This story was updated on February 11.
On Wednesday, February 10, The Bachelor host Chris Harrison came under social media fire for a 13-minute interview he gave to Extra and former Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay. The conversation centered around Rachael Kirkconnell, one of the leading contestants for the heart of Matt James on the 2021 Bachelor. Since the twenty-fifth season of the ABC reality show began, internet detectives found images of Kirkconnell at racist parties — including an “Old South” “celebration” — and wearing culturally appropriative “costumes.”
During the Extra interview, Harrison defends 24-year-old Kirkconnell, calling her a “girl,” and claiming “50 million” Americans recently frequented parties similar to the one Kirkconnell attended, among many, many other offensive statements. A Change.org petition calling for Harrison's removal as host of Bachelor Nation properties over his behavior had more than 20,000 signatures at publishing time. On Wednesday night, Harrison issued what he described as an “apology.”
“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,” Harrison wrote. “What I now realize I have done is cause harm for wrongly speaking in a manner that perpetuates racism, and for that I am so deeply sorry.”
Keep reading to see Harrison's initial interview and understand the full context of his comments — and the Rachael Kirkconnell controversy.
This story was originally published on February 10 at 4:20 p.m. ET
If you frequent certain pockets of Bachelor Nation fandom, you’ve known about the brewing controversy around 2021 Bachelor front runner Rachael Kirkconnell for weeks. The conversation around Kirkconnell — who is competing for the heart of the first Black Bachelor, Matt James — began in early January when a TikTok user claimed that Kirkconnell “bullied her in high school for liking Black guys.”
While this racist allegation is still unverified, Bachelor sleuths started looking into Kirkconnell’s past (and recent social media behavior). They learned that Kirkconnell went to an “Old South” plantation “themed” party in 2018, posted a photo of herself and her friends in culturally appropriative costumes as recently as June 2020 (mere months before Bachelor filming began), and comes from a family that donated to a fundraising platform dedicated to reelecting known white supremacist Donald Trump, among other offensive details.
As upsetting information about Kirkconnell continues to spill out on social media, many have wondered when she would respond to these many racist allegations. As of publishing time, Kirkconnell has not answered the call. However, Kirkconnell’s silence hasn't prevented the ostensible leader of the Bachelor Nation machine from jumping into high gear to defend her.
On Wednesday, February 9, Extra posted a 13-minute interview with The Bachelor (and Bachelorette, Bachelor in Paradise, and Listen to Your Heart) host/executive producer Chris Harrison about the Kirkconnell controversy. Rachel Lindsay, the first Black Bachelorette and now an Extra host, shouldered yet another difficult conversation about racism in the often-troubled franchise by leading the interview. Harrison immediately works to downplay the seriousness of what is being said about Kirkconnel, whom he eventually calls “this poor girl.”
“I saw a picture of her at a sorority party five years ago,” Harrison says in the first 45 seconds of the video.
Kirkconnel was not at some silly “sorority party,” as Harrison suggests. She attended the “Old South” party thrown by Kappa Alpha Order at her school, Georgia College & State University. Kappa Alpha Order has known core ties to the KKK and credits Robert E. Lee as its “spiritual founder.” And, the photos in question were not taken “five” long years ago, as Harrison says. The “Old South” photos were captured less than three years ago, in 2018. And, considering when The Bachelor filmed — the fall and winter of 2020 — Kirkconnell attended the offensive “party” just two years before starting to date the first Black Bachelor.
Harrison’s entire argument is hinged on the idea that 2018 — the year "Shallow" dominated the radio — was an extremely long time ago and cultural conversations around obvious racism like pro-plantation bashes were markedly different. “Is it [not] a good look in 2018. Or is it not a good look in 2021?” Harrison asks Lindsay. “Because there’s a big difference.” When Lindsay asks “what she would represent” at that party, Harrison placates her in a minimizing manner, saying, “You’re 100% right in 2021. That was not the case in 2018.”
With his upsetting defense, Harrison implies that Lindsay would not have felt uncomfortable at a party where men were dressed as slave owners in 2018 — or, that the average person wouldn’t have found an issue with such a horrible scene. Harrison continues to empathize with Kirkconnell, who would have been about 22 at the time of the party.
“Would this girl, at, I don’t know how old she would have been back then, have thought, ‘You know, historically, this mansion stood for this. Guys it’s not really that woke that we’re here,'” he says mockingly. “Now, does that make it okay? I don’t know, Rachael. You tell me. But where is this lens we’re holding up and was that lens available and were we all looking through it in 2018?”
While Lindsay oddly agrees that “we” “weren’t” looking through the world with a critical lens about racism by 2018, it’s an indisputably incorrect statement. In terms of simple Bachelor Nation history, Lindsay’s own season of The Bachelorette came under fire for allowing a vocal racist on the first Black Bachelorette’s journey for love. Lindsay was the Bachelorette in 2017. As the 2018 Bachelorette aired, eventual winner Garrett Yrigoyen was forced to apologize for multiple hateful social media likes. Megyn Kelly lost her job on the Today Show over blackface comments in 2018. Wedding sites were begging people not to host their weddings on plantations in 2018. By 2019, photos of Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds’ 2012 wedding on a plantation were banned from Pinterest; the couple apologized for the wedding in 2020.
Beyond wider culture discourse, Kappa Alpha Order itself has recognized the DNA-level racism of “Old South” parties. In 2016, the organization's national board of directors banned all chapters from “sponsoring functions” with the title “Old South” or anything similar. The University of Georgia reportedly prohibited students from dressing in “antebellum style” for Greek life parties like “Old South” in 2015; UGA is about an hour-and-half drive from Kirkconnell’s GCSU. Auburn University cancelled its “Old South” parade in 1993. These conversations are not brand new, no matter what Chris Harrison wants to say on national television.
That unavoidable fact is what makes Harrisons’ defense so disappointing. The public at large has been talking about racist institutions for years, if not, say, decades and centuries, but parties like “Old South” persist. There is a culture in certain communities in our country that still supports racist ideals like “antebellum parties” and actively does not see the harm. Some may appreciate them for the violent racism they uphold and others, as Harrison says, simply view them as “a great time.” Positioning Kirkconnell as one piece of this greater, extremely dangerous machine could actually be a step in the right direction. The Bachelor could educate the millions of women like Kirkconnell on the insidious nature of something they view as a natural part of their social lives.
Instead, Harrison wants to criticize “the woke police” for attacking a nice “girl” like 24-year-old Kirkconnell for something she did about 24 months before meeting Matt James. The Bachelor is a show that models for millions of viewers what fairy tale love is — and, more importantly, what it looks like. If it looks like a possible racist leading the competition for a Black Bachelor’s heart, the people asking questions aren’t the problem.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.