We knew the racism was coming, because the show told us it was. After several weeks of hints and microaggressions, “The Bachelorette’s” Lee Garrett’s racial biases were laid bare on the show this week through a series of subtle ― and not-so-subtle ― dog whistles. This racism was then played for dramatic effect, a move that is ultimately meant to net ABC viewers and dollars.
Well, guess what, guys? We are not entertained.
Garrett’s old tweets, which detail his negative views about the NAACP, Black Lives Matter, feminists and Islam, had already spread across the internet before Monday night’s episode. But even without that added context, the country singer’s storyline was clearly centered around the intentional baiting of black men in the cast.
During a pre-rose ceremony cocktail hour, Garrett interrupted fellow contestant Kenny King to get more time with Bachelorette, Rachel Lindsay. King, who had thought he and Garrett were friends, tried to calmly broach his annoyance over this, but he was faced with open disrespect. When he paused to gather himself, Garrett condescendingly barked at him to “get to it,” then smiled and laughed in King’s face while dismissing his purported friend’s feelings.
Though the confrontation never became physical ― in fact, King never came physically close to the other man in any footage shown on the episode ― Garrett preemptively brought the episode up with Lindsay, going so far as to tell her that King was “aggressive.” (Meanwhile, Garrett described the “joy” he takes in crumbling these men’s worlds, and making them angrier while he laughs in their faces.)
His approach was textbook gaslighting: Overtly insisting on one reality (he loves King and just has to be honest) while subtly contradicting that reality (with dismissive body language and dog whistle bigotry). Nor was this exactly an accident; during “in-the-moment” interviews, Garrett repeatedly admitted that he doesn’t care about King and actually takes pleasure in making him upset.
Worse, Garrett dropped a major bomb by describing King, a black contestant, as “aggressive.” Not only was it inaccurate, it evoked a nasty stereotype about black men, who are often framed as violent and physically dangerous. To wit: Garrett previously described another black contestant, Eric Bigger, as explosive and out of control (which, he wasn’t) and this episode seeded the same doubt about King. (On the other hand, white cast members Lucas “Whaboom” Yancy and Blake Elarbee got into at least one shouting match but were portrayed as harmless goofballs.)
As the episode drew to a close, Garrett found himself sitting at a bar with a couple of the other men ― two white contestants, Peter Kraus and Alex Bordyukov.
“I could say something shitty about you guys any day of the week that irritates the fuck out of me. But I’m not going to do that, because I choose not to,” he said. “Like, you guys, you’re great. I don’t have a problem with you guys. You’re great.”
While Kraus and Bordyukov responded by staring blankly at Garrett, and Kraus told the camera that Garrett made him “uncomfortable,” King is left to grapple with the idea that Garrett’s gaslighting could cost him his budding TV relationship, as well as his eventual arc on the show.
“I spent most of my time with Rachel… trying to assuage her that I’m not some aggressive, dangerous human, which is absurd,” King tells the camera. “Maybe I’m crazy, but I just legitimately felt like nothing I said made a dent in what she felt about me, because of what this little son of a bitch said. Lee’s a liar, a fabricator. He’s an alternative facts piece of garbage. He lives in alternative facts and it sucks that someone like that has got me in this spot. Because if I go home, I’m going to feel real fucked up about this entire process.”
This entire exchange speaks to a sobering truth ― one that King, as a black man, is likely acutely aware of. When black men deign to express natural emotions like anger and frustration, they are often unfairly punished for doing so. Black men are generally perceived to be more “aggressive,” physically imposing and threatening than white men are. And these false perceptions can have dire consequences.
As the LA Times reported in March, a 2017 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that “across a range of different stimuli and dependent variables, perceivers showed a consistent and strong bias to perceive young Black men as larger and more capable of harm than young White men.” The study’s authors went on to outline how dangerous these misconceptions can be: “Such perceptions may have disturbing consequences for how both civilians and law enforcement personnel perceive and behave toward Black individuals.”
This reality puts Garrett’s appearance on the show ― a contrived environment in which production has control over who is there ― in a particularly dark light. From everything we’ve seen, Garett’s presence resulted in real strain being put on the men of color who were forced to live with him, as well as Lindsay, the black woman who was meant to be dating him.
America has an ugly history of white people making money off of black people’s pain. Perhaps it was too much to hope that “The Bachelorette” would set the bar higher.
And even when Garrett’s microaggressions and racist behaviors are called out on the show, it’s black men who most often bear the burden of doing so. (Dean Unglert, a white contestant, came close in one of his “in-the-moment” interviews, but has yet to say anything to Garrett directly.) We’ve already seen Garrett successfully bait both Bigger and King when they tried to confront him ― each of them calmly at first, and then with increasing energy and frustration as he dismisses their concerns and condescends to them. And a teaser from last week’s episode revealed that Will Gaskins is going to pull Garrett aside in a future episode to explain to him the particularly vicious and dangerous history of labelling black men “aggressive.”
Historically, “The Bachelor” and its sister shows have had overwhelmingly white casts, white production teams (at least at the upper levels), and white audiences. Until Lindsay, the franchise had never had a black lead. The show has faced sustained criticism for its lack of diversity, and in 2012 a lawsuit was filed against the show for racial discrimination. The most recent two seasons of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” have pointed to a modicum of progress in the casting realm, but the fact remains: “The Bachelor(ette)” is a predominantly white franchise.
There is something especially insidious about a show with such a checkered racial history using racism to drum up drama, ratings and, ultimately, dollars for the entertainment of white people. It goes without saying that America has an ugly history of white people making money off of black people’s pain. Perhaps it was too much to hope that “The Bachelorette” would set the bar higher.
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