recalled finding her photograph on a white supremacist website and experiencing mental health struggles afterwards. And Jason Mesnick, the first and only Jewish Bachelor, told HuffPost last year that the show had downplayed his Jewishness, including discouraging him from breaking a glass at his 2010 televised wedding to his now-wife Molly
In 2012, two Black men led a class-action racial discrimination lawsuit against the franchise, which was ultimately dismissed on First Amendment grounds. However, after the lawsuit, beginning with Sean Lowe’s season of “The Bachelor,” the casts became notably more diverse. But contestants of color still rarely make the show’s coveted final four, and even when they do, they are often not given the same amount of screen time and positive attention as their white peers.
Pieper James, one of the Black women on James’ season, tweeted on Feb. 11 that “Black women in this franchise must always be hyper aware of our ‘grace’ because no one is extending it to us.” She later added that she was “waiting to hear the systematic changes the franchise will be evoking to combat the tokenization of BIPOC individuals.”
Until the last two weeks, no one from the executive team of “The Bachelor” has faced even a modicum of consequences for this racist history. (Even while Harrison is allegedly stepping away to go on an anti-racist journey, he has continued to make money on Cameo and has continued to appear on the already-filmed episodes of this season.)
James, it seems, just hopes his season can precipitate the kind of institutional change that contestants of color and viewers have been asking for for years. As he wrote on Instagram: “My greatest prayer is that this is an inflection point that results in real and institutional change for the better.”