Should ‘The Bachelor’ Fire Chris Harrison? Eight Black Contestants Sound Off

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Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty/ABC
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty/ABC

On Monday night, The Bachelor will air its “After the Final Rose” special as usual—but Chris Harrison will be nowhere in sight. The longtime host has temporarily stepped back from the show after a disastrous viral interview with the first Black Bachelorette, Rachel Lindsay—in which he talked over Rachel to defend this season’s frontrunner, Rachael Kirkconnell, from allegations of racism.

Since The Bachelor’s inception in 2002, executives have been playing whack-a-mole with accusations of racism. After several seasons without Black contestants, the show faced a discrimination lawsuit in 2012, which a judge ultimately dismissed. (The decision did not necessarily indicate that the complaint’s concerns were unfounded.) The show has also been accused of tokenizing and marginalizing its contestants of color.

Each time a new controversy erupts, former Black contestants are called upon to help defuse the negative press. After years of racial controversies, however, it appears enough might finally be enough: In the wake of Harrison’s interview, a vocal contingent of the show’s alumni and fans have pushed back, releasing statements denouncing racism and calling for substantive change behind the scenes. Both Rachael Kirkconnell and Harrison have issued apologies, and while Harrison has also said he will return, former NFL linebacker and Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man host Emmanuel Acho will take his place (for now) by emceeing this season’s finale after-show.

But the journey toward this point has been long and, for some, genuinely draining. Among the show’s Black former contestants, eight of whom spoke with The Daily Beast for this story, opinions naturally differ regarding how best to move forward.

Josiah Graham, who appeared on Season 13 of The Bachelorette with Lindsay, said it’s tiresome to be repeatedly dragged back into racial conversations, season after season. “You are damned if you do, you are damned if you don’t,” he explained. “If you don’t comment, you can be accused of not being supportive, not being woke enough. If you do speak up, you’re just an angry Black woman or man. Black people are tired of being placed in [these] certain situations.”

“Finally, we get a situation where we have someone like Rachel, a perfect candidate,” he said. “And you have someone like Matt, who is also a great catch. In both seasons it gets tainted… some racial issues are thrown into the mix when we want to move past that. We want to show that we can have a season just like anyone else.”

Naming a Black Bachelor after 25 seasons was never going to fix The Bachelor’s ongoing race problem, but it at least felt like a step in the right direction.

When asked whether they felt The Bachelor had been a safe and inclusive production environment, contestants Pieper James, Chelsea Vaughn, and Alicia Holloway, all of whom appeared in Matt James’ season, answered in the affirmative—as did Graham, Eric Bigger from Rachel Lindsay’s season, Garin Flowers from Clare Crawley’s season, and LaNease Adams from the very first season of The Bachelor. As James put it, “I always had someone to talk to that kind of understood my story.” Vaughn said multiple producers on set were women of color, and Graham commended Rachel Lindsay’s season for having multiple Black producers on set.

This season’s producers seemed interested in capturing deep conversations about race, James said. She recalled having multiple conversations with the Bachelor about their shared experiences as biracial children raised by white mothers in predominantly white environments. (Matt grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, while Pieper hails from Happy Valley, Oregon.) Vaughn, meanwhile, shared a meaningful conversation with Matt about shaving her head, and the significance of hair within the life of a Black woman—an exchange she was thrilled to see made it to air.

But as the season aired, viewers noticed how much time early episodes, especially, seemed to spend on drama largely instigated by and between white cast members. As a result, viewers wound up knowing more about Sarah Trott—who sent herself home to reunite with her family Week 3—than we do about any of the three women of color who actually ended up in the final four. And only in recent episodes have we gotten a glimpse at who Matt James and his frontrunners really are.

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“I think that they did a really good job this season just in… wanting to have those conversations and kind of pushing those narratives,” Pieper said. “But you know, when it comes down to what you're actually watching on the screen, that’s not being shown.”

As happy as Vaughn was to see any portion of her hair conversation with Matt make it to screen, she noted that that exchange got cut short as well. As she explained on the podcast Bachelor Happy Hour, Matt actually shared his own experience of shaving his afro only to have people call him more approachable afterward.

Details like these are easy to brush away; after all, the majority of what The Bachelor films over several weeks will inevitably never make it into the two-hour episodes we see on screen. But these conversations would have helped educate viewers on the nuances of the Black experience—a key ingredient, one would think, for a production invested in sharing its first Black male lead’s story.

“This was one of the most, if not the most diverse season of the Bachelor so far,” Vaughn said. “But the way the screen time was aired didn't necessarily reflect how diverse the cast was.”

Vaughn granted that contestants coming up short on screen-time happens to an extent every season. Still, she said, “It just… felt like more this season.” She posited that perhaps the record number of contestants this season also made it harder to capture everyone’s stories. Whatever the reason, the result was the same: “There just wasn’t enough time.”

Eric Bigger recalled a similar experience. “There were guys on my show that made top six and barely got any airtime,” he said. “You didn’t know who these guys were. That happened with me. The things that I wanted showcased weren’t shown. But what people don’t understand, that’s the nature of TV.”

To former contestant Jean Blanc, who appeared on Becca Kufrin’s season, the issue wasn’t with a lack of airtime, but the exploitation and tokenization of the men and women who appear on the show.

Over the years, several Black contestants said they felt they were brought on the show to specifically fill a racial quota or to fit a certain “type” the lead had. Lindsay Smith wrote a personal essay about how she became the lone Black woman on Season 10 with Andy Baldwin—despite producers’ repeated assurance that this would not be the case. On the show, she wrote, Black contestants are “rarely portrayed as complex, multidimensional people. We were there for people to point at, laugh at, cheer, or jeer.”

Former cheerleader Robyn Jedkins told the Huffington Post that producers pushed her to ask Sean Lowe, star of The Bachelor in Season 17, if he had ever dated a Black woman before, fully knowing he had previously dated a Black cheerleader. “I think that’s part of the reason they picked me,” she said. “I was a cheerleader. I was Black. I fit the mold. I 100 percent think it was a layup for Sean. I truly believe Sean is a good guy. But I do think it was to make him not look racist.”

While Blanc said he had a pleasant experience during filming and the show helped pave the way for other opportunities, he expressed similar sentiments. “I felt like I was a victim in that whole process,” he said.

“I’ve always been prideful of being of Haitian descent and during that time, Donald Trump had called Haiti a shithole,” he added. “I think their response was, ‘Let’s have somebody from this country that can represent.’”

Blanc believes he was misrepresented on the show, pointing out that while he was in a prestigious leadership development program with a Fortune 500 company, his job title was dismissively labelled as ‘colognoisseur’ because he happened to have a lot of cologne. While he begrudgingly leaned into this character that the show had created, it rubbed him the wrong way that white contestants were able to keep their actual job titles.

LaNease Adams, one of two Black women who competed in The Bachelor’s premiere season, maintains that she was never tokenized by the show during or after filming. She described her experience with Bachelor producers as purely positive—even if they did urge her to ask Bachelor Alex Michel about his history with interracial dating when, at the time, she would have preferred to avoid that conversation.

“I was really young and I had already been dating people outside of my race; like, I had just broken up with Bill Maher at the time,” Adams said. Back then, as a young twenty-something, she’d been trying to avoid the conversation about Michel’s dating history with Black women—but now, she said, she would certainly ask the question “because it is important.”

“Sometimes we try to not talk about things, thinking they will go away,” she said.

Despite her positive experience with producers, racism did shape part of Adams’ Bachelor experience: She was the first of many contestants of color to experience bigoted bullying from the show’s early fan base. (Rachel Lindsay, it’s worth noting, was forced to temporarily deactivate her Instagram account after her sit-down with Harrison because of the racist bullying that followed.)

Adams had visited online forums about the show after the season aired only to find racist posts on message boards after she and Alex shared the franchise’s first kiss. The messages came as a shock to the Los Angeles native, who said she’d grown up largely sheltered from racism and hadn’t realized how pervasive such prejudices remained in 2002. A friend gave her pills to help her cope, which led to an addiction. A producer offered to connect Adams with a therapist, but she never made an appointment. Eventually, she was hospitalized.

The emotional spiral Adams endured after the season premiered, she said, “was just a terrible experience—but the reason why I say that it would have all happened anyway is because, you know, low self-esteem is something I had before The Bachelor… I needed to learn how to love myself and recognize that being rejected by a man does not lower my self worth.” (She’s written a children’s book, Your Special Light, to tell the story of self-love she wishes she’d heard when she was younger.)

Adams posits that The Bachelor has avoided addressing race too deeply “because it’s not sexy—the same way I tried to avoid that conversation at the dinner party.” But she’s also not convinced the problem is as grave as others say. She noted that during her season, the contestant pool seemed representative of the women Alex would likely encounter and date in real life.

“Had I not been on the show, and there were no Black people, then that would be a problem,” Adams added. “But when I am on the show, then I’m a token—like, what do you want?”

But contestants have questioned producers’ motivations behind some casting choices—including, most recently, selecting Matt James. It’s not lost on many that we finally got our first Black Bachelor just after George Floyd’s murder by police brought Black Lives Matter demonstrations to the forefront of public consciousness.

To Blanc, Matt James being cast as the Bachelor was exploitation “in every sense of the word.”

“If [producers] see a situation that they can exploit, then they kind of tend to do that,” he said.

Bigger agreed to the extent that both Lindsay and James’ casting on the show were direct responses to the backlash the franchise was facing over race. “That’s the whole point of him being on the show was because of what had happened in America,” he said. “So, no matter if they celebrate him, it’s always going to be about race. That’s how the show is going to get ratings.”

The Bachelor franchise is not only in a precarious position due to the fallout of this season, but ratings have been steadily slipping for years. The whiplash of Clare Crawley’s sudden engagement to Dale Moss in Week 4 and Tayshia Adams taking over led to the finale being the least watched in The Bachelorette's history, drawing in nearly 2 million fewer viewers than the summer before. James’ season isn't faring much better, averaging 6.4 million total viewers going into the finale. Previous Bachelor Peter Weber averaged at 7.8 million.

There was a spike in numbers during Colton Underwood’s season in 2019, perhaps due to the incessant hype surrounding the former NFL player jumping over a seven-foot fence to get away from the cameras after contestant Cassie Randolph dumped him.

With ratings at stake, one of the questions The Bachelor will have to answer is what to do about its host. Speaking on Good Morning America in early March, Harrison said he’s consulting “a race educator and strategist,” in addition to faith leaders and scholars, and that he plans to return as host eventually. “This interview is not the finish line,” he said. “There is much more work to be done. And I am excited to be a part of that change.”

The contestants who spoke with The Daily Beast had only positive experiences with Harrison on set—which made the interview as jarring as it was, for many, disappointing.

Alicia Holloway described Harrison’s sit-down as disheartening. “It honestly made me almost embarrassed to be a part of the franchise, if I’m being completely honest,” she said. “... I think he did himself a huge disservice; whether he actually thought those things or not, I think he could have handled the situation way better.”

Since Harrison’s sit-down with Rachel Lindsay first went viral, some viewers have suggested it’s time for a new host. (Harrison will not host the next season of The Bachelorette, according to a statement published Friday night; former contestants Tayshia Adams and Kaitlyn Bristowe will instead split the role.) As one might imagine, contestants expressed a range of opinions when confronted with the question.

Graham believes that if The Bachelor really wants to prove it’s willing to embrace a more inclusive culture, Harrison needs to go. “How [can] they have an executive producer, one of the stars of the show, vehemently defend something that was inexcusable, something that should not be defended?” he said. “At this point, there are plenty of people who are qualified who should get a shot [at hosting]... For someone who just reads a few lines and says, ‘This season is gonna be the craziest season ever,’ I’m sure we can find qualified people who don't harbor his views.”

Bigger suggested a suspension—which he believes would demonstrate that “there’s a consequence for everything.”

“Apologies are great, but we want changed behavior,” he said. “No one is exempt… You can’t just jump right back in like, ‘Oh, I apologized!’” In the meantime, he added, a woman should take over the gig: “I think it’s time to empower women.”

To Pieper James, firing Harrison outright would be missing the point. “There needs to be a piece of education, and we need to allow people to grow from their mistakes but also still hold them accountable,” she said. “If they say they're going to change, they need to change.”

That said, James added, she would not feel comfortable returning for Bachelor in Paradise this year with Harrison as host because she does not believe enough time will have passed for Harrison and the production to have made the kind of progress it would take for her to feel comfortable participating in the franchise again.

Flowers, too, said he would not feel comfortable joining Paradise this summer: “I was born Black and I’m proud of it,” he said. “I don’t think anything bad would happen; I don't think [Harrison] would make me feel particularly uncomfortable. But you want to be around people who understand you, appreciate you, and won’t say things that might offend you.”

Adams, meanwhile, believes everyone needs to cut the host more slack. Having known Harrison for almost two decades now—she said the two have crossed paths every few years since her time on the show—Adams defended his character, and argued he’s too integral to the show’s brand to simply sweep aside. Like James, she believes this should become a teachable moment for all of Bachelor Nation.

“After going through what I went through after the show, I think it was really kind of him to try to offer [Rachael Kirkconnell] some grace, try to offer some protection,” she said. “Because it is very overwhelming when you are doing a show like this and you have millions of people coming at you—whether it’s positive or negative. It’s just a lot to take in.”

Regardless of what happens to Harrison in the longer term, the former contestants all agree that the problem extends beyond the longtime host and other changes need to be implemented. As James put it, “You can’t have a diverse cast with people that don't know how to tell those stories making the final calls,” she said, “because then you’re just going to have storylines that are never shown or not all the way fleshed out.”

Graham believes the screening process is a good place to start. He emphasized that while the show was “very meticulous” about drug and STD testing, he doesn’t remember the screening process being as intense and can’t recall if anyone called up his references.

“Whether or not there are racists on the show, I don’t know what type of screening they did in that regard,” he said. “Maybe that’s something they can add to the list. Maybe that should be first.”

He thinks the show should explicitly ask potential contestants race-related questions, such as if they had ever been to certain events or said something racially offensive. “At least if they aren’t honest, when it comes out, [the show] can say, ‘We did our due diligence; these people clearly lied,’” he said.

Flowers reasoned it’s hard for the show to “catch everything” and to know “every single nook and cranny of someone’s life.” But he suggested potential contestants should do a better job of taking ownership and to self-report possible issues. He agreed that production needs to do a better job of screening during the casting process and having a diverse system in place to “catch things that people of different ethnicities or experiences might not catch.”

Most former contestants also agree the franchise needs to listen and take direction from former contestants who have gone through the experience; Bigger said he’d be more than happy to be consulted.

“They need to really take a second, step back, and really try to diversify the franchise and the organization because clearly it has a ton of issues right now,” Holloway said. “I don't want to be a part of something that I'm not proud of.”

For Bigger, it ultimately boils down to the franchise’s intentions with having a diverse cast: Are producers merely reacting to viewers’ complaints by bringing more contestants of color into the fold, or do they truly want to be inclusive? After all, “Maybe they don’t need different backgrounds on their show if they don’t know what they are doing.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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