The First African-American ‘Bachelorette,’ Rachel Lindsay, Has All Eyes on Her

Adding racial issues to a show already abundant in drama means Rachel must toe the line between entertainment and inspiration.

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Adding racial issues to a show already abundant in drama means Rachel must toe the line between entertainment and inspiration.

ABC’s “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” have terrible track records when it comes to racial diversity. In the two wildly successful shows’ combined thirty-two seasons, there has never been an African-American lead, and the casts of contestants rarely contain more than five people of color. Fortunately, that’s all changing this season, since the network named Rachel Lindsay as the first black Bachelorette. It’s progress, but not everyone is celebrating just yet.

Rachel is a thirty-one-year-old attorney who graduated from Marquette University and practices law in Dallas, Texas. Her intellect, self-confidence, and drama-free attitude made her a fan-favorite on Nick Viall’s season of “The Bachelor.”

Image via ETV

Race was a topic broached with trepidation on Nick’s season—it was largely ignored save for Rachel and her family asking Nick if he had ever dated a black woman. So, many people didn’t know what to expect when Rachel was cast as the next Bachelorette. Would race be discussed openly, or swept under the rug?

Even before the season began, concerns about the show’s racial dynamics were raised. On “After the Final Rose,” the reunion show after Nick’s season, Rachel met four of her future suitors, and it was…weird. A baby-faced, innocent-looking guy named Dean made viewers spit out their rosé when he said, “I’m ready to go black and never go back.”

Dean’s awkward proclamation seemed to confirm many viewers’ fears that Rachel would be fetishized by white contestants. If Dean’s declaration was shocking, Rachel telling him that she actually loved it on last Monday’s episode was even more so.

It is apparent that Rachel is prepared to laugh off racially insensitive comments like Dean’s, which suggests that the network is looking to keep discussions of race casual and playful. In a recent “New York Times” article, Jenna Wortham notes that “Rachel seems to understand that all eyes are on her, to see how she handles these offenses and light racism and the idiocy of the contestants. She seems to know that she has to go high when they go low, lest she fall into the trope of an angry black woman.”

Rachel is choosing to gracefully brush off microaggressions this season, but that doesn’t mean she’ll put up with anything. On the second episode of the season, Rachel let her litigator flag fly when a woman crashed a group date claiming to be the girlfriend of a contestant named DeMario. Rachel kept her cool while listening to the woman’s claims, opted to confront DeMario about the situation immediately, and even gave him the opportunity to defend himself.

DeMario lied through his teeth about the mystery woman, but his gas-lighting was ineffective on such an intelligent, self-assured woman as Rachel. She sent him packing faster than he could say “I’m here for the right reasons.”

Rachel talks to DeMario’s girlfriend (image via Elite Daily)

Apparently, Rachel has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to BS, which is both refreshing and empowering. Instead of letting DeMario linger, she hoped to nip the conflict in the bud and move on. Rachel says, “I’m not here to get played, so you need to get the fuck out.” Rachel’s iconic GTFO resounded through the Twitterverse that night, and set the tone for the rest of the season. While letting the other contestants know that she is ready to lay down the law, Rachel also let the producers and the country know that she won’t stand to be manipulated for the sake of ratings.

Unfortunately, Rachel’s no-BS policy is likely to be tested many times throughout the season, since producers have filled the Bachelor Mansion with unbelievably problematic men. On Wednesday, “Huffington Post” journalists Emma Gray and Claire Fallon dug up some of contestant Lee Garrett’s not-so-old tweets that are problematic to say the very least. Lee tweeted about feminists being ugly, the NAACP and BLM being “as racist as the KKK” and several Islamophobic and homophobic remarks to boot.

The fact that bigots like Lee Garrett exist is not news to anybody, but the fact that such a man was hired to court the “Bachelorette” franchise’s first African-American lead is another story. When Lee’s sentiments were revealed, “Bachelorette” fans and critics alike were outraged that Rachel, since she is disconnected from social media during filming and therefore unaware of the tweets, would have to unknowingly flirt with an unapologetic racist.

Contestants are often selected because they have skeletons in their Calvin Klein-filled closets that make for great TV. Yes, it’s manipulative, but the bombshells are usually relatively innocuous: jilted ex-girlfriends, secret showbiz ambitions and the like. Casting a man who publicly touts his racist, sexist, Islamophobic and homophobic opinions in hopes of an on-camera fight is a different matter entirely.

Sure, every season needs a villain to cause drama (remember Chad?), but the skeletons in this guy’s closet are far more dangerous than a short temper and a protein addiction. Lee’s racism will potentially cause Rachel and other people of color on the show significant harm. ABC needs to answer to the fact that the producers endangered and insulted Rachel for the sake of drumming up television drama.

image via streetlevelpundit.ca

Since this season is the most diverse by far, and since Rachel is the first black woman to lead “The Bachelorette,” there will be many opportunities for discussions of race and interracial dating; how these issues are handled will reveal a lot about the state of pop culture and the TV industry.

ABC’s choice to diversify is a step in the right direction, but only time will tell if the network will handle the issue with respect and sensitivity, or exploit it for ratings. There will surely be awkward and problematic moments, but the best-case scenario is that Rachel emerges happy and unscathed and that the “Bachelorette” franchise will continue to earnestly pursue diversity. Rachel’s ability to go high when her suitors and the producers go low will make this season both empowering and educational.

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