An "Uncomfortable" Conversation: 'The Bachelor' Finale Confronts Franchise Race Problem

Bachelor ilo March 11
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[This story contains spoilers from The Bachelor season 25 season finale.]

If the past two months are any indication, The Bachelor franchise has a lot of work to do.

A Bachelor contestant's racially insensitive past and franchise host Chris Harrison's failure to denounce those allegations of racism spiraled into a brewing controversy for the long-running ABC reality dating show. The series of events, which first kicked off with a Feb. 9 interview between Harrison and Bachelorette alum Rachel Lindsay, has put renewed focus on the Warner Horizon-produced series to address what many believe to be systemic problems for people of color when it comes to inclusivity and representation on the show.

On Monday night, the franchise took a step in confronting that criticism on a televised stage. The Bachelor: After the Final Rose finale special, which aired following the two-hour ending to Matt James' season, saw Emmanuel Acho "sitting in" for Harrison to host what was promised to be an "uncomfortable" conversation. Indeed, the contestant whose past behavior had been called into question — Rachael Kirkconnell — went on to win the season, it was revealed on Monday night. In light of that new information, The New York Times best-selling author and host of Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man focused on the off-screen developments that have taken hold of the season.

"There's a lot to talk about, especially after racially insensitive images surfaced from Rachael Kirkconnell's past. And we certainly have to address Chris Harrison's defense of insensitivity in his interview with Rachel Lindsay, for which he has since apologized," said Acho when taking the Bachelor stage. "Now, some of these conversations here tonight might make people a little uncomfortable. And they won't be easy. But my hope is that if we can talk openly and honestly, we can take important steps toward mutual understanding and healing."

Bachelor Nation had huge expectations for the March 15 finale special ever since Acho was brought in to fill Harrison's shoes. Following backlash over Harrison's widely condemned interview with Extra correspondent and first Black Bachelorette Lindsay — where he defended Kirkconnell — the host and producer announced in February that he was stepping away from the franchise and would not be involved in the rest of James' season. Only the taping of the After the Final Rose remained, and Acho provided an opportunity to have an authentic on-air conversation about race.

"I walk around realizing I might be the only Black man that this person comes in contact with today, so let me do my best job to adequately represent Black men across the country," Acho said when asking James about the weight he has carried as the first Black Bachelor during a time of cultural reckoning. "It's what we're conditioned to do as Black men — making people comfortable with your Blackness. Going above and beyond to show that in stature and in personality, you're not as threatening as you come off as, and those are the types of things that I was thinking about," James replied.

Harrison still had a presence over the After the Final Rose, as he was heard in voiceover teasing the Acho-led special during commercial breaks. ABC had aired a disclaimer before the Harrison-hosted The Bachelor: The Women Tell All episode aired on March 1, noting that it was recorded before he stepped aside. Otherwise, the pre-taped season has aired as planned and with Harrison appearing as host. On the pre-taped finale, he appeared several times as James talked through his hesitations about proposing. "At the beginning of this journey, I envisioned and imagined my spirits being different in this moment," James had concluded before deciding to pursue a relationship, but not an engagement, with Kirkconnell.

During the After the Final Rose, the franchise officially set its plans for the near future. Instead of taking a beat to address the criticism, as Lindsay has publicly suggested, the Mike Fleiss-created series is doubling down on two seasons of The Bachelorette. The 17th season will air in the summer with Katie Thurston, a standout contestant from James' season, and cycle 18 will premiere in the fall with Michelle Young, James' fan-favorite runner-up. The move marks the first time the franchise will air two Bachelorette seasons in one calendar year.

Young and Thurston briefly took the stage for their double reveal. Moments earlier, Young had reunited with James for the first time since he broke her heart. After revealing that he had denied her an off-camera conversation to get closure, she told him: "I completely crumbled. I had to fill in the gaps of what our relationship really was. And, I wasn't okay. It was a conversation so that I could have my inner peace when I left Pennsylvania and you said no."

Young then weighed in on what it was like to watch the drama unfold surrounding Kirkconnell. "As more and more information started to come out, I started to feel hurt by what I was seeing," she said of behavior that included James' winner attending an antebellum plantation-themed college party in 2018. "That was a prime example of not understanding the history behind it, not being educated enough on what that actually meant, what her actions actually meant; how we see it. I feel like Rachael has a good heart. But I think there's a lot of learning. It comes off very inconsiderate." As for Harrison's defense of Kirkconnell, she called his comments "another weight that was added onto the already really difficult feelings. All of these issues that everyone is talking around, addressing and apologizing, making statements but not actually changing anything. There's a point where you are so exhausted."

ABC and Warners had announced on the Friday before the Bachelor finale that former Bachelorettes Tayshia Adams, from the most recent season 16, and Kaitlyn Bristowe, from cycle 11, will be sharing the Bachelorette's hosting duties in Harrison's continued absence. In their statement, the network and producers were clear to note that the pair would "support the new Bachelorette through next season" and not as co-hosts. Multiple sources have told The Hollywood Reporter that an official decision about Harrison's future as the face of the franchise has yet to be made. (He also said he "plans to be back" in his first interview post-scandal.)

With the franchise full steam ahead on the Bachelorette seasons (there is no official word yet on summer show Bachelor in Paradise), ABC and Warners had finally addressed the ongoing controversy and, specifically, the renewed criticism over a lack of diversity among the decision-makers of the hit franchise. "As we continue the dialogue around achieving greater equity and inclusion within The Bachelor franchise, we are dedicated to improving the BIPOC representation of our crew, including among the executive producer ranks," read Friday's statement, in part.

With production already underway on Thurston's season of The Bachelorette, as THR has reported, one over-arching question did not get addressed on After the Final Rose: How much work can be done in the quick turnaround?

Instead, Acho narrowed down to James and his winner amid a historic turn that has been overshadowed. In a rare statement, James had spoken out while his season was airing to say that the postseason developments surrounding Kirkconnell had caused him to "reevaluate and process what his experience on The Bachelor represents" as the first-ever Black male lead. After the March 9 episode, he again spoke out about a conversation that aired with his estranged father to say it perpetuated "dangerous stereotypes and negative depictions of Black fathers in media." The After the Final Rose was filmed before that episode aired, but after James had previewed the show, according to multiple sources. (Lindsay has said James was "uncomfortable" with it airing; ABC and Warners have not commented.)

On Monday night, James' serious and sullen appearance was a reminder that, no matter how big The Bachelor drama gets, he remains at the center of it. Before confronting Kirkconnell on After the Final Rose, he told Acho that they enjoyed a brief honeymoon period before the revelations came out. Unable to get past the fact that his girlfriend didn't "understand that something like that is problematic in 2018," however, James revealed to Acho that he needed to take a step back from their relationship so he could give her time on her own to put in the work she promised to do in her apology. They remain broken up today.

"While all this controversy is swirling around who Rachael is and things she might have attended, pictures that she's liked, people she's associated with... before Rachael addressed anything or Chris Harrison spoke on anything, I'm trying to be there for her," James recalled. "And I dismissed them as rumors, because that's what they were to me. You hear things that are heartbreaking and you just pray they're not true. And then when you find out that they are, it just makes you question everything."

He explained, "As someone who grew up in the South, it takes me to a place that I often try not to think about. Events, people, places that I'm not welcome. When she spoke out and publicly acknowledged that she would do better and apologized is when I was finally able to check on myself and see where I was at. And, I wasn't okay. It was in that moment, and the conversation that I had, that [I realized] Rachael might not understand what it means to be Black in America."

During her time in the hot seat, Kirkconnell said she was "living in this ignorance, never thinking about who she might be hurting." Acho noted that her behavior was racially insensitive and racially ignorant and, while it plays itself out as racism, that doesn't necessarily classify someone as racist. "I wanted, myself, to understand exactly why people were so hurt by this," she said about why she waited several weeks before speaking out. "I didn't think about [the photos coming out] because at that point, it was just me taking some photos with my friends and I didn't think anything of it. I didn't think of the trauma that it would cause."

When the pair finally sat side by side, Kirkconnell apologized to James for hurting him. Amid long pauses, James responded, "It's heartbreaking. And it's devastating. It's just disappointing." He buried his head and fought back tears: "The most disappointing thing for me was having to explain to you why what I saw was problematic and why I was so upset. When I questioned our relationship, it was in the context of you not fully understanding my Blackness and what it means to be a Black man in America, and what it would mean for our kids when I saw those things that were floating around on the Internet. And it broke my heart because this was the last conversation I thought we'd be having."

He added, "I didn't sign up to have this conversation."

Aside from an appearance on ABC News' Good Morning America on Tuesday morning, James will be following in 2020 Bachelor Peter Weber's footsteps and opting out of the usual post-finale press rounds. Weber's finale was also tense, as his family didn't approve of his decision, and he and his winner split shortly after their live season ender. Weber's season marked the third consecutive cycle to not end with an engagement — a trend that James renewed on Monday.

When speaking to Michael Strahan on GMA, James applauded the changes being made behind the scenes after his experience, including the appointment of Adams and Bristowe: "I think that as the love stories become more diverse, the people that tell them should become just as diverse. There’s way more qualified women and men of color that can step in and fill those roles, and I’m excited to see the institutional change take place."

Ultimately, the responsibility of fixing the franchise does not rest on James' shoulders — nor does it reside with Acho. Missing from the After the Final Rose was representation from the decision-makers on how the forthcoming seasons will respond to the problems that have been brought to light, first in wake of the 2020 national racial reckoning, and now, again, concurrently with the historic Bachelor run.

Since the firestorm first erupted, the executive producers have released one official statement to denounce racism and support Lindsay, who had been on the receiving end of severe online bullying amid the fallout from her Harrison interview. Lindsay continues to work with the franchise with her Bachelor Nation podcast, Bachelor Happy Hour but has distanced herself from the reality series that she led in 2017 since being forced into the eye of the storm; she was absent from the March 2, 9 and 16 episodes of Bachelor Happy Hour and has been taking to her other show on The Ringer, Higher Learning with Van Lathan, to discuss her thoughts on the franchise as a whole. (Immediately after her interview with Harrison, Lindsay suggested she was ready to quit the franchise when her contract expires.)

Acho had been publicly suggested by Lindsay before he was tapped to host the March 15 special. After his selection, Lindsay had noted the following on Higher Learning: "How do you say you have a racist problem or racist issue without saying you have a racist issue? You bring in Emmanuel Acho to host the finale. You bring in the man who has these uncomfortable conversations — you’re not saying it, yet you’re bringing somebody in who has built an entire brand to rectify, or attempt to, or explain the issue when it involves racism."

In closing out the After the Final Rose, Acho summed up, "It's been an honor to help navigate these uncomfortable but important conversations."