I knew it was a bad sign that I was the only black contestant in my season of The Bachelor.
Anxiety over that caused me to drink. I was eliminated in the first round.
My takeaway: I was there to serve as the token black woman for entertainment purposes — and was never taken seriously as a candidate.
Back in 2006, I was a contestant on season 10 of The Bachelor. I went on the show, naive and very green at 21 years old, looking forward to having some fun and potentially meeting an eligible man.
What I did not expect was being manipulated by producers in pursuit of dramatic television.
Here’s what the audience saw on the one and only episode in which I appeared: an irrational angry black woman who went off on another contestant for calling her a bitch behind her back.
Here’s what really happened: The other contestant had not, in fact, called me a bitch. The producers had told me that, presumably to get an emotional reaction out of me. I was offered, and drank, copious amounts of alcohol — which only made that emotional reaction worse.
As the night went on, it became more and more clear to me that the producers were intentionally creating an environment where I would feel uncomfortable due to my race.
I left the series disgusted. When the show aired, I remember watching myself within the contours of a highly edited storyline — reduced to the stereotype of a hysterical woman. It was a jarring and shameful experience.
After finishing my undergraduate degree, I returned home to Kansas for law school. I graduated and moved to Arizona, where I now work as a public defender. Over the years, I’ve continued to not watch the show. I couldn’t forget the way I was demeaned. Beyond my own experience, I wasn’t a fan of the depiction of women as back-stabbing, lovesick idiots.
Then the Bachelor franchise announced something I never expected — after years of the token one or two black contestants per season who would never make it to the final round, there would finally be a black Bachelorette.
I decided to revisit the show. After watching one or two episodes, I’m struck by what the black Bachelorette means for black women — and how far we have left to go.
I was excited about being on The Bachelor — but I didn’t want to be the only black girl
When I sent in my application to The Bachelor, I never expected to hear back. I was shocked at their interest in me. The little I knew about the show was that they did not cast black people. Well, they didn’t cast them in any meaningful way, at least.
I should have known better. But I was young and excited by the prospect of meeting “Prince Charming” — feel free to roll your eyes. Can you blame me for wanting to get out of my dating comfort zone? Plus, it was a chance to spend my days with a cocktail lounging in the house hot tub.
I had one big reservation about being on the show — I did not want to be the token black girl. This stemmed from a bad personal experience in college. I joined a sorority where I was the only black American member and faced uncomfortable discriminatory behavior. A lot of it was subtle, like being ignored when I tried to introduce myself to members, but the feeling of being an outsider built up over time. In one of the worst moments in college, I was told that one of my sorority sisters’ mothers had called the chapter head and told them that I should be kicked out because I “just didn’t fit.”
The experience stuck with me. I hated feeling like I had to prove myself or distance myself from negative stereotypes of black women. I felt very uncomfortable in largely white spaces. When I was going through the interview process for The Bachelor, this was something I expressed to the show’s producers and show psychologist. I remember telling them about my deep insecurities about being the token minority and, to the psychologist, spilling out stories about the racism I experienced in college.
I remember being assured repeatedly by the show producers and the psychologist that I would not be the only black girl. After they told me I had nothing to worry about, I signed the contract and hopped on a plane to LA.
Fast-forward to the moment when I stepped out of that limo and into the Bachelor house for the first time and realized that I was, in fact, the only black contestant. Surrounded mostly by white women, my anxiety went through the roof. It reminded me exactly of my college sorority. I probably should have just left. But instead, I decided to stay — and of course get rip-roaring drunk.
Producers repeatedly manipulated us to stir a reaction
Most fans of The Bachelor know that the show is edited for dramatic effect. But not everyone is as aware of just how far the show’s producers seem willing to go to provoke an emotional reaction.
The time I spent on the set of The Bachelor was filled with tension and feelings of isolation. Much of the tension for me was caused by the racial dynamics between me and the other girls. Not only was I the only black woman, but the ignorance of many (though, not all) of the white women was staggering. It didn’t help that I never interacted with any people of color on the production staff either.
I remember one of the white women questioning me about my racial identity, asking, “Why do you call yourself black when you’re half white?” I can’t recall exactly what I said in response, but I was certainly not in a place to engage in a meaningful conversation about identity or the role the “one-drop rule” has played in American history. I was not going there. Where I did go, however, was the open bar. A man wearing blue by the name of Johnnie Walker was calling my name.
To deal with the isolation I felt, I drank. My alcohol-fueled behavior was definitely driven by nervousness, but the availability of booze is by design. Producers never force you to drink, but alcohol is available everywhere. Much of the crazy behavior that you witness on reality TV is the product of this. If everyone were sober, it'd make for pretty boring television.
At one point, I remember the producers conducted an on-camera interview with me when they told me that another contestant, Blakeney, had been bad-mouthing me and calling me a bitch to the other girls. Aided by liquid courage, I confronted her about it. Blakeney, confused about an accusation that must have seemed like it came out of thin air, defended herself. The next thing you know, we were shouting at each other.
I remember later on that night, Blakeney and I talked through the earlier argument and I realized that she hadn't bad-mouthed me. There were no hard feelings. That part, of course, never wound up in the final cut. Why? My guess is that people don't want to see some Kumbaya; they want to see catfights.
Nothing about the behavior on those shows is inexplicable. From what I could see, the producers are there to instigate arguments. At one point, I remember they started telling some of the girls privately that we were one of the most boring casts they ever had. That rumor started circulating among us, motivating some of the ladies to let loose a bit more. They started drinking and partying more. They amped up flirtation. We were all performing and competing for attention from the Bachelor, the producer, and some faraway audience.
All the contestants went through it, to an extent. But being the only black girl in the room made me feel even more alone. And I think I was isolated on purpose.
And I proceeded to make a complete ass of myself on national television and do shameful disservice to women of color. So many of us try so hard to get away from the “crazy, loud black woman” stereotype, and there I was, just making a spectacle of myself.
Black contestants play the same role across every season — until now
When I appeared on The Bachelor, I hadn’t watched enough of the show to realize that there’s a consistent rule across every season: Black contestants, if there are any on the show, do not win. They are there to play to America’s stereotype of black men and women, and then they are sent home. In 2012, a class-action lawsuit was brought against the show for racial discrimination in casting.
We black or mixed folks are there for entertainment value, not to be actual, real prospects for winning the final rose. To a certain extent, all contestants are there for entertainment value. The white women are treated like legitimate prospects, whereas black contestants like me are only good for making fools of ourselves. Take a look at the history of The Bachelor: Has a black woman or man ever won? A quick glance at the list of winning couples and it’s lily-white, with the exception of Catherine Giudici, who is Filipino-American and the only nonwhite person to ever win a season.
And I guess that’s really the heart of it: Black people were rarely portrayed as complex, multidimensional people. We were there for people to point at, laugh at, cheer, or jeer.
The good news is I think that’s changing. I watched a few episodes of the new season that stars Rachel Lindsay, the first black Bachelorette in the show’s history, with a half-smile on my face. Kind of a “well, whaddaya know” smile. It finally happened.
I feel hopeful about the show. Although reality shows are a relatively unimportant part of society, they do provide a mirror of what we want to see on television. And the fact that there is now a black contestant reflects that. It shows that people do want to see a black Bachelorette. What’s more, the diversity of the men vying for her favor is promising. The contestants who have received roses have been many shades.
I think the franchise is being smart. They might pick up a new demographic in their audience. Black folks who’ve never watched the show may start tuning in. Maybe I’m desperately grasping for some small sign of hope and progress given our current situation in the White House, but even if that’s the case, I’ll take hope where I can get it.
What stood out to me is that Rachel is being presented like a princess — an object of desire. One of the contestants even commented that he felt like he was meeting a Disney princess (I'm paraphrasing). It was made clear to the audience that this was an amazing woman and any man would be lucky to have her. And, yes, she’s black.
Does this mean society values black women just as much as they do white women? Well, no. We’re not there yet. But from the 10 years since I was on The Bachelor to a black Bachelorette today, I think we’re taking steps. However small they may be, some progress is better than none.
Does this mean that stereotypes of black women are changing? Yes. Does this mean that our society’s perception of beauty is changing? Yes! I think the Obamas — Michelle Obama in particular — played a big role in this. If back in 2008, we had had Cindy McCain as first lady instead of Michelle Obama, would there be a black Bachelorette? I really don’t think so. The Obamas showed the country and the world that we are not here "for entertainment purposes only.” We aren’t just here to be the token blacks and to perform in modern-day minstrel shows. We aren’t just here for the basketball courts and the football fields. We are here for the legislatures, the courts, and for the White House.
It will be interesting to see how the casting of the next Bachelor goes. Will they continue with a diverse cast regardless of the Bachelor’s race? Or will they revert to their outdated ways? Only time will tell. And someone will have to tell me, because I still won't be tuning in.
We reached out to ABC’s The Bachelor about this article. They declined to comment.
Lindsay Smith is a public defender who lives in Arizona.
First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstname.lastname@example.org.