“Bachelor” host Chris Harrison has a lot to say about racism.
Not about the outcry among the franchise’s fan base over a burgeoning body of evidence that one of Bachelor Matt James’ frontrunners has engaged in racist behavior — including attending an antebellum-themed party in 2018 and liking photos containing Confederate flags — but about the “woke police” he believes are intent on ruining the lives of poor, unsuspecting white “Bachelor” contestants.
On Tuesday, in a nearly 15-minute interview with former Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay, who is now a host for ExtraTV, Harrison spoke passionately about the need for “a little grace, a little understanding, a little compassion” for Rachael Kirkconnell, a contestant on this season of “The Bachelor” — its first with a Black lead. Since the show began airing in January, fans have spotted some concerning online history from Kirkconnell, from her posts about QAnon-linked child trafficking myths to pro-police messaging in the middle of Black Lives Matter protests over the summer. Other allegations have also emerged, including one woman’s claim that Kirkconnell bullied her in high school for liking Black guys. This has raised understandable concerns from “Bachelor” fans: How did a woman who engaged in plantation cosplay get cast to date and possibly marry a Black man?
When Lindsay pointed out to Harrison that the plantation party was “not a good look,” and questioned what it would have represented for her, a Black woman, to go to a party like that, he responded, “Is it not a good look in 2018? Or is it not a good look in 2021?” (One suspects that large swaths of this nation were aware far before 2018 that the Confederacy, a coalition of states that committed treason in order to defend the practice of enslaving people, was not a great thing to admire.)
The antebellum-themed party in question was an “Old South” ball, a party held yearly by many chapters of Kappa Alpha, a fraternity that long considered Confederate general Robert E. Lee to be its “spiritual founder.” KA’s national office technically banned these events in 2016, two years before the one Kirkconnell attended — which, as Lindsay pointed out, shows that even the fraternity knew by 2018 that plantation balls are offensive.
The 24-year-old Kirkconnell, a graphic designer from Cumming, Georgia, has been a frontrunner since the first night, when she reacted tearfully to James’ prayer. On their one-on-one date, which aired Feb. 1, she told James she was falling in love with him, and he reciprocated — a telling moment on a show where the lead typically avoids overt declarations of their feelings until the final days.
But rumors and revelations about her past behavior have been swirling for just as long. The emergence of photos of Kirkconnell at the Old South ball have only fueled criticism of Kirkconnell and the show, both for putting the first Black Bachelor in the position of dating someone with potentially racist views and for failing to address the controversy publicly.
At least until now. Though Kirkconnell has not yet made any statement, Chris Harrison, as the host and an executive producer of the franchise, is its most visible representative. By going on the record to beseech the audience to have “grace” for her and to wait patiently until she’s ready to speak before casting judgment, and to slam her critics as the “woke police,” he’s sent a very clear signal that “The Bachelor” will support white contestants over people of color who are hurt by their racist behavior.
By citing the “woke police,” Harrison is invoking a common cudgel used by white people who seek to sidestep accountability, and insisting that the real harm is done by those who dare to voice their frustrations with a franchise that seems unable to state unequivocally that white supremacy has no place in it.
The franchise’s history here is telling. In 2017, during Lindsay’s historic run as the first Black Bachelorette, she was forced to deal with a contestant, Lee Garrett, who had posted racist comments on his social media and who was sent home after he stirred up conflict with a Black contestant, Kenny King. In 2018, Bachelorette Becca Kufrin ended the show engaged to Garrett Yrigoyen, whose Instagram likes on offensive posts mocking undocumented immigrants and trans people kicked up controversy as the season aired. Kufrin stood by him after the show, but their relationship ended this summer, after Yrigoyen posted “Blue Lives Matter” memes during nationwide Black Lives Matter protests over police killings of Black people.
Harrison’s words prove him to be utterly incompetent and unprepared to be the spokesperson for a franchise that has expressed interest in doing better when it comes to racial diversity.
In other words, in 2018 — an era which Harrison claimed to Lindsay is so far in the past it would be unfair to judge it through the lens of 2021 — the show itself was already grappling with the effects of white contestants’ racism on the audience and Black cast members. The starting line continues to move: White people are always permitted to start each day with a blank slate, with any past actions excused due to the ignorance of the era. It’s a bold move to try this maneuver with behavior from 2018, two years after Donald Trump’s election and five years after the Black Lives Matter movement first began in earnest.
Not only do Harrison’s words prove him to be utterly incompetent and unprepared to be the spokesperson for a franchise that has expressed interest in doing better when it comes to racial diversity, but they also placed Lindsay into the undesirable position of either excusing Kirkconnell’s behavior alongside Harrison, or being combative on her own. Harrison repeatedly emphasized that he enjoys discussing these topics with Lindsay because of their personal relationship, a line which effectively draped him in her implied approval. Just last summer, Lindsay said that she was considering severing ties with the franchise altogether if it did not do better. In return for her considerable efforts on behalf of the show — including co-hosting a popular podcast, “Bachelor Happy Hour” — she has been repaid by being used as cover. (Not incidentally, Harrison’s interview with her also did little in the way of helping James or Kirkconnell — especially if they do end up together.)
The show and its executive team, including Harrison, have been saying for years that they can “do better.” In October, Harrison told Insider that he believed it was key for the franchise to “take the first step” by admitting that racial diversity has been a problem for the franchise.
“Then you can take the second step,” he added, “which is, OK, what do we do about this? What action can we take?”
One crucial move would be creating a culture of accountability for white staff and cast members, and actively protecting Black and brown viewers and contestants from racism. Instead, the franchise continues to try to cast people of color while perpetuating an environment in which racism is excused, ignored — and even tacitly supported. If Harrison is trying to figure out what action he can take, he might start there.