When “The Bachelorette” Talks About Race

How “The Bachelorette” and its contestants frame and talk about race is awkward, crass, and at times, harmful—and it’s truer to life than the series has ever been.

Besides having the first black lead in its history, this season of The Bachelorette has its most diverse cast yet. (ABC)

In its 14 years of existence, The Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise has developed a unique lexicon: “The Journey” is palatable shorthand for the process of systematically eliminating potential life partners; “The Right Reasons” are what separates contestants seeking love from those seeking Instagram fame (not that those are mutually exclusive). This season has introduced yet another coded vocabulary that’s relatively new for the series: one that addresses race.

The Bachelor/ette has only had a smattering of contestants of color throughout its history, and in Rachel Lindsey, the series has its first black lead. She is an attorney with the body of an athlete and a robust sense of humor—a catch by any measure. At the end of the day, however, Rachel is still a black woman dating in America, a fact can’t be glossed over with campy segments and creative editing. It’s in this gap — the chasm between the frivolity of the series and the very real frustration that comes with dating while black — that the show’s producers and contestants flounder.

The most flagrant attempt at merging reality-TV drama with real-world racial dynamics came in the form of Lee Garrett, the human embodiment of the phrase “your kind ain’t welcome here.” Two weeks into the season, the southern singer/songwriter’s racist, misogynistic tweets were unearthed, supposedly to the surprise of the show’s production team. Regardless of its (dubious) intentions, the production hitched its wagon to Lee’s willingness to antagonize black contestants with dog-whistle racism and seriously sociopathic manipulation. He targeted human teddy bear Kenny King by blatantly lying to Rachel about how “aggressive” and “violent” Kenny was toward him. As Doreen St. Félix noted in The New Yorker, Kenny’s justifiably angry responses were depicted as parallel and “morally equivalent” to Lee’s hostile racial instigation.

Lee Garrett, right, barely containing his contempt for black men (probably). (ABC)

Will Gaskins (a black contestant) tried to explain to Lee that “there is a long-standing history in this country of regarding black men in America as aggressive to justify a lot of other things.” Of course, Will couldn’t very well elaborate on these “things” (i.e. police violence, mass incarceration, etc.); even if he did, I highly doubt The Bachelorette production would have been inclined or equipped to address it tactfully.

Regardless of its intentions, the production hitched its wagon to Lee’s willingness to antagonize black contestants with dog-whistle racism and seriously sociopathic manipulation.

This is just one instance in which Rachel and her potential suitors have treaded lightly when talking about race. No matter how necessary it may be, no one wants to be the Debbie Downer who has to explain institutional racism at the cocktail party. And frankly, if that need does arise, the responsibility most often falls upon black participants who just wanna have fun, too.

As such, this season has continued the tightrope walk of addressing the racial elephant in the room while trying to remain as bubbly as Rachel’s go-to glass of champagne. On the lighter side, Dean Unglert introduced himself to Rachel in a preseason special by saying he “wants to go black and never go back.” While Rachel handled this diplomatically, I did a spit-take of my Chardonnay.

You see, one of the hardest things about dating while black is juggling the desire to be seen as a three-dimensional human (rather than a checkbox on a census document) while having your experience as a black person acknowledged and respected. This is hard enough for POC to navigate, so I don’t entirely blame Dean for trying to make light of the situation. However, it stung that the first thing he thought to bring up wasn’t Rachel’s beauty, her impressive career, or her boisterous personality—instead, it was her race.

Dean Unglert reminding Rachel that he “wants to go black and never go back,” and Rachel, for some reason, entertaining this inanity. (ABC)

In a more weighty instance, Rachel breaks down in tears while discussing the pressure of being the first black Bachelorette (and probably because she’s being forced to entertain Lee, the 21st-century incarnation of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Django Unchained). This is likely a response to the pressure of choosing between black and white men and that choice being some sort of referendum on interracial relationships. She says: “The pressures that I feel about being a black woman, and what that is, and how…” she says before cutting herself off. She finishes with vague, uncontroversial language, telling the producer “you have no idea what it’s like to be in this position.” And, inexplicably (possibly because of the knee-jerk inclination to center whiteness when confronted with racial discrimination), the producer’s response of “I don’t understand” is included in this scene.

This situation is where Dean makes a comeback, somehow, as the wokest white contestant in the mansion. During a confessional, he is the first (as far as we know) to timidly acknowledge that Lee tends to target “the people who he’s [not] used to seeing on a daily basis from a cultural perspective” (i.e. black people). That Dean was the most forward about Rachel’s blackness early on, yet struggled to articulate Lee’s obvious racist tendencies, is a pretty representative microcosm of how millennials deal with race. We’re comfortable enough to make light of it, but become tongue-tied when it’s time to address the serious consequences of living in and contributing to a society that can’t seem to shake racism. The result is a generation that is at once accepting of people of color in the abstract, but is just as prejudiced as ever in practice.

We’re comfortable enough to make light of racial dynamics, but become tongue-tied when it’s time to address the serious consequences of living in and contributing to a society that can’t seem to shake racism.

Later in the season, Rachel asks Bryan Abasolo — a romantically aggressive Colombian-American chiropractor from Miami — if his family would “accept her.” This is a concern of any POC who is dating a white or white-passing person; I’ve asked the question myself to romantic partners with varied (and rarely comforting) results. Bryan answers in the affirmative, noting how progressive and open his family is. The enthusiasm with which he conveys just how progressive they are somehow makes it worse that she has to ask in the first place. But the camera can’t linger on them for long; the world of reality-TV romance moves fast, and there’s little time to parse heavy questions like whether one’s family is racist.

Bryan “Less Talk, More Kiss” Abasolo. (ABC)

On the guys’ side, a mixed group of contestants talk about whether Rachel is more likely to choose a white or a black man — and whether the aforementioned Will would be into black women. The question of racial preference (and who gets to have it) warrants its own lengthy discussion, but the way the suitors talk about it is interesting as well. Eric Bigger and Anthony Battle (two black contestants) explain to Dean and Peter Kraus (two white contestants) that whether Will is attracted to black women is an important detail to share with Rachel. “Well, I’ve only dated white women,” Dean says in the dense and earnest way only he can, implying it’s not a big deal. Eric and Anthony respond with some version of “you don’t understand,” and the camera cuts away to Will and Rachel on the most awkward date ever. It becomes clear that Will’s just not that into her, and Rachel is not that into him not being into her.

In Peter Kraus’s freestyle rap to Rachel, he referred to her as “a girl from the hood.” Rachel, whose father is a District Judge in Dallas, Texas, is most certainly not from the hood. (ABC)

All of this — the veiled language, the racial exploitation, the mental whiplash between racial friction and viking fighting — is merely a window into how ill-equipped we are as a society to talk about race in a meaningful way. Producers awkwardly force themselves into the narrative; contestants only talk about race in the vaguest and in the least-controversial terms; editors use racial tension as a frivolous point of contention rather than the psychologically traumatic experience it can be.

That said, normalizing romance for people of color — even if it’s contrived, made-for-TV romance — is new, important ground for pop culture. I’d much rather see the conversations around interracial dating handled clumsily than not at all (though we really could have done without sentient Confederate flag Lee Garrett). In fact, this clumsiness in talking about race is as true to life as any reality TV show will get. Let’s just hope Rachel won’t have to endure any more of Peter’s freestyle rapping.

The next episode of The Bachelorette airs tonight, July 10, on ABC. Will the rest of the season handle race any better than it has thus far? Let me know what you think in the comments!