In the January season 25 opener of The Bachelor, host Chris Harrison introduced Matt James, the show’s new lead, as a trailblazer ushering in a series of firsts for the show. Breaking with tradition, James, a then 28-year old North Carolina native and New York City-based real estate agent, was cast as the Bachelor without first appearing on The Bachelorette or any other Bachelor franchise shows. James is the first Bachelor to film his season during a pandemic. And, most significantly, James is the first Black Bachelor in the 18-year history of the show.
It was a rosy—and high-pressure—prospect, seeing a Black man occupy the role of romantic lead on a series that has always centered whiteness. But now, seven weeks in and with multiple episodes remaining, it’s clear that no matter who he ends up with, James’ season will be remembered for ugly discourse it has spawned about race. On the Feb. 15 episode of The Bachelor, viewers watched James select his final four women—one of whom is 24-year-old Rachael Kirkconnell, who has been called out online for appearing in photographs wearing culturally appropriative costumes, attending an antebellum-themed party in 2018 and more. The episode landed with a thud for viewers who have closely followed a wave of outrage from inside and outside of the show over Kirkconnell’s actions and her and the show’s failures to address them. The controversy boiled over on Feb. 9 when Harrison defended the contestant during an interview on Extra with Rachel Lindsay, a media personality and the first Black person to ever have the lead role in a Bachelor show. Harrison argued that the year when the antebellum party photograph was taken should be considered when evaluating the image’s impact. “Is it a good look in 2018? Or, is it not a good look in 2021? Because there’s a big difference,” he told Lindsay. “The woke police is out there,” Harrison said, “and this poor girl Rachael has just been thrown to the lions.”
In the days since, dozens of current and former cast members have spoken out against Harrison and in support of Lindsay—the women from James’ cast, the most inclusive of BIPOC women in the show’s history, released a collective statement expressing their disappointment and condemning any defense of racism. Kirkconnell apologized, speaking out for the first time since the photographs and allegations began surfacing weeks ago. Harrison also apologized and announced that he will step aside from hosting the “After the Final Rose” special when James’ season comes to a close. It’s not clear what will happen after this season, and representatives of the show did not respond to a request for comment.
James, who is presumably under a contract with the series that limits his ability to speak to media, posted a message of appreciation for Lindsay on Instagram. “Your advocacy of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) people in the franchise is invaluable,” the post read. “I stand with you and the rest of the women advocating for change and accountability.”
In many ways, James fits the tried-and-true Bachelor blueprint: he’s a very tall and photogenic former athlete, he hails from the South and was formerly a registered Republican, he’s forthright about his Christian faith (so much so that he led a group prayer on night one) and he’s charitable, the founder of a non-profit mentoring program. Yet from the start of his season, it has been clear that despite all his parallels to Bachelors past, the weight of this milestone moment is lost neither on James or the creators of the show. In his first official act as the Bachelor, James pulled Harrison aside before greeting his suitors during the premiere to discuss his biracial identity and the “pressure that I’ve put on myself being the first Black Bachelor.” During their talk, which viewers have revisited as another example of Harrison’s limitations when it comes to holding a nuanced conversation about race and identity, James, whose father is Black and whose mother is white, discussed how his upbringing shaped how he thinks about love—and how he would approach potentially finding a partner on The Bachelor.
“I’ve experienced what it’s like to be a product of an interracial marriage, and it’s tough,” James told Harrison. “You’ve got people who are cheering for you to find love, and you’ve got people who are cheering for you to end up with a specific person—a specific person of a specific race. That’s something that has kept me up at night. I don’t want to piss off white people. I don’t want to piss off Black people. But I’m both of those.”
The premiere set the tone for the season to come, and throughout that episode, James made multiple references to being biracial, sitting down with his mother to talk about love and later bonding with a contestant who opened up about her own parents’ interracial relationship. The show’s fixation came as no a surprise; The Bachelor is a notoriously white franchise with a notoriously white fan base, a status quo that has drawn endless critique and a class action lawsuit over the years. The emphasis on James’ biracial identity, even while coupled with discussion of what it means to James and the women that he is the first Black Bachelor, speaks volumes about where the show’s priorities lie.
It was immediately clear that James, earnest and endearingly nervous as a newcomer to the franchise thrust into the role of its leading man, would remain hyperaware of the expectations awaiting him from every side as the season continues—and why wouldn’t he? When is the last time a white Bachelor had to consider these tensions while searching for the woman of his dreams?
In 24 previous seasons of The Bachelor and 16 seasons of The Bachelorette, the franchise has featured 36 white leads, the vast majority of whom have chosen white partners at the end of the show. Few BIPOC contestants make it to the later rounds of the show, which is usually the way to land another role in the franchise. Lindsay became the franchise’s first Black lead in 2017, and in a twist in the most recent season of The Bachelorette, Tayshia Adams, who is Black and Mexican, stepped in midway as the star.
And for a show with millions of viewers, the implications of representation reach further than any one season’s competition. Speaking to TIME before James’ season premiere, Lindsay reflected on what it meant to her to fill the role of a romantic lead. “When I said I wanted to be the Bachelorette, I said I want this audience to see a lead who looks like me, and who they’ve never seen in this role before,” she said. “I want you to see that I’m different and how I’m different, but how I’m still deserving of love.”
For some fans, James’ historic casting was a long time coming after repeated calls for more diversity in the franchise over the past 18 years. Karey Burke, the president of ABC Entertainment, acknowledged this failure in a statement announcing the casting of Matt James in June, just weeks after George Floyd was killed by police and a resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country. “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. This is just the beginning and we will continue to take action with regard to diversity issues on this franchise.”
But for many critics, ABC’s hasty announcement about James as the first Black Bachelor this summer appeared to be little more than a performative gesture in the wake of a national reckoning with race. During this time, an anti-racism petition about the franchise began circulating, with demands that included casting a Black Bachelor for season 25 and hiring a diversity consultant for the show; it was signed by multiple alumni of the shows.
The misgivings surrounding the timing of James’ announcement as the first Black Bachelor are hardly unfounded; on top of the franchise’s longstanding problems with casting, executives have defended those choices. The show has also perpetuated damaging racial stereotypes and faced legal action. In 2012, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette were sued for racial discrimination in a class action lawsuit by Christopher Johnson and Nathaniel Claybrooks, two Black men who auditioned for the show. In their suit, they claimed that “deliberate exclusion of people of color from the roles of the Bachelor and Bachelorette underscores the significant barriers that people of color continue to face in media and the broader marketplace.” While the show’s production company Warner Horizon Television deemed the suit “without merit” and the case was ultimately thrown out thanks to the First Amendment, it helped bring attention to the overwhelming whiteness of the franchise’s casts. Harrison later gave an especially damning explanation of why there had only been white leads on the show in an NPR interview that underscored the franchise’s racial bias in 2015: “Advertisers have to buy the next season of the show. I need millions of people to want to watch this show. So I need to put on people that others want to watch.”
Likewise, the franchise’s controversial handling (and in some cases, exploitation) of racial issues over the years it has been on air have garnered a fair share of criticism. When Lindsay starred on The Bachelorette in 2017, a disturbing storyline during her season involved Lee Garrett, a white contestant with a history of making racist and xenophobic statements online, who provoked Black contestants Kenny King and Eric Bigger by gaslighting them and invoking racist stereotypes. During the “Men Tell All” special at the end of Rachel’s season, Garrett was confronted about racist and misogynistic tweets as well as his behavior on the show and was given ample time to apologize and explain his actions.
Justine Kay, one of the co-hosts of the podcast 2 Black Girls, 1 Rose, which she and Natasha Scott launched in 2017 to discuss what they call “the whitest show on earth,” wants the franchise’s producers and editors to take more accountability for pursuing storylines like Garrett’s that capitalize on racial trauma for dramatic effect. “The Bachelor franchise has a history of casting very problematic white contestants and allowing them a platform on a very huge primetime show,” Kay told TIME in January. “People like Lee get redemption moments, but where is the uplifting and recognition of people of color? It’s not just about casting Matt James—what else are you going to do to make contestants feel heard and safe and seen?”
Just days before James was announced as the next Bachelor over the summer of 2020, Lindsay, who co-hosts the official podcast for the franchise, issued a public ultimatum calling for the show to confront its longtime issues with diversity or see her cut all ties. Lindsay has long been outspoken about the ways that The Bachelor and its related shows need to step up to support BIPOC cast members, especially ahead of James’ season.
Lindsay said there were no Black or other BIPOC producers working on the show when she was a contestant on Nick Viall’s season in 2017. Later that year, when she became the first Black Bachelorette, the show offered a more diverse cast of suitors and hired producers of color to work with the men. But Lindsay did not receive the same support, working only with white producers. “In addition to being the lead on the show and trying to find love, I also had to explain, ‘This is what it’s like for a Black person,'” Lindsay told TIME ahead of James’ premiere. “That shouldn’t have to be my job—all the white women before me didn’t have to do that.”
For her, the issues with diversity extend far past casting, production and editing and to the executive levels. “The show does not understand people of color. Period,” Lindsay said. “I know that from my own experience and I know that from watching seasons after me. The only way to do that is to have people of color in the decision-making room.”
At the start of James’ season, it seemed like ABC might be finally listening: Adams’ season of The Bachelorette had just featured a frank and moving discussion about the killing of George Floyd and the injustice of the U.S. incarceration system. And season 25’s opener showcased one of the most diverse casts of contestants in the show’s 18-year-history, including 32 women of different backgrounds (EW reported that this is the first time white women have been in the minority for a Bachelor cast). According to Lindsay, the franchise hired a diversity consulting team for James’ season, although what that person achieved and how much they were empowered to change has recently come into question. The show also seemed to make an effort to look at diversity beyond race; James awarded his first impression rose, the most highly coveted prize of the night, to Abigail Heringer, whom Harrison recently reported is the first hearing-impaired contestant in the show’s history.
These changes were promising, especially in the first few episodes. A true commitment by the show to being anti-racist would mean giving space and time in episodes for people of color to have complex and developed storylines, communication professor Rachel E. Dubrofsky, the author of The Surveillance of Women on Reality Television: Watching ‘The Bachelor’ and ‘The Bachelorette,’ told TIME. And it has, to a certain extent: contestant Chelsea Vaughn had a nuanced conversation with James about her relationship with her hair and white beauty standards; but fans have pointed out that James himself has not been shown expressing his own experiences with Black identity.
A true commitment to antiracism would also mean grappling directly with uncomfortable truths about the history of racism and how white women’s perceived vulnerability has been used to justify violence against Black men—an approach that runs counter to the narrative the show is built on, that whiteness is desirable and romance is the solution to all problems. “It means showing that race always matters, and love is not enough,” Dubrofsky said, a stark contrast to a comment Kirkconnell is seen making in a trailer for the rest of the season: “I do acknowledge color in every sense,” she says, “but at the end of the day, love is love. It doesn’t matter what it looks like.”
James’ historic casting was a significant yet small step in the right direction when it comes to diversity efforts for The Bachelor. But as viewers have seen as his season has progressed, featuring a sole Black Bachelor can hardly undo decades of carefully curated whiteness. And James himself seems all too aware of that. In a conversation with one of the contestants during the premiere, after being asked how he feels about being the first, James summed up the impossible challenge of his role on the show succinctly.
“I feel a load of responsibility,” he said. “But in that, I feel that my experience isn’t everyone’s experience. I can only go and speak on things that I experience and live out my truths.”