'The Bachelor' Frontrunner on Problematic Past: "My Ignorance Was Racist"

Courtesy of Craig Sjodin/ABC

'Bachelor' Matt James with contestant Rachael Kirkconnell

Rachael Kirkconnell, who has emerged as a frontrunner on ABC's historic season of The Bachelor, is addressing her problematic recent past.

"I'm here to say I was wrong," said the Georgia native in an Instagram post on Thursday night. "I was ignorant, but my ignorance was racist."

The statement comes amid the franchise's latest social media controversy. After The Bachelor premiered in early January, questions over Kirkconnell's racially insensitive behavior began to circulate when a viral TikTok purported to reveal a social media footprint that includes "liking" posts containing the Confederate flag and sharing QAnon conspiracy theories. Then, over the weekend, resurfaced photos on Reddit appeared to show Kirkconnell, who is now 24, attending an "Old South" plantation-themed college party in 2018. None of the posts had been verified, until now.

"At one point, I didn't recognize how offensive and racist my actions were, but that doesn't excuse them," says the reality contestant, who is still competing for the heart of the franchise's first-ever Black Bachelor, Matt James.

In her statement, she apologized to the communities and individuals who were harmed by her actions and said she is "ashamed about my lack of education," noting that she is "learning and will continue to learn how to be antiracist."

Acknowledging how viewers must be "sick" of seeing the current wave of embattled public figures releasing apology statements, Kirkconnell said, "I want to put my energy towards preventing people from making the same offensive mistakes that I made in the first place, and I hope I can prove this to you moving forward."

She added, "I don't think one apology means that I deserve your forgiveness, but rather I hope I can earn your forgiveness through my future actions." (Read her statement in full.)

Kirkconnell, a 24-year-old graphic designer, is the first and only contestant so far to tell James that she is falling in love with him and have it be reciprocated by the Bachelor star. The conversation took place on the Feb. 1 episode, which was about halfway through the currently airing season, and after she went on what has been dubbed the "Pretty Woman date" among franchise viewers. The date, which features the star taking a contestant on a shopping spree, usually happens once a season and is often a precursor for a contestant making it far in the reality dating competition. Host Chris Harrison also confirmed that Kirkconnell was not at the recently taped Women Tell All reunion show, which features memorable contestants who are not finalists and airs ahead of the finale.

James is the franchise's first Black Bachelor in 25 seasons, a move that has been celebrated after years of fan outcry for the franchise to diversify its majority-white show, starting with casting more leads of color.

After announcing James as the star amid 2020's racial reckoning and nationwide Black Lives Matter movement, the ABC and Warner Bros. TV franchise diversified behind the scenes by hiring more producers of color and bringing in a diversity team to work with the cast and talent, and debuted the most diverse cast in history with James' current contestants.

For his part, James has been open about being interested in women of all races when speaking about his cast, and discussed on-air the pressure he feels to please both Black and white audiences as a biracial star. When asked about Kirkconnell when the social media controversy began to emerge, he asked viewers to give her the benefit of the doubt. "I have not spoken to anybody since the show ended, but I would say that you have to be really careful about what you are doing on social media," the Bachelor told Entertainment Tonight early last week, and before the "Old South" photos emerged. "Rumors are dark and nasty and can ruin people's lives. So I would give people the benefit of the doubt, and hopefully she will have her time to speak on that."

Harrison similarly defended Kirkconnell during an interview with former Bachelorette star Rachel Lindsay on Tuesday, but apologized for his comments after receiving backlash for not condemning her behavior.

"I have this incredible platform to speak about love, and yesterday I took a stance on topics about which I should have been better informed. While I do not speak for Rachael Kirkconnell, my intentions were simply to ask for grace in offering her an opportunity to speak on her own behalf," he wrote. "What I now realize I have done is cause harm by wrongly speaking in a manner that perpetuates racism, and for that I am so deeply sorry. I also apologize to my friend Rachel Lindsay for not listening to her better on a topic she has a first-hand understanding of, and humbly thank the members of Bachelor Nation who have reached out to me to hold me accountable. I promise to do better."

Shortly after Kirkconnell posted her statement on Thursday night, she shared a joint statement from the cast of season 25 that denounced any defense of racism. Kirkconnell was among several of James' contestants who shared the statement, posting it on her Instagram Stories followed by a note stating that her apology is for the people of color that she offended.

"We are the women of Bachelor Season 25. Twenty-five women who identify as BIPOC were cast on this historic season that was meant to represent change," the cast statement began. "We are deeply disappointed and want to make it clear that we denounce any defense of racism. Any defense of racist behavior denies the lived and continued experiences of BIPOC individuals. These experiences are not to be exploited or tokenized."

The statement continued by emphasizing that the women of James' season stand by Lindsay following her interview with Harrison. The women quoted the franchise host, as he had asked for viewers to give Kirkconnell "a little grace, a little understanding, a little compassion" before she had spoken out during the 13-minute interview. "Rachel Lindsay continues to advocate with 'grace' for individuals who identify as BIPOC within this franchise. Just because she is speaking the loudest, doesn't mean she is alone. We stand with her, we hear her, and we advocate for change alongside her," the statement concluded.

Lindsay shared the statement on her Instagram Stories and thanked the women. "This is everything," she wrote. "This truly moved me. Thank you ladies."

The Hollywood Reporter has reached out to ABC and Warner Bros. TV for comment on the cast statement.

Lindsay, who co-hosts a Bachelor Nation podcast with fellow former Bachelorette Becca Kufrin called Bachelor Happy Hour, addressed her interview with Harrison at length during an episode of her non-franchise supported podcast for The Ringer called Higher Learning. The podcast episode released late Thursday night, but had been recorded just as Kirkconnell was releasing her statement.

During the episode, Lindsay explained to her co-host Van Lathan that she has "truly had enough" and that the franchise has a race problem. "How much more do I want to be affiliated with this? How much more do I want to take of this?" noted Lindsay. "I already said I was going to leave if they didn't have more leads of color. OK, they did that and they made some other changes. They hired a diversity consultant. Who didn't attend the class? Did Chris Harrison not sit through that? I'm confused as to how you could have [consultants] working for you, yet what just happened, happens. So, are people going through training? Are they learning things? Or are they just being protected from what we just saw this week? I can't take it anymore. I'm contractually bound in some ways, but when it's up ... I can't. I can't do it anymore."

She then added, "The Bachelor franchise has a race problem. And if you didn't think it before, or you thought it was over because there was a Matt James, there was a [Bachelorette] Tayshia Adams, there was a [Bachelorette winner] Dale Moss, there's a diversity team working with them — if you thought that meant it was over, please go to Extra's YouTube page and watch the full interview with Chris Harrison. It is not edited; we played it in full."

Reacting to Kirkconnell's statement in real time, she said, "An apology is a baby step in the right direction, but it's just an apology. I'm holding you to it." She noted, however, that her apology is late, and questioned why she hadn't spoken out sooner, clarifying that the franchise has no control over contestants making statements on social media.

James' cycle isn't the first to be hit with problematic contestants. The Bachelorette's 2018 winner, Garrett Yrigoyen, found himself under fire over offensive Instagram activity early on in his season. The controversy ended up trailing him until the finale, where he got engaged to star Becca Kufrin; the pair split in 2020. There were also a handful of suitors who were called out in the #MeToo era and a contestant from Lindsay's historic season who had racist tweets exposed while competing on the show. All of the major incidents were revealed after filming had wrapped and did not impact the pre-taped show; some addressed the controversies in live tapings around the finale.

Heading into the 2019 cycles, the franchise had evolved its vetting process by improving the show's background checks and more closely monitoring contestants' social media. In the past few cycles, the franchise has even released the names of the contestants early in hopes of bringing any offensive or questionable candidates to light early on.

Kirkconnell's apology comes amid a slew of public figures releasing apology statements over offensive behavior, with many seeing swift consequences for their actions. That includes The Mandalorian star Gina Carano, who was fired from the Disney+ series over offensive comments made on social media. In addition to Carano, Disney also famously fired Roseanne Barr from her ABC comedy following a racist tweet.

On Friday, the cast of the 2020 season of The Bachelorette joined James’ women and released their own joint statement, which was shared by several of the former contestants on their social media. Some tagged the franchise profiles.

“As members of Season 16 of The Bachelorette, it is important that we acknowledge where we stand at this time,” read the statement, which was signed jointly by the cast from Clare Crawley and Adams’ season. “We had the opportunity to be a part of one of the most diverse casts in the history of the franchise. The addition of more people who identify as BIPOC has opened up the conversation on race, community, and who we are as people. A conversation that has been long overdue.”

They continued, “We stand united in denouncing any racist behavior and any defense thereof. We also stand united with the women of Season 25 of The Bachelor, who have denounced the same; moreover, we stand united with Rachel Lindsay, who has led the way.”

Feb. 11, 8:35 p.m. Updated to include the season 25 cast statement.

Feb. 12, 5:55 a.m. Updated to include quotes from Lindsay's Higher Learning podcast.

Feb. 12, 8:30 a.m. Updated to include The Bachelorette cast statement.