Any devoted native of Bachelor Nation will tell you that first impressions are everything. There’s even a rose category dedicated to the interaction. Receiving the First Impression Rose, which is bestowed during the first rose ceremony of every season, can greatly increase a contestant’s odds and ultimately set them on a trajectory for success. Rachel Lindsay, the first black woman to earn her own season of The Bachelorette and to have made it as far as she did during a season of The Bachelor, was also the first black contestant to receive that rose.
Lindsay’s season, which wrapped during a live three hour finale special on Monday, was historic for myriad reasons. It was the first season to feature a black lead. It was the most diverse season. It was the first season that dealt with race head on. It was the first season to end with a black and white couple. And for a lot of the mainstream non-black viewership, this season served as a first impression of black womanhood. Specifically an aspect of black womanhood we aren’t as accustomed to seeing — black women being desired. For starters, it took the franchise 21 seasons of The Bachelor, 12 seasons of the The Bachelorette — that’s 33 combined — years of extensive criticism backed by research, a social media campaign (#BachelorSoWhite), and a lawsuit (which was eventually dismissed) to get to Lindsay.
Full disclosure: it was also the first season that this writer, who is also a black woman, has ever watched willfully and in full. When you consider that in 33 seasons there’s never been a black lead and that the only non-white lead turned out to be a PR nightmare—the notorious Juan Pablo Galavis, an American-born Venezuelan who did everything from offend contestants to suggest that there should never be a gay Bachelor—this may not be that hard to believe. (While we’re being honest, I’ve also never seen a single episode of Friends.) Without really being conscious of it, I accepted that this franchise was about a certain kind of demographic and for a certain kind of demographic. So when they announced Lindsay, my interests were piqued, and I thought, if they were going to include me in the conversation finally, then perhaps I’d listen.
My reasons for showing up each week evolved. I started out pursuing a story for this website and wound up really feeling for Lindsay. My heartstrings were first plucked during episode eight, “Hometown Dates.” That’s generally the episode where the Bachelorette visits her final four contestants in their hometowns, meets their family and friends, and has real “future” conversations with everyone.
This season, the hometown episode took Lindsay to Baltimore, where she met the family of the only remaining black contestant, Eric Bigger. Sitting on a couch with Bigger’s aunt, Lindsay tearfully explained the pressures of being the first black Bachelorette and how heavily they weighed on her. A certain portion of the black community wanted to see not only a black Bachelorette, but a black couple at the end, she said. She also felt responsible for representing an entire community on national television.
Plenty of aspects of the Bachelorette’s life, at least for the months she’s on the show, are as far from realistic as you can get: she flies off to European cities at a moment’s notice, wines and dines two dozen men while dressed up in floor-length special occasion wear, and romps around a mansion all day. But the pressure for someone who is doing all of that while existing as a black woman is especially heavy. We didn’t ask for that, we don’t cultivate it, but we cannot escape it—not even during a reality TV show about the fantasy of falling in love.
The ratings for Lindsay’s season were significantly lower than last season; she averaged about 5.7 million viewers per episode while last season averaged 6.7 million. I was fully prepared to skip out on this season, too, because judging by the premiere, I thought The Bachelorette was going to be ridiculous, edging on pathetic. (I’m still not over the Tickle Monster.) But by the end, after watching someone articulate even a select facet of what it’s like to be a black woman—to be me—left me feeling fully affirmed.
Now that women of color had finally been given a season, I wanted to gauge how we felt about it collectively. Was Lindsay’s journey a watershed moment? Was that giving too much credit to a franchise that had built its visions of true love almost exclusively around white people?
To settle those questions, I reached out to eight different women of color, including Vulture Bachelor and Bachelorette recapper Ali Barthwell, “Blackorette” podcast co-hosts Joi Childs and Jacqueline Coley, and a handful of this season’s viewers. Some were devoted to the series for years, some only checked in on this season to see how the series would handle its first black star.
ABC announced Lindsay as the next Bachelorette early; Nick Viall’s season of The Bachelor was still airing. During Viall’s finale special, host Chris Harrison asked Rachel the question we’d all been wondering: “How does it feel to be the first black Bachelorette?” Her response was awkward, but the then-31-year-old lawyer from Texas would go on to navigate this challenge gracefully in her own season, deflecting the microaggressions and avoiding men that “weren’t there for the right reasons.” I was impressed.
Carimah Townes, journalist (formerly at ThinkProgress) and Bachelorette viewer: I think Rachel is the white gaze of what a black woman should be. Obviously as a black woman, there are many different types of black women out there and one is not better than the other. Rachel represents what America is willing to accept as somebody who deserves love.
Ali Barthwell, Vulture Bachelorette recapper: When Rachel got the first impression rose on Nick’s season, I cried. I had just never seen a black woman valued like that in this kind of a setting. And now on her season, the first few episodes were very emotional for me, because I’m watching a bunch of men sit around and talk openly and candidly about how much they value her, and how much they like her, how her strength is in her personality and her intelligence.
Ayana Ware, Bachelorette viewer: I love her. You can see the realness. She’ll say things that are a part of the African American vernacular, and I’m like, “Yes, girl, I understand.” Last Monday, when she got real with her parents when they were grilling Bryan and she said, “I’m lowkey annoyed with you guys right now.” I [had] just said that the other day.
Joi Childs, co-host of the “Blackorette” podcast: I just think that I react to things differently than she does. A good example of that is with Dean. That’s been a running gag on our podcast, that we’ve never liked Dean from start. The first thing out of his mouth when he met Rachel was, “I’m going black, and I’m never coming back.” I was like, Oh, he has to go. She said throughout the show, in at least a couple of the episodes, that she enjoyed that—that she thought it was cute. And as soon as she said that, I [thought], Okay, we’re different people.
Samantha Elisabeth, creator of the There She Goes Again blog and Bachelorette viewer: I think [this season] shows progress because she’s in a role that isn’t tied to her skin color. She’s just stepping into the long line of Bachelors and Bachelorettes.
The star of each season has some say in who his or her suitors will be, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this season was the most diverse in Bachelorette history. Out of the 31 men in the original lineup, there were 14 non-white contestants, and 11 of them were black. Despite the impressive diversity, some viewers felt like Lindsay had slim pickings, that the playing field wasn’t always balanced. What is clear is that this season introduced a dynamic the franchise hadn’t experienced before.
Briana Payne, Bachelorette viewer: Saturday Night Live [had] this skit, and that’s how I found out that they were doing a Black Bachelorette. In the parody there were a whole bunch of white guys that try to “act black.” Then the one black guy was, I guess you would say, not woke. So I thought pretty much that was what it was going to be like. I’m surprised by how many black guys they had. I thought there was going to be like, five, maybe.
Ali Barthwell: I’ve said it before in my recaps, but I think the men on this season were the most entertaining, the most fun, some of the cutest men that we’ve had. I do think that’s because of the addition of so many men of color, particularly black men. There is a oral and conversational tradition of being humorous, and joking around with each other, and roasting each other in a way that is so entertaining and fun to watch. That was so recognizable to me. These are a bunch of men that realize that they have been excluded from this narrative and are now joining in and can have a little fun and can bring a sense of humor and a sense of play that hasn’t always been there. There was a greater sense of perspective in these guys and their worldviews.
Joi Childs: The best black love moment was with Eric when she meets his family. From the family dancing in the living room, joking around, and having one-on-one conversations — if I get nothing else from this kind of awful show, it’s, man, those little micro-moments, they went a long way for me. They gave me just the right amount of fuel for me to keep going.
Laila Anthony, Bachelorette viewer: When I first saw the picture of all of the guys I was like, “Yes!” But then when I got to know them I was like, “Hold up.” The ones who were qualified to date somebody with her profession and her education, I felt they were just crazy. Like Josiah, who’s a lawyer. He was just crazy.
Samantha Elisabeth: From what I’ve seen of this season, Rachel doesn’t…deal with the drama and she doesn’t try to make something more exciting for the ratings. She’s there for a purpose. If the guys are getting too dramatic, she’s like, “Nope.” She doesn’t feed into the damsel in distress situation.
Joi Childs: I think they picked a lot of scrubs this season. The dudes were very lackluster overall, to me. There are some that were personal favorites of mine; most of them left. My last favorite one, who I’ve been calling since day one, Peter, is still in the house [at the time of this interview]. The ones that she’s liked more, I’m just like, why? Why do you like Dean? Why in the hell do you like Bryan? I’ve yet to meet a human that’s like, “Yeah Bryan is the one for her.”
Jacqueline Coley, co-host of the “Blackorette” podcast: I feel like Rachel didn’t get the best composition of men possible for her. In an effort to get better television, they didn’t get guys that I honestly feel were the best of the best. And it’s not because they couldn’t find men that didn’t want to be with Rachel… The suitors she was put up with were awful. And they just ripped off so many bad storylines from LifeTime’s UnREAL [a scripted drama set in behind the scenes of a Bachelor-style reality show]. In [UnREAL‘s] second season, they had a black suitor and they cast a racist on the show to add the drama, and that’s a parody.
Carimah Townes: It’s kind of ridiculous that she has had to be forced to reconcile with race in a way that other people haven’t. They kind of forced this narrative. And I think the contestants were part of that. Like they clearly put contestants who were going to stir pot. Like Lee.
When it was revealed that Lee Garrett, a 30-year-old contestant from Nashville, had a history of public bigotry and intolerance towards women (we found the receipts in the form of old tweets), it was disappointing for Lindsay, the other contestants, and, of course, the viewers. It was probably more disappointing that, until the “Men Tell All” episode aired (which was shown before the finale and gave all of the men, minus the final three, a chance to clear the air about the season), no one really acknowledged or called him out for what he was. ABC denied intentionally casting him for race-fueled drama and stated that producers would do a better job at vetting who they pick in the future — which left me wondering how after 15 years they didn’t already have a casting system that would ensure that both the lead and the contestants would be safe from physical and emotional harm.
Ali Barthwell: I was really disappointed in that the show never labeled him for what he was. Because I think that’s a classic trap of discussing racism, [saying] it’s just a difference of opinion or a personality clash. When really it’s a deep problem in someone that needs to be called out and addressed. The way they kept him around made it seem like it was just a personality clash between him and Kenny, when really he was terrorizing and traumatizing these black men…. Thinking about it more, it’s really disappointing thinking that they put Rachel, a black woman, in this position to date a racist, if they knew about it.
Ayana Ware: That made me really upset. I think he could have been called out on it a lot sooner. Now, I can see through the gimmicks and this was totally a gimmick, which is what made me mad. Feelings are involved, history is involved.
Joi Childs: I was extremely upset about the whole Lee thing because it’s like [the producers] are capitalizing off of something and putting her in harm’s way. We don’t know what type of racist he is. He could be a verbal racist or he could be a physical racist, or both, and that puts her in physical harm’s way. You have someone who has made it very clear that he does not like black people, he does not like women, he does not like Muslim people, there’s just a lot of people that he doesn’t like. And of course you have Chris Harrison on Twitter trying to defend it, claiming that they did background checks.
As the season unfolded, Lindsay experienced situations that lots of women of color, especially black women, probably recognized. She felt pressured by society to be a good example and to choose a black man. Some of the men in the group weren’t “woke.” But to some viewers, it may have been cathartic to see that play out on national TV. Lindsay’s experience serves as proof that we’re not making this stuff up.
Ali Barthwell: Whenever I’ve dated a white person, I ask them, “Have you ever dated a black person before?” Because I have to find out how much work I have to do in educating them. I’ve also related to [how], every now and then, you get a secret racist [like Lee]. You’re going out with someone and you find out that they have some point of view. I have been in the situation where they have said things to me in bed or wanted me to say things to them in bed that I’m not comfortable with. It is definitely coming from a place of them wanting to feel this sort of power and one way to assert that is that we are different races. You get those things, [have to] figure out how to express or navigate those things, and still be seen as a fun person that you can date. We are dating while we are trying to uphold all of these expectations that we have for ourselves and that others have for us. It’s dating with like an extra level of exhaustion…. It’s that extra burden, or that extra work, that double consciousness that we have to engage in.
Carimah Townes: You know what it is? It’s annoying that black people, or black women on TV, or whatever sphere, are constantly having to define race. People rely on them to do the work. It shouldn’t fall on their shoulders, or anyone’s shoulders, to prove why a white person should date them. They shouldn’t have to be the ones that have to explain it all the time. I’m glad that she’s there and I’m glad that they chose her, but I wish that she wouldn’t have to be the one to validate why she’s there.
Briana Payne: It’s hard for her in her scenario because she’s the first. It would be different if she were the third or the fourth. The first, you’re setting a [precedent].
Laila Anthony: [One contestant, Will, said he’d never dated a black woman before]. As black women we have to go through that all the time. We meet these black guys that seem good on paper and they want to be your friend, but they only date white girls. I think recently black women have decided we don’t care anymore. Black Girl Magic: if you’re not with it, then you’re a loser. It’s still very prevalent where you see guys, you know they’re attractive, and they’re smart, but for some reason they’ve decided that they can’t relate to us even though we’re the exact same way. [Will’s] cop-out was that he grew up in the upper-middle class, and Rachel was like, “You’re talking to a judge’s daughter.” As a black woman watching that, I was really resonating with that, but I feel like the mainstream may not have really seen that for what it is. When you’re in your 30s and you’ve never dated a black woman [and you’re a black man], there’s something else behind that.
Ayana Ware: With Will, I really liked him. But as soon as he said “I’ve never dated black girls,” I just kind of said, Okay, I know what direction this is going to go in. I still kind of gave him a chance for the date, but he really let me down. Or when Dean said, “I’m ready to go black and never come back,” it was so uncomfortable. You don’t need to approach me like that. Approach me like any other girl.
Joi Childs: One of my coworkers, we’ve watched it together, she made a comment in passing that this season has been more serious than others because there’s a lot of racial tension. And my natural gut reaction to that was, that’s kind of the life of a black woman. There’s always racial tension of some capacity. There’s always some form of microaggression, whether it be in the form of sexism or racism, and that’s our day-to-day life as being black people in America. I’m not surprised it’s a part of it, but I am disappointed it’s a part of it.
Jacqueline Coley: There’s a flipside to it. It’s not even so much pressure for her to pick a black guy; it’s sort of like the pressure to be the first African-American president. It’s not just, “Hey do the right thing.” It’s, “Do it in a way where people don’t question your identity.” Because if she ends up with a black guy in the end, but she makes all these questionable decisions during the process where people question her authenticity, there’s something to that, too. I mean, they sued to try and get black folks on The Bachelor, so for her now to be in this moment, she does have a bit of a legacy. I don’t think the legacy is attached to who she picks but in how she gets there.
By the end of the season, Lindsay narrowed it down to Eric Bigger, Peter Kraus, and Bryan Abasolo. They flew off to Spain so she could give out the final rose. Eric, her only remaining black contestant, was the underdog of the final crop, and had earnest intentions. (He also sprouted a pretty impressive breakup beard, post elimination.) Peter, a reserved, boyishly gray snack from Wisconsin, couldn’t bring himself to commit, but tried and broke not only Rachel’s heart but many hearts in Bachelor Nation. Bryan, a chiropractor from Miami, was the oldest on the season and wound up getting that final rose, proposing to Rachel in the season finale. He also received the first impression rose this season.
Laila Anthony: It doesn’t bother me at all [that she eliminated all but one black contestant] because the black guys she ended up with are so basic. I wouldn’t choose any of them either. I wasn’t offended, as a black person. I think if you saw it from the beginning you would understand what happened and why she only [had] one left.
Ali Barthwell: Bryan sounds like he’s on a perpetual third date with her. Eric is like, “I admire you, I love you,” which means that I care for you and about you. Another thing I liked about this show was seeing black men in this self-aware vulnerable place we don’t always get to see.
Carimah Townes: I definitely want her to choose the person that she wants to choose but I would [have loved] for her to choose a black guy to kind of [say] “suck it” to America. Let them have a moment. I want her to be with whoever she wants to be with. And no matter who she picks, I want it to last. More than anything, I want her to be one of the people who actually made it work.
Ayana Ware: In the beginning I definitely didn’t see Eric being at the end. Every episode I liked him more and more, which surprised me. I think it’s the beard. As far as a black guy in general making it to the end, I didn’t have any real expectations. I felt like Rachel was just going to go with her heart…. I’m kind of with Rachel [in regards to Peter, who ultimately blew his chances with Lindsay when he fessed up to not being ready for the big commitment]. If she wanted to date, she could have stayed in Dallas.
With this season on the books, I’ve been contemplating what, if anything, it’s done for mainstream television and ultimately black women’s status in social America. Of course, she gave America another example of a black woman who can be strong and simultaneously vulnerable. She can be a hard-working lawyer and be completely in need of love. Did Lindsay break a barrier?
Ali Barthwell: There have been so many role models that have been building to this — Michelle Obama, Olivia Pope, Shonda Rhimes — and that are creating all of these images of black women in control of their lives. Seeing a black woman as this ultimate romantic lead, or this prize, or that men have to prove themselves worthy of her, is something that I have found very valuable. I think that black women are seeing themselves affirmed and their romantic struggles affirmed… I don’t know if we’re going to see a huge mainstream change.The intersection of racism and sexism hits so squarely on the shoulders of black women that this felt like a release, a moment of joy, but I don’t see it as the new normal…. I would hope going forward that we can diversify not only the lead but who the lead is looking at.
Ayana Ware: The joke would kind of be on ABC if they just have one black Bachelorette and then they go back to their old formula, because we’re going to see that and we’re going to call them on that. The trend right now is diversity. I feel like it’s part of an upward trend. That’s just where we need to go. Do I feel like we [black women] needed this season? Yes. It goes back to being able to see ourselves on television.
Joi Childs: Jac mentioned, it’s the “Obama effect.” Where we had all this progression for eight years, and now immediately after that, we’re in this apocalypse. So this season being the first one over hill is awesome, but I want to see what ABC does after the fact before I put all my eggs in that basket. We have a ways to go both on a gender and sexuality spectrum. So I’m really up in the air on that.
Jacqueline Coley: I do think there are some people that had their eyes opened about some stuff… I don’t think that ABC did its job, but I don’t think they wanted to. Not that I think there’s a conspiracy. I really just think that they were like, “Let’s do our experiment season, but stack the deck to make sure that we can get what we want next season.” They were not trying to [make this] a trend. Whatever ABC does after this is going to be pretty telling, and based on previous experience, I’m not looking forward to it.
Carimah Townes: We certainly did not need this. We didn’t need white people to be like, “You know what? We’re going to give you a shot at love.” People wanted it. It’s fun to have. And at least for one season, we got to see someone that looked like us. Black people have always been at the center of culture, but I think a lot of shows and movies are trying to center black people [right now, to the point where] there is a level of exploitation where they’re capitalizing on it—[in this] moment where [audiences] want more visibility and more representation on screen. I hope that they’ll continue to show people like Rachel and have them at the forefront… It’s progress, but it’s not like full progress. It’s a smart way for them to plug into this national conversation, but I don’t know how invested they are in continuing it.
Samantha Elisabeth: At the end of the day, people are watching the Bachelor and the Bachelorette, whether any of us like it or not, and they’re tuning in because it’s important. Showing someone like Rachel is progress in that way. If you don’t see yourself represented in the mainstream, it’s not exactly encouraging. So I see someone like Rachel [as] the Bachelorette and I’m like, “That’s awesome,” but then I’m like, “What’s next?” It will be interesting to see how they build off of this momentum. Will it be like Halle Berry where she won the Oscar and then nothing really changed for women of color [in Hollywood]?
Laila Anthony: I honestly don’t think that we needed it, but I think white people needed it. We already know who we are and how we do and the fact that we can be multifaceted career women. I feel like the mainstream needed to see that portrayal of us. I think that there are probably people in the beginning of this season that couldn’t believe that these white men were attracted to her. And I think that it was nice for us to see. They needed it more to normalize it.