Why 'The Bachelor' franchise isn't ready for another black lead

Craig Sjodin/ABC

Rachel Lindsay was the first black lead in the history of "The Bachelor" franchise. Her season does not bode well for future black leads.

This season of "The Bachelorette" was supposed to be a game changer. Rachel Lindsay, a black woman, was packaged as the most desirable woman of the moment. Her run as the Bachelorette was supposed to be an opportunity for "The Bachelor" franchise to finally deal with race in a meaningful way, rather than stacking the initial cast with five people of color who are sent home by the second episode.

Instead, this season revealed that "The Bachelor" franchise was utterly unprepared to negotiate the tensions of a black lead.

Race was simultaneously in the foreground and skipped over during this iteration of the show. On one hand, race was hard to miss, as Lindsay is black and several of the men courting her were white. On the other, it floated above the season like a cloud -- one that contestants, producers and audience alike hoped would disappear as long as no one spoke its name. Unless, of course, there was an opportunity for drama. Then race became the ham-fisted gavel that beat the drum with an eerily predictable rhythm, making the show nearly impossible to watch.

Lee Garrett became this year's villain through his specific antagonistic attitude toward Eric Bigger and Kenny King (both black), along with the uncovering of some misogynistic and racist tweets. The previews for relevant episodes were cut to play up the racialized nature of his conflict with King, even if Garrett never said anything overtly racist. Much of the "Men Tell All" episode was focused on Garrett and his implicit bias/racism problem. Like the rest of the season, it was the central dramatic arc on the show, which is kind of gross and misses the point.

Placing Garrett at the center of the "is this racism?" question glosses over the reality that most of the time, racism does not manifest itself in the KKK image of yesteryear. Racism is not just burning crosses or using the N-word. In fact and in fairness, Garrett did none of these things, but his behavior on the show most closely resembled overt racism, and he became the center of the pin-the-racist-tail-on-the-donkey game. This calculated decision obscured other problematic behaviors that were consequently dismissed as harmless fodder.

Take, for example, the audience's introduction to Dean Unglert, who made the final four but was eliminated in the most recent episode. When we first met Unglert, he told Lindsay that he "was ready to go black and never go back." He probably thought it was cute -- a young, white man declaring his attraction to an older black woman. Or take Peter Kraus, who is still in contention, and who, during a (terrible) freestyle rap on a group date, included this line about Lindsay: "I know she's from the hood." Lindsay's father is a federal judge, and she has given no indication that she has experienced anything other than an upper middle-class upbringing.

Both of these situations are examples of problematic statements that deserved to be talked about more. Lindsay did address Unglert's comment in the first episode, letting him (and America) know that she was good with it. And it's totally fine that she is, but getting some introspection from Unglert about the collective reaction to his comment would have been nice. Kraus' rap elicited no discussion other than a laugh from Lindsay.

That's not to say Lindsay is somehow less "woke" because she chose not to address those situations. She can absolutely have her opinion. But these kinds of scenarios occur all the time, and are perfect examples of attitudes that require navigating when dating interracially. "The Bachelorette" failed to delve into them.

Instead, we were handed a contradictory mess that made the audience focus its attention on one contestant whom the show portrayed as the epitome of racism and prejudice. Meanwhile, others were able to have precarious interactions waved away as innocuous and swept under the rug with a clever line or laugh from Lindsay herself. The "bad guy" is racist, while the "good guys" are funny. The reality is that good guys like Unglert and Kraus can also present problems, and often do.

For these reasons, there should not be a black lead in the next season of the "The Bachelor," even if Lindsay's run diversified the pool of potential men. A black man placed at the center of the most-watched dating show would expose that person to all kinds of stereotypes. There is very little evidence that ABC would be able to deftly handle implications of a black man's sexual prowess or the historical context of a black man courting white women. There are narratives underscoring every interaction, and while some might have nothing to do with us today, we carry our histories with us.

The show's avoidance of addressing racial tension is understandable. Who wants to be having heavy conversations while organizing their Bachelorette fantasy picks? That's the challenge with these issues: Nuance and a depth of understanding are required to make it work.

We aren't ready for it to continue, and neither is ABC.

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