I was unimpressed when ABC’s Bachelor franchise named Rachel Lindsay as their first black lead—not because it wasn’t long past due, but because it smacked of hollow moral posturing. I have watched The Bachelor and its popular spinoff, The Bachelorette, for five years now, but in that time I have come to expect the following: a good looking, white lead who claims not to have a physical type; a mostly white cast; a few black contestants sprinkled in, none of whom are ever taken seriously; and a white winner (with but one exception). In its fifteen years and thirty-three seasons, this franchise has featured only one person of color as a lead—Venezuelan-American Juan Pablo Galavis.
Rachel Lindsay embodies a provocative notion, one that should not be provocative at all: black people are worthwhile; black people are lovable; black people are people.Perhaps I’m overly cynical, but I find it difficult to believe that The Bachelor’s producers had a sudden moral awakening. For as long as this show has existed, its producers have pandered to their target demographic (predominately white and female), and casting Rachel carried a similar tone—self-congratulation for something that should have happened years ago. For example, ABC essentially spoiled their own season of the 2017 Bachelor, blurring the line between back-patting and self-parody, to promote a self-declared historical announcement, as touted by franchise creator Mike Fleiss on Twitter: “This history making, historic announcement could be the most-historic in the history of #thebachelor.”
Even still, my cynicism is admittedly underscored by ambivalence. Whether or not I believe producers moved in the right direction for the right reason, it undoubtedly is the right direction. While we, as a country, may have outlawed certain expressions of racism, law alone cannot mitigate the dehumanizing stigma we’ve attached to people of color (though it can certainly uphold such stigmas). And, unsurprisingly, one of the many wicked results of our country’s systemic dehumanization of black people is this: under the white gaze, people of color are often not perceived as lovable. Case in point: a 2013 study from the Facebook dating app Are You Interested showed that all women except black women preferred white men, and black women were among racial groups that received the lowest response rates.
I can only speak for myself, but I firmly believe my experience to be representative of a larger trend: I have been socialized to feel an empathy and closeness to white people that, for a very long time, I did not feel toward my black fellow human beings. I do not admit this as a point of pride, but rather as a confession that might prompt change.
My racism was not so blatant as to be called out by my mostly white peer group. It was, in many ways, despicably socially acceptable, and it often manifested as something seemingly benign as “black men aren’t my type.” If The Bachelor’s historical exclusion of black men and women is any indication, my feelings were not unique.
And the problem with this, of course, is that this sort of racism is only the symptom of a much deadlier disease. If, as a white person, I can disgrace black people in a socially acceptable manner, I can also ignore the brutalization of their community. I can scroll past Amber alerts for missing black children when I would likely stop to gaze at a white face. I can root through the past of a dead black man, woman, or child to justify any form of violence leveled against them. And I can do all of this because I don’t see my husband or son or brother in their faces. I can do this because the white gaze is not used to perceiving black people as objects of empathy or love.
For this reason, regardless of what prompted ABC’s long-overdue inclusion of a black lead, I am thankful that it happened. Millions of white, middle class American women tune in to each airing of The Bachelorette, and this year perhaps the show is disrupting a trend that desperately needs disrupting. Time will tell whether ABC addresses racism in America in a meaningful way; so far I have reasons to be both pessimistic and hopeful.
It was quickly obvious that this season is both the same as it’s always been and subtly different. It is different in that this season features more than the show’s usual handful of diverse contestants, there only to check its obligatory multicultural boxes. Diverse, talented, and handsome black contestants were featured and portrayed in complex ways. The few black contestants to be previously featured on The Bachelor and Bachelorette were almost always eliminated before week five, and sometimes encouraged by producers to address race in ways that contestants were reportedly uncomfortable with. For the first time, as a white viewer whose biases ABC has historically pandered to, I felt there was a chance a black contestant might win—maybe even be chosen as the next Bachelor.
However, the fact that this show is still primarily set in a white world—contrived for white viewers—cannot be ignored. From the first episode onward, it is obvious that white culture is still held up as the standard—socially favored even among a cast that is more diverse than ever before. This manifests in several ways, from dialectal prejudice to a misguided bend toward colorblindness. At one point, a white contestant corrects the usage of African American Vernacular English—a dialect that linguists have noted for its qualitative richness and complexity, but which is still stigmatized as deficient.
But perhaps the most explicit example of white supremacy so far comes in the most recent episodes. Lee, a self-proclaimed aspiring country singer and white man, begins to antagonize his black roommates—and not only antagonize them, but also twist the narrative so that he’s the calm, collected hero while the men he bullies are aggressive villains. As studies have shown, this plays directly into a racial bias that falsely characterizes black men as inherently more threatening than white men—a prejudice that has proven deadly.
It is yet unclear how this narrative will play out. Perhaps producers will out Lee as the season’s villain and subsequently expose his racism for what it is. Or maybe they’ll continue to affirm the racist attitudes that have permeated our nation’s attitudes and systems.
At the very least, though, Rachel Lindsay as the Bachelorette has drawn the white gaze toward black contestants, legitimized as contenders for the first time in the franchise’s history, and toward a black woman as the pinnacle of intelligence, power, and beauty. She embodies a provocative notion, one that should not be provocative at all: black people are worthwhile; black people are lovable; black people are people.
This shouldn’t be groundbreaking knowledge, particularly to Christians, who should be intimately familiar with the theology of the imago Dei. And yet, last week I watched the SBC flounder as it scrambled to pass a resolution decrying white supremacy—a resolution they initially declined.
So as laughable as it is that ABC is using a contrived reality TV show to pull the white gaze toward the humanization of black people, it is perhaps an apt and lamentable picture of the ground we’ve yet to cover.