Now, with several episodes remaining in the season, the “Bachelor” himself has weighed in. In his most critical comments yet, Matt James wrote that the franchise had “fallen short” in its handling of race. He described the photos as “incredibly disappointing” and host Chris Harrison’s actions as a “failure.” He added that the last few weeks “have been some of the most challenging of my life.”
“This moment has sparked critical conversations and reporting, raised important questions, and resulted in inspiring displays of solidarity from The Bachelor nation,” James, 29, wrote Monday in a statement on his Instagram account. “It has also pushed me to reevaluate and process what my experience on The Bachelor represents, not just for me, but for all of the contestants of color, especially the Black contestants of this season and seasons past, and for you, the viewers at home.”
“Bachelor” stars rarely criticize the show while their seasons are underway. Before Monday, James had steered clear of outright criticism; responding to the appearance of the antebellum party photos, he told “Entertainment Tonight,” “Rumors are dark and nasty and can ruin people’s lives. So I would give people the benefit of the doubt.”
The ABC series has long been faulted for issues with race and representation. Two Black men who auditioned for the show filed a class-action racial discrimination lawsuit against ABC and Warner Horizon Television in 2012, alleging that people of color were not given the same consideration as others. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed; the show cast its first Latino star the following year.
The first Black “Bachelorette,” Rachel Lindsay, arrived in 2017, but her season was not without problems. One of the contestants had a history of racist tweets and accused a Black contestant, whom he labeled “aggressive,” of “playing the race card.”
Lindsay has frequently spoken out about the franchise’s difficulties with diversity and “problematic story lines for people of color.”
The firestorm over the current season began last month, when the antebellum party pictures were shared online. The photos were from a 2018 fraternity party contestant Rachael Kirkconnell attended while in college. The 24-year-old Atlanta native, an early favorite for James, later apologized, writing in an Instagram statement, “I was ignorant, but my ignorance was racist.”
By then, though, the controversy had grown because of Harrison’s comments. On Feb. 9, a day before Kirkconnell posted her apology, Harrison gave an interview to Lindsay, now a correspondent for “Extra.” He told her: “The woke police is out there, and this poor girl Rachael has just been thrown to the lions.” Watching people “tearing this girl’s life apart,” he added, was “unbelievably alarming.” He issued an apology the next day.
In his Monday statement, James noted he is “learning about these situations in real time, and it has been devastating and heartbreaking to put it bluntly.”
“Chris’s failure to receive and understand the emotional labor that my friend Rachel Lindsay was taking on by graciously and patiently explaining the racist history of the Antebellum South, a painful history that every American should understand intimately, was troubling and painful to watch,” he added. “As Black people and allies immediately knew and understood, it was a clear reflection of a much larger issue that The Bachelor franchise has fallen short on addressing adequately for years.”
James’s turn as Bachelor isn’t over yet. In the episodes that have yet to air, Kirkconnell is one of just three contestants remaining, and Harrison still appears as host, despite now having stepped back. This makes watching the show “weird,” tweeted “Bachelor” blogger and spoiler Reality Steve, who added: “Nothing about any of these storylines are relevant anymore, knowing what we know now.”
For his part, James said he’s still processing his experience with the show.
“My greatest prayer,” he wrote at the end of his statement, “is that this is an inflection point that results in real and institutional change for the better.”