'The Bachelor' Cast And Fans Push Franchise To Reckon With Its Race Problem

After Chris Harrison's controversial remarks on "Extra," progressive viewers, contestants and recappers say they want accountability not just from the host, but from the franchise as a whole.
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost; Photo:Getty

Rachel Lindsay is “f**king tired.”

The former “Bachelorette” has spent the years since her 2017 run as the franchise’s first Black lead as the spokesperson for the long-running dating show’s many issues around race. She co-hosts the official podcast of the franchise, “Bachelor Happy Hour,” and often takes on the burden of educating the show’s white viewers about race and racism. In 2020, she publicly stated that she would cut ties with the franchise if production didn’t meaningfully address their race and diversity problems.

Less than a year later, Lindsay was in the midst of interviewing franchise host and executive producer Chris Harrison for “Extra” when things went sideways. Lindsay brought up the latest “Bachelor” scandal: Rachael Kirkconnell, one of the women cast to date Matt James, the first Black Bachelor, had attended a plantation-themed formal in 2018 and had liked posts of pictures containing Confederate flags. During a 15-minute conversation, Harrison defended and asked for grace for Kirkconnell, excoriated “the woke police” for attacking her, and repeatedly talked over Lindsay.

On the next episode of “Higher Learning,” a Ringer podcast Lindsay co-hosts, she was clear: Enough was enough. “I’m contractually bound in some ways,” she said. “But when it’s up, I am too. I can’t do it anymore.”

For years, the Bachelor franchise has faced criticism for its parade of mostly white leads and contestants, for its poor edits of people of color on the show and for its failure to protect them from racism on set and from viewers. During Lindsay’s historic season, for example, one contestant was revealed to have made racist comments on his social media prior to casting; during taping, he was embroiled in a multi-episode arc in which he provoked conflict with a Black castmate — prompting critics to wonder whether the drama-seeking franchise knowingly cast someone with racist attitudes to date a Black woman. Season 25, starring the show’s first Black Bachelor and featuring more than 50% women of color, was poised to demonstrate production’s commitment to diversity.

But less than two months into the season, the show is yet again engulfed in controversy over racist behavior. With current and former contestants, recappers and fans coming forward to condemn Harrison’s comments to Lindsay, Harrison apologized and announced that he would be stepping aside, at least briefly, and would not be hosting this season’s “After the Final Rose” special. (A source close to ABC told HuffPost that no decisions had been made beyond Harrison’s choice to step away for an unspecified amount of time.)

After years of excuses, defensiveness and underwhelming commitments to change, the franchise seems to be facing some sort of tipping point: With fans and popular contestants demanding accountability, even Harrison, the longtime face of the Bachelor brand, is no longer untouchable, and casting a lead of color is no longer enough to satisfy critics. As cast members, alums and outside critics demand that production reckon with the show’s deep race problem, the question that remains is whether the franchise will actually heed them.

Though the show has faced criticism over its handling of race for many years, one notable difference in the outcry following the “Extra” interview has been the wave of statements from current, recent and high-profile cast members.

Many “Bachelor” alums put out individual statements denouncing Harrison’s words. That group included frequent critics of the franchise’s treatment of race, like Taylor Nolan and Ashley Spivey as well as Becca Kufrin, Sharleen Joynt, Vanessa Grimaldi, Chris Randone, Natasha Parker, Ben Higgins, Jubilee Sharpe, Nick Viall, Mike Johnson, Becca Tilley, Wills Reid, Clare Crawley, Jillian Harris, Tayshia Adams, Demi Burnett, Joelle Fletcher, Katie Morton and many more.

Not all of these statements were perfect, and Spivey, who was on Season 15 of “The Bachelor,” told HuffPost this week that she’d like to see even “more white contestants challenge the show to do better.” But at least this time around, “Bachelor” alums of color were not the only ones speaking up.

Even more significantly, the casts of “The Bachelorette” Season 16 and “The Bachelor” Season 25 (the two most recent seasons) put out collective statements. Both statements denounced racist behavior and the defense of it, as well as stating plainly that they all stood hand in hand with Lindsay.

“The addition of more people who identify as BIPOC has opened up the conversation on race, community, and who we are as people,” wrote the men of Season 16 of “The Bachelorette.” “A conversation that has been long overdue.”

These group statements, posted by the majority of both casts, felt like a form of unionization. Many of the best-known “Bachelor” alums and current contestants are still tied to the franchise through contractual agreements, the possibility of appearances on future seasons, and the intangible brand benefits of remaining within the show’s ecosystem. This led to an atmosphere that encouraged and even rewarded contestants staying silent instead of publicly criticizing the franchise. And because, for years, the majority of alumni were white, there were even fewer incentives to say anything.

It is much more difficult to silence an entire micro-generation of “Bachelor” alums, many of whom identify as BIPOC.

Meanwhile, a new generation of progressive “Bachelor” commentators from outside the franchise, like the podcasts “The Blckchelorettes” and “Date Card,” have pushed hard for Harrison to face real consequences. (Full disclosure, the authors of this piece also host a feminist “Bachelor” podcast, “Here To Make Friends,” and have publicly criticized Harrison and the way the show deals with race.)

Progressive “Bachelor” podcasters, recappers, fans and contestants are calling for more than Harrison’s temporary resignation and promise to “educate” himself. Many say they want to see real accountability in the form of Harrison’s permanent departure, as well as other structural changes within the production and leadership teams that would ensure that BIPOC cast members and viewers would be protected from racist behavior.

Harrison has long been tasked with holding cast members’ feet to the fire for their behavior on-screen via sit-down interviews during the seasonal “Women Tell All” and “Men Tell All” specials. Now Harrison, who has spent years making veiled comments that suggest his commitment to racial and gender equity isn’t exactly firm, finds himself in the proverbial hot seat.

Soon after the “Extra” interview began making the rounds online, Luan Martinez started a Change.org petition calling for ABC and WB to #FireChrisHarrison. (The petition has more than 40,000 signatures as of Feb. 15.) The hashtag was then boosted by “Bachelor” Twitter and Instagram accounts with sizable followings, like the accounts for “Date Card,” a recap show hosted by queer comedians Jenna Vesper and Danicka McClure. On Feb. 10, an eight-minute video made by Mikayla Bartholomew, co-host of “The Blckchelorettes” podcast, went viral on Instagram.

In it, she delivers a basic U.S. history lesson while expertly picking apart the racist fallacies embedded in Harrison’s rant.

“Discourse on racism did not begin in 2021,” says Bartholomew in the video, which has now been watched more than 1.6 million times. “It did not begin in 2020, 2018, 2016, 2017. It did not begin in 2013 when we first heard of Black Lives Matter. It did not begin in the ’60s. We could argue that the discourse on racism, the lens through which we can see inequity in this society, we could argue that it’s been available to us since the moment white folks came onto stolen land with stolen bodies and raped, killed and pillaged their way into Black and brown communities, using their labor for free to build the country that we have today.”

Predictably, she says she has received a torrent of racist backlash as a result.

Bartholomew told HuffPost that if the franchise is truly committed to equity (not just diversity), they need to start by making their efforts clear, public-facing and long term.

“It’s not going to be resolved overnight. Chris Harrison [being fired] doesn’t solve the problem of racism within the franchise. Even if we were to replace him with Rachel Lindsey, the franchise can still be racist,” she said. “[‘The Bachelor’] is built for a very specific white demographic ― a white demographic that is commenting under Chris Harrison’s apology, telling me to shut the fuck up and close my legs after I challenged him to ‘do a little more than that.’”

She also pointed out that despite the franchise’s promise to hire a diversity consultant and casting of a Black Bachelor, we still ended up with a season in which white women have gotten the lion’s share of screen time and attention.

Vesper of “Date Card” echoed Bartholomew’s call for a clear action plan, starting with Harrison’s dismissal. “Racial diversity on the show is not just casting more BIPOC contestants, it’s providing a safe and supportive environment for them,” Vesper told HuffPost. “As it stands, Chris Harrison has shown publicly, by the ‘Extra’ interview and other moments, that he is not a safe person to be around for the Black community. That is why firing him is the next step towards change.”

The franchise’s trouble with race has drawn notice for many years. After a stretch of almost entirely white seasons, two Black men led a class-action racial discrimination lawsuit against the franchise in 2012. Though the suit was dismissed on First Amendment grounds, the question of the show’s disproportionately white casting lingered. Over the past decade, Harrison, show creator Mike Fleiss and ABC executives have been repeatedly pressed over the long wait for a Black lead. In a 2011 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Fleiss claimed that production worried about tokenizing. “Oh, we have to wedge African-American chicks in there!” he joked. “We always want to cast for ethnic diversity,” he added. “It’s just that for whatever reason, they don’t come forward. I wish they would.”

Harrison made similar excuses in a 2015 NPR interview, saying, “we don’t get the same cross-section of casting.” He also suggested that casting more diversely might hurt the show’s ratings, arguing, “we have hundreds and thousands of people trying to work. So what justice are we doing anybody by taking a great social stand, and then five months later, going, ‘OK, that was great, nobody watched the show.’”

After several years of tentative steps toward diversifying the profoundly white dating franchise — all taken under significant outside pressure from fans, commentators and former stars — the franchise came under renewed scrutiny in the summer of 2020 amid the wave of Black Lives Matter protests that swept the nation after the killing of George Floyd. The show’s executive producers released a statement in June promising “to make significant changes to address this issue moving forward,” and saying the franchise would be “taking positive steps to expand diversity in our cast, in our staff, and most importantly, in the relationships that we show on television.”

The show cast James to be the first Black Bachelor in franchise history, and later that year introduced Tayshia Adams, the second Black Bachelorette, after Clare Crawley left the next season of the spinoff to pursue a relationship with one of her contestants just a few weeks into filming. But as the current uproar demonstrates, a belated attempt to cast diversely doesn’t go very far toward addressing the show’s deep race problem.

“This absolutely is a tipping point that the higher-ups need to be paying attention to,” said Nolan, who was a contestant on Season 21 of “The Bachelor.” “If they continue with the way that things have been after this, they will be sending a very loud and clear message to the entire BIPOC community.”

It remains to be seen whether the franchise will continue to lean on small, surface-level steps toward the vague goal of “diversity” or whether they will finally be compelled to do more to ensure that contestants, leads and viewers of color don’t have to endure racist stereotyping, bullying and harassment — and that their safety, rather than the comfort of white cast and fans who have engaged in racist behavior, will be of central concern for the franchise.

Who is centered will be the key measure of the franchise’s commitment to equity, Bartholomew told HuffPost.

“Are you making room for the people who have been affected by racism within your franchise, behind the scenes and on camera?” she asked. “Are you giving them the opportunity to speak about what they think is needed and what they think is necessary? That is centering the directly impacted.”

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