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Chris Harrison’s indefinite exit from The Bachelor won’t fix the franchise’s racism

Chris Harrison’s indefinite exit from The Bachelor won’t fix the franchise’s racism
Chris Harrison during The Bachelor season 25, episode 7. (Photo by Craig Sjodin/ABC)

Chris Harrison’s announcement Saturday that he’s “stepping aside for a period of time” from The Bachelor franchise appears to be a seismic event in reality television. Until last year, when Tom Bergeron was fired, a long-running, major broadcast network reality shows had never lost its host.

Chris Harrison is host and has an executive producer credit, but he is not responsible for The Bachelor and its spin-offs, like Jeff Probst is on Survivor. As showrunner, Probst was in charge of a production that filmed repeated unwanted touching and complaints about it—and did nothing, except defend that nothing response six months later. Probst did not step away nor lose his job.

So Chris Harrison exiting, even temporarily, feels like a real consequence for his actions. But it is not.

To start, we don’t actually know when Chris Harrison will return or how long this will last.

The most immediate effect is that he will not host the “After the Final Rose” reunion for The Bachelor season 25. (The “Women Tell All” reunion was already filmed.) In a typical year, The Bachelorette would start filming within a few weeks of that.

Will his self-imposed exile keep him away from the next production? Or will he return?

This is neither accountability nor real change, because what is really happening is the same thing that always happens: Chris Harrison defends his employer, acting as defense and shield, and then everything continues on as usual.

Photos of Rachael Kirkconnell led to Chris Harrison’s indefinite exit

Matt James and Chris Harrison in Farmington, Penn., during The Bachelor season 25, episode 7.
Matt James and Chris Harrison in Farmington, Penn., during The Bachelor season 25, episode 7. (Photo by Craig Sjodin/ABC)

The second season in Bachelor franchise history with a Black person as its lead has again been consumed with racism: this time, from both a contestant and the show’s host.

All of this began when photos emerged with photos of Rachael Kirkconnell, a 24-year-old graphic designer from Georgia, wearing antebellum-era clothing during what was identified as a plantation-themed “Old South” formal thrown by Kappa Alpha Order in 2018.

Rachael—whose long silence after the photos made news was probably mandated by the show, because reality shows control their cast members’ ability to speak publicly—finally admitted this was racist in a statement posted to Instagram Thursday. (Reality Steve earlier reported her statement was “rejected” by ABC.)

Rachael wrote, in part:

I didn’t recognize how offensive and racist my actions were, but that doesn’t excuse them. …

I was ignorant, but my ignorance was racist. I am sorry to the communities and individuals that my actions harmed and offended. I am ashamed about my lack of education, but it is no one’s responsibility to educate me. …

… Racial progress and unity are impossible without (white) accountability, and I deserve to be held accountable for my actions. …

Earlier, instead of letting Rachael speak, the franchise sent out its white male star: Chris Harrison.

He was interviewed by former Bachelorette star Rachel Lindsay on Extra, and during that, repeatedly dismissed and excused what Rachael did.

From the start, Harrison furrowed his brow and put on his concerned face—he’s always been terrible at feigning concern—and leapt to Rachael’s defense. “We all need to have a little grace, a little understanding, a little compassion,” he insisted, lamenting “this judge/jury/executioner thing” over a “sorority party.”

“It’s unbelievably alarming to watch this,” he said about the reaction to the photos, not the events depicted in the photos.

HuffPost reporter Emma Gray tweeted that Chris Harrison “expresses more empathy for people who romanticize the confederacy than people who are harmed by white supremacy in this clip.”

Rachel Lindsay both fact-checked him (he tried to claim the photos were from five years ago, not 2018) and pushed back: “It’s not a good look,” she said.

That’s when Chris Harrison said one of the most galling things: “Is it a good look in 2018 or is not a good look in 2021? Because there’s a big difference.”

“It’s not a good look ever,” Rachel Lindsay replied, adding, “because she’s celebrating old South. If I went to that party, what would I represent at that party?

“You’re 100 percent right in 2021, but that wasn’t the case in 2018,” Chris Harrison said.

Did Chris Harrison learn about racism between 2018 and 2021? Did he just not pay attention in 2017? That’s when The Bachelorette starred Rachel Lindsay, its first Black lead, who had to deal with racism from both fans and the production, which cast someone with a history of racist social media posts and later used that to create drama.

So much of the interview is distressing, especially the way he refuses to actually listen to Rachel, but instead interrupts her and talks over her. What also stood out to me is how Chris Harrison bends over backwards to defend a racist event rather than even consider how people might be affected by that kind of racism.

“My guess? These girls got dressed up and went to a party and had a great time. They were 18 years old. Does that make it okay? I don’t know, Rachel, you tell me.”

No, Chris Harrison, a Black woman does not have to explain to you why it’s not okay that “girls” went to a party with a racist theme “and had a great time.”

For all of his talk later in the interview about learning and listening, he’s clearly learned nothing, and refuses to actually listen to Rachel.

He was the most visibly upset and emotional about the idea that anyone would criticize Rachael Kirkconnell’s behavior, referring to “woke police” and saying, “Who the hell are you?”

Perhaps realizing this wasn’t going well, he said, “People will watch this—and depending upon how it’s edited and how it’s cut—are going to have a serious opinion on how I’m speaking.” (To be concerned about the editing is so precious from a who hosts a show that has, for years, manipulated footage to craft fiction, like when it created a fictional a same-sex storyline.)

Why ‘casting for diversity is completely meaningless’ by itself

Besides Chris Harrison’s ignorance and racism, there’s something else that may have silently affected this interview. Spoiler alert: it’s that Rachael Kirkconnell is likely the woman Matt James chose, according to Reality Steve.

So yes, after it took The Bachelor 25 seasons to cast a Black man as its lead, he very well may have ended up choosing a woman who went to a party celebrating a time when Black people were treated as property.

Thus, Chris Harrison in that Extra interview is doing what he always does: defending the franchise. Here, he’s protecting the finale, by trying to shield Rachael from criticism, so the fans will love her when Matt chooses her.

This is what Chris Harrison does. He’s defended everything from the true love forged by couples on the show to the production’s alleged “safety and care of the cast,” a defense that came after Bachelor in Paradise was shut down after a cast member said she was sexually assaulted during filming.

Last Wednesday, Chris Harrison offered “a sincere apology” of in which he wrote, in part, “What I now realize I have done is cause harm by wrongly speaking in a manner that perpetuates racism” and also added, “I also apologize to my friend Rachel Lindsay for not listening to her better on a topic she has a first-hand understanding of.”

That was tremendously insufficient, which was made clear on Saturday afternoon, when Chris Harrison posted another statement that said he had “consulted with Warner Bros. and ABC and will be stepping aside for a period of time and will not join for the After the Final Rose special.”

He also wrote:

“By excusing historical racism, I defended it. I invoked the term ‘woke police,’ which is unacceptable. I am ashamed over how uninformed I was. I was so wrong.

To the Black community, to the BIPOC community: I am so sorry. My words were harmful. I am listening, and I truly apologize for my ignorance and any pain it caused you.”

It took him two statements to get to an actual apology and an actual acknowledgement of his own defense of racism.

But that’s just one reason why I’m suspicious of his words. Sure, this seems like progress, but is it?

The moderators of TheBachelor_POC, a Reddit forum dedicated to discussing the franchise, created a petition that begins with this:

Chris Harrison has a history of misogyny and racist behavior and racist-sympathizing behavior. 

It concludes with:

All this casting for diversity is completely meaningless unless you are willing to take out the consistently problematic person on this show, the face of the show, who will never take accountability for his actions. Remove Chris Harrison from the Bachelor Franchise, or we boycott the Bachelor for good. 

Update: This is not a petition for an apology. It’s a petition for a new host. 

I agree. His repulsive behavior during the interview with Rachel Lindsay alone is reason enough. But it’s also time for more than that.

Unlike Jeff Probst, Chris Harrison is not actually responsible for the contents of the shows he hosts. But even more than Probst and hosts of other shows, he’s constantly defending it. Whether he’s a self-appointed guardian or has been assigned the role of protector by Warner Bros. and ABC, he has taken on that role.

Firing him will not solve the show’s problems—and just replacing him as host for a reunion is the equivalent of doing nothing. It makes headlines, but results in no real change.

There are people inside advocating for this change. Last summer, Rachel Lindsay outlined four ways for the show to change, and last weekend, Pieper James, one of the cast members on The Bachelor 25, tweeted,

“Chris stepping aside is a step. However, I’m waiting to hear the systematic changes the franchise will be evoking to combat the tokenization of BIPOC individuals.”

The Bachelor has refused to do this for years, failing both its on-screen talent and its crew. Just read the open letter that casting producer Jazzy Collins posted last summer about her time working for The Bachelor franchise.

Collins discusses being “the only Black person in the casting office from when I was hired for casting the first season of a Black Bachelorette through the four seasons I worked on afterwards,” and says this is what happened:

Once I developed a voice for myself in the office to speak out on issues, I was hit with many microaggressions, including being called “aggressive.” I felt alone. While walking through the production and post offices, I only saw a total of three Black people. Soon after I left the show, I found out the only Black cast producer was also no longer with the team.

Your show has white-washed for decades, inside and out. Your head of post-production is white. Your Casting Director is white. Your Executive in Charge is white. You only cast the token Black person, Asian person or Latinx person to satisfy what you believe to be the needs of the viewers.

As a result of its failures, the franchise is losing one of its stars. On her podcast Higher Learning, Rachel Lindsay said she’ll no longer work with the franchise after her contract is up: “I’m fucking tired. I’m exhausted. I have truly had enough.”

That is completely understandable. It’s unfair for her to be the only one challenging the status quo from the inside.

On her podcast, Rachel also went into detail about her experience of the interview: “I have to stay calm, I cannot react, I cannot show emotion. And the reason is, once I do that, that is all people will see,” she said. “I will be angry, I will be aggressive, you will not hear what I’m saying.”

Rachel also had this to say about the franchise’s host and the interview:

“People go to him for his opinion on what’s going on within the franchise, for production and what’s happening with contestants. So if he’s speaking out in an interview, in this way, to discuss things related to the Bachelor franchise, then what does that really say about the franchise? What does the franchise really represent and mean, if this is your face, this is your spokesperson, and this is what he really feels?”

What it means to me is that The Bachelor is a franchise that is content with prioritizing and centering whiteness, as it did in both of the seasons to star Black people. It is but is also happy to both justify racism or use it as entertainment.

Toward the end of the Extra interview, Chris Harrison said that The Bachelor franchise “is not in the business of dealing with every problem you have.”

That is a clear, plain “fuck you” to the Black people that feel pain every time they see the photos of Rachael and her friends at that party, and every time they see a white host protecting a white cast member while ignoring everyone else.

But what Chris Harrison said is also, sadly, an accurate statement. The Bachelor franchise is in the business of appealing to its white audience to earn ratings and revenue for its production company, Warner Bros., and its network, ABC, which is owned by Disney.

This past fall, CBS committed to diversifying its reality show casts, but that’s the easy part. Diversifying a production, and addressing its systemic racism, is much more complicated. That takes work.

Is it work ABC and The Bachelor franchise will ever be committed to doing? Or is it just going to take the easy way out, as always?

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart

    Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

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