A Black Bachelorette is No Victory for Black Women

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by Mandy Harris-Williams

Last Monday, The Bachelorette premiered to 5.7 million viewers. This time, the bachelorette is Rachel Lindsey, a 31-year-old attorney from Dallas. She is the first black person in the role, and this change in tone interested around a million fewer viewers than the previous two season premieres.

Beyond the obvious elevation per grace and likability that Lindsey brings to the role of Bachelorette, many have hailed the casting as a necessary and important change in a show that has been too white and sometimes difficult for black viewers to stomach. But a Black Bachelorette is limited progress and the spoils go to white America.

I have always watched The Bachelor/ette with the same pro-Black competitive hope as I watch the Olympics. A mix of sociological, psychological, and personal curiosity. I want to see how many of us qualified, how we play the game, how we interact, and, ultimately, how we fare in the competition.

It must be mentioned that although the cast is far more diverse than every other season of the show, only 11 out of the 31 suitors in the first episode are Black. There’s a bit more representation from South Asian and East Asian men, but overall, only 14 out of those 31 suitors were discernibly ethnic, while two others looked like white guys, but spoke a different language at some point during the premiere.

The first night, Rachel sent 10% of white guys home, 0% of those who looked white, but spoke another language home, and 29% of the men of color home. Black and brown contestants are still dismissed with relative ease.

A Black Bachelorette is a victory for representation, but what good is representation itself in this scenario? In a Post-Obama era, having seen blacks ascend to the highest offices in the world, the highest platforms of representation possible, we should predict that Bachelorette uplift will be ineffective.
It may inspire some to see themselves as more deserving of fairy tale (read: fake) romance, and this might engender a sort of self esteem in some, I’d imagine, but it doesn’t do anything to combat white antagonism -- rather, it seems to do the opposite.

Representation stokes racist fires, but fails to push back the tide of material white privilege. Representation allows white people and white television networks to disburden themselves, to believe that their deeply embedded racism is absolved. And the representatives?  To presently observe the Obama’s shedding some of their previously obligatory conservativeness makes it apparent: the responsibility to represent can dull the shine of the individuals expected to carry the burden. Maybe that’s why Rachel tends to act a bit too polite at cloying, inappropriate code switches and attempts to appeal to her blackness. (One contestant told her he was “ready to go Black and never go back,” and she told him she liked it. Yuck!)

It will be a sick thrill, the type I expect from this show, as I watch who tries it and how Rachel responds. These shows are nasty in premise, and it makes for addicting entertainment. Much for the same reason I was thrilled to the point of shrieks at “Get Out,” The Bachelor/ette is socially horrifying.  Regular viewers of the show tend to take cast members with a dose of “would they do that if there weren’t all those cameras around?”  This season, the racial element has me questioning, “would they have done that if she weren’t black?” Like the seemingly caring elderly white ladies in the garden who admonish her: “don’t sleep with all of them.” Like the guy who tickles her within a minute of meeting. Like the freestyling outtakes. (Re-cringing at the thought!) Shallow representation brings these coarse attempts at managing difference to light, but it doesn’t offer outcomes that sustain uplift.

It is notable still that the show and it’s contestants struggle to establish strong interracial relationships. No Black person has been chosen as a winner on the show. And if that trend ends this year, it will, at best, prove (to whites who were previously unsure) that Black women are relatable, attractive and charming, and that they are able to identify a mate when provided a national team of casting directors, a multi-million dollar budget to spark romance, and the time and freedom to do so without other obligations. Most Black women don’t have access to these resources. This is the ultimate shortcoming of this particular representation: it’s unrealistic.  It is yet another confusing point in the constellation of messages that suggest how we should love black women.

Most fascinating is how the Black Bachelorette shows us that attraction is socially, politically and structurally determined. Put any one of the contestants in a room with Rachel among other (shades of) options and they might not even look her way. Place her as the central love interest and watch vanity and ego take over. Lest we forget, The Bachelor/ette is a competition as much as it is a matchmaking show. The contestants are there to find love, but this love is bungled up in spectacle, ego and temporary fame, in television’s patina of desire.

Rachel Lindsey, first black bachelorette represents progress for white people. They'll feel a bit more connected to blackness, and console themselves that like these representative good white people on the show, they too could date a black woman... one like Rachel at least. But this representation doesn't do much for black women. Black women, especially dark black women have a racialized un-desirability problem, not a romantic analysis problem. It's not that we're unable to select in a fantasy world where everybody sees us as attractive, worthy, marriage material and there's no competition for mates. It's that our race too frequently puts us at a disadvantage when there is. A truer indicator of race blind love will be when a person of color is chosen from a diverse pool of contestants, by a person who is not of that same race. But this consolation has its practical limitations as well. Anyways, it's unlikely that we’ll see it anytime soon --  I’ll hold my breath for the 43rd season.

Header photo courtesy of ABC

Mandy Harris-Williams is a writer, educator and artist living in LA. She writes at mandythinks.com.

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