The Bachelorette Has Been Dancing Around Race. Last Night It Got Real

Photo: courtesy of ABC.
The Bachelorette season 17 has existed in two kinds of bubbles: the obvious production one, protecting cast and crew from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the one that has, until Monday night’s “Week 5” date featuring football player Andrew Spencer, kept Bachelor Nation’s racism reckoning at bay. The effects of the Bachelor umbrella’s latest controversy — which pulled the series’ many racist problems into the national discourse — can be seen every single time new hosts/mentors Tayshia Adams and Kaitlyn Bristowe appear on screen. Tayshia and Kaitlyn are only filming in New Mexico because The Bachelorette’s longtime emcee, Chris Harrison, committed so many public racist offenses, he and the ABC reality show permanently cut ties. Yet, no has actually spoken a single difficult word about race all season.
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That dissonant separation between Bachelor Nation reality and Bachelor Nation on-screen fantasy begins to close the moment Katie Thurston and Andrew, a 26-year-old Black man, sit down for their first one-on-one date. Their conversation is one riddled with spaces for manipulative editing or stereotypical narrative building. Instead, “Week 5” allows Katie and Andrew’s first big talk to be something much more complicated and ultimately rewarding.  
Andrew’s sincerity can be observed from the second he and Katie sit down for dinner following their nighttime solo outing. Andrew admits to feeling like he had to “hide personal sides” of himself as an athlete, despite being a really “emotional” person. This is an effective way for the The Bachelorette to grant Andrew a rare amount of nuance and vulnerability as a Black man in this franchise. The series deepens that characterization as Andrew starts talking about his father, who was imprisoned when Andrew was just 6 years old. Andrew turned to football as an “escape.” He found joy in the sport, but also felt abandoned when he would look up into the stands and not see anyone cheering for him. 
Considering the limited and racist approach The Bachelor employed for Matt James’ father Manny James — a Black man who has spent a lifetime estranged from his son — it wouldn’t be surprising if The Bachelorette pigeonholed Andrew’s family in a similar way. Yet, Andrew’s unnamed dad isn’t demonized. Instead, Andrew’s feelings of loss are used to explain his present outlook on fatherhood and family. His father is a small section of this much bigger, hopeful story.  
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Andrew and Katie’s discussion about his parents leads the pair to the next logical subject on a fast-moving dating competition series: what their own children could look like in an interracial family. “One of my exes that I had back in the day,” Andrew begins, “She was worried about having mixed children.” It’s a stunningly candid admission for a show that relies on fairytale gimmicks as much as The Bachelorette. Katie then listens to Andrew explain that his ex, who is a white woman like Katie, was concerned strangers would assume her biracial children were not her own. “That was tough for me,” Andrew says. Katie is visibly bewildered by the gravity of this story. 
Katie’s response models the most thoughtful way to respond to Andrew’s honesty and the cracks in tackling as serious a topic as interracial relationships through a five-minute dinner date scene on network reality TV. Katie recognizes her privilege, repeatedly saying she feels “so naive as a white woman” speaking to a Black man about dating in America. “Know that for me, I think our love could be so beautiful — and our children would be just as beautiful as that love,” Katie continues. This is a long way from Matt James’ heartbroken “After the Final Rose” explanation of why he could no longer see himself having children with his “winner” Rachael Kirkconnell, who attended an antebellum-”themed” party in 2018 (the pair has since reconciled). Then Katie suggests she simply has never had to think about racism like Andrew has because of her “community.” 
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“No one’s going to come in between what beautiful children you and I could make. Know that that’s never crossed my mind,” she says. “But maybe that’s just in the community that I live in that I’ve never had to think that way. Because to me, all I want is love.” 
Katie’s community isn’t devoid of thoughts on race. The 30-year-old hails from Seattle, a city that had legal “racial covenants” — which prohibit people of certain races, like Black people, from owning homes — until the 1960s. The Seattle Times reports that although this racist language is no longer enforceable, it “remains in old property records” to this day and affects at least 20,000 properties in the wider county. Just this year, a Seattle city council candidate’s Zoom session was attacked with racist slurs and Black families at Seattle Children’s Hospital were reportedly confronted with double the security as their white counterparts. Katie’s community is just as plagued with racism as anywhere else — she simply hasn’t had to consider the horrors of it as intimately as Andrew has. 
Off camera, a new couple might touch on these truths if they’re already figuring out what raising a biracial family could look like. But this is The Bachelorette. Instead, Andrew and Katie tidily agree on their outlook when it comes to interracial relationships and their mutual attraction. Andrew gets the rose and a romantic dip in a hot tub, itself a solid depiction of Black boy joy in an often punishing environment (see: the tear-stained mid-season promo). Last year, biracial Black Bachelorette stars Ivan Hall and Tayshia Adams had to lead the season’s painful race conversation; this time, a white woman leaned into the discussion. Maybe next time, the responsibility will completely avoid the shoulders of a Black contestant.

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