The Subtle (and Not So Subtle) Racism of The Bachelor

The main theme of the third week of Ben Higgin’s season of the The Bachelor — aired on the observation of Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday — seemed to be not love, but racism. The racism of the female participants, of the show’s producers and of us, the viewers.

The Bachelor/ette franchise has long been accused of racism for a lack of diversity among the contestants and their failure to feature someone non-white in the role of main catch. The show was even sued over it in 2012. Though the case was dismissed, it did seem to spur a slight increase in diversity, with Sean Lowe’s 2013 season seeing a record-breaking 6 non-white contestants. But let’s not pat the producers on the back too much: in Chris Soules’ 2015 season, there was only one non-white contestant; and the only non-Caucasian to ever be featured in either the role of Bachelor or Bachelorette was Juan “I’m not a Caucasian but I play one on TV” Pablo in 2014.

The current season has about four contestants that aren’t 100% white. As usual, the majority of them are light-skinned and/or ethnically vague. The only outlier is Jubilee Sharpe, a U.S. Army veteran with dark skin (or at least, dark for The Bachelor), tattoos, and long fake nails that defy the expected beauty standards of contestants. She’s also failed to follow the expected script of a Bachelor-smitten fembot by playing coy with Ben in front of the other women and jokingly asking if anyone would like to take her place on their coveted one-on-one date since it involved a helicopter and she’s afraid of heights.

There’s always a “villain” the people living in the mansion gang up on, but it’s usually for some truly “vil” behavior, like using the show purely for personal career enhancement, having a lover back home, or displaying a disturbing Jekyll & Hyde personality. But Jubilee simply failed to fall in line with what a Bachelor contestant is “supposed” to be: stylistically glamorous (but not too sexual), overly serious about the process, demure and, if not white, then white-seeming. Jubilee wears lots of makeup and plunging necklines, she gives Ben shit, she was a freakin’ war veteran and, yes, she’s black. The assumption by many is that women like her are mere tokens on the show, filling a quota; they’re not supposed to get the one-on-one date the third week in: group dates only. (Even Charles Barkley, when discussing the possibility of the Lakers beating the Warriors, said recently, “They’re like the black girl on The Bachelor — they’ve got no chance.”) The majority of Jubilee’s fellow contestants were shocked — indeed, horrified — that Jubilee returned from her date with Ben with a rose, instead of being sent packing. The pretense was her “disrespectful” attitude toward her precious date with Ben, but the subtext seemed to be the fact that she’s not like the other girls — in many ways, but mostly in skin color. (Many white women on previous seasons who don’t fit the majority mold are gossiped about and often excluded, but Jubilee’s alienation seemed excessive and extreme, even for The Bachelor.)

Similarly, while Jubilee did break the cardinal rule of not taking time with him during a cocktail party when she already had a rose (everyone breaks that rule), the amount that the women ganged up on her post-date, both before and during the cocktail party, seemed much greater and much sooner than usual when it comes to typical Bachelor targets. Everyone seemed to have something to say behind her back. When she joined a small group asking what’s up, a few members of the group walked away without a word. A catty mob even formed during the cocktail party to try to stage an intervention with her for her perceived inappropriateness. They drove her to hideout in a bathroom and then blamed her for taking even more time with Ben when he went to see what was wrong!

It’s easy to sit on our couches and blame these women for acting horribly toward someone simply for being different in the homogenous world of The Bachelor. But how many of us white girls (the vast majority of the Bachelor-watching public), before last night, believed that Jubilee had a real shot? How many of us were surprised by her sensitivity, and by how well she and Ben seemed to get along? The blatant racism on display in The Bachelor might help us come to terms with the internal racism most of us carry around without even realizing it.

On “The Bachelor Live” episode right after the main show, one-time Bachelor Jason Mesnick said he thought Jubilee should be the next Bachelorette. Mike Fleiss, the creator of the show, recently told Us Weekly that the next season of the reality series will likely feature a woman of color. But chances are it won’t be Jubilee — either because spoilers suggest she won’t stay in the game long enough to qualify or because the powers that be feel the world isn’t ready for a darker-skinned Bachelorette. Even a little diversity in the next Bachelorette would better than more of the same-old same-old, but after 14 years in business, The Bachelor/ette franchise should be taking more than just baby steps by now.

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