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On 'The Women Tell All,' Black Bachelorettes Take The Fall For Race Problems

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 9/03/2016 Claire Fallon

From the moment the teaser for "The Bachelor" Season 20's "The Women Tell All" special started rolling, things looked ominous. 

After behaving well and refusing to engage in confrontations with other women in the house, black, Haitian-born contestant Jubilee Sharpe clearly still managed to rub some of the bachelorettes the wrong way -- that much was obvious from watching the season. And in clips teasing "The Women Tell All," it became clear that the other women used the special to circle the wagons against Jubilee, berating her for not sufficiently ingratiating herself with them or participating in house drama. 

Once the special itself got going (after the traditional crashing-of-the-viewing-parties segment featuring Ben and Chris Harrison), any fears awoken in Jubilee fans and critics of the show's race problem were made real. That problematic racial subtext suddenly became text, and it was simultaneously painful to watch, deeply important, and an elision of the real race issue at the heart of "The Bachelor."

As "Bachelor" contestants go, even within this season (remember the episode of "Olivia and 'Teen Mom'"?), Jubilee's transgressions seemed minor, more worthy of a frank chat than a group shaming. She ticked the other women off by making ironic comments downplaying her one-on-one date, yes -- not exactly a malicious crime, but certainly a misunderstanding. She retreated to the bathroom when Amber tried to engineer a group confrontation about this point of tension at a cocktail party, but avoiding overblown interpersonal drama definitely seems like a solid choice, even if it frustrated the other bachelorettes at the time. 

So why did the women present decide Jubilee seemed like such a prime target? Shushanna (remember her?) went out of her way to snidely inform Jubilee that many of the ladies in the house hadn't wanted her to return from her one-on-one date, as if that hadn't been made clear by interviews included in the show itself in which her housemates said just that. 

The submerged racial dynamics at play, as is typically the case on ABC's lily-whitewashed "The Bachelor," were clearly intended to remain unacknowledged, even as a clip of Lauren H. implying that Jubilee wouldn't get along with other "soccer moms," a racial dogwhistle if I ever heard one, replayed on the screen to refresh our memories. 

When they did bubble to the surface, however, it wasn't Chris Harrison, Jubilee, or any of the white contestants who yanked them into the daylight: It was Jami and Amber, the two other black bachelorettes this season. During the season, Amber obviously butted heads with Jubilee. Her ill-fated bathroom confrontation with Jubilee appeared to be the beginning of the end for both, making Amber look like a bully in front of the Bachelor, while planting seeds of doubt in Ben's head as to whether Jubilee gets along with other women. But when Amber and Jami joined forces to call Jubilee out on national TV, the moment was not one "The Bachelor" seemed prepared for.

The actual dispute: Amber and Jami, backed by Shushanna, recalled Jubilee telling them she was "the real black girl" in the house, and would make it further on the show than any "real black girl" ever had. Jubilee initially denied ever saying that, looking truly baffled; after a brief break, the discussion reopened, and she said that she remembered saying that she was "the full black girl" in the house. Later, Jubilee told People magazine, "I said I am the one full black girl in the house. I think of that as a fact." (Amber and Jami both identify as biracial.)

The two women heard something Jubilee says she didn't intend in her words -- that they were not really black women. Ultimately, Jubilee seemed to absorb this and apologized in a manner that seemed very genuine. But the sour flavor of the spat lingered -- especially as none of the other girls, even Lauren H., were asked to apologize to her for their microaggressions, racist implications, and fairly obvious stereotyping of her based on the color of her skin.

A few tweeters pointed out during the show that the dynamic of the Jami/Amber vs. Jubilee debate fell along lines of colorism. Simply put, colorism typically refers to discrimination between lighter- and darker-skinned members of a racial group, often carried out by light-skinned people in the group to the detriment of dark-skinned ones. For example, light-skinned black people may find it easier to get jobs, be perceived as more romantically desirable, or may even be assumed to be smarter and more educated

This issue has drawn a bit of discussion recently thanks to Zoe Saldana's portrayal of Nina Simone in an upcoming biopic, despite Saldana's distinctly lighter skin tone. Since Saldana has been the face of the movie, and the name tossed around by infuriated commentators, it's easy to overlook, or forget to mention, the forces truly at fault for her casting and the perpetuation of colorism. Simone's daughter recently defended Saldana from the attacks arising from the film, pointing out, "she is someone who is part of a larger picture." That larger picture can be glimpsed in the film's writer/director, Cynthia Mort -- a white woman -- and the white-dominated team behind the movie, as Jezebel's Kara Brown pointed out.

LIke "Nina," "The Bachelor" is a Platonic ideal of how colorism is generated and sustained by the white power structure. This form of discrimination may go on within the black community itself, but to leave white discrimination out of the conversation is deeply myopic

Here's how we see it work on "The Bachelor": The show offers few opportunities to black women, and those slots they do fill with black women typically go to lighter-skinned, often biracial black women, like Amber or Leslie Hughes, from Sean Lowe's season, who also identifies as biracial. Silently, it's conveyed to darker-skinned women that to be deemed acceptable for the show, it would really help to be light-skinned black women -- a message all the more difficult to miss because this mirrors how white institutions already privilege light-skinned black people over dark-skinned black people.

When a woman like Jubilee emphasizes her own identity by pointing out that she's the only non-biracial black woman on the season, she makes light-skinned black women feel their identities as black have been erased or dismissed. Alisha Ramos' Mixed Feelings newsletter on the episode focused on how Amber and Jami were displaying a sense of hurt that their identities had been defined by someone else, clearly in a way they disagreed with -- a common frustration for mixed-race people.

Meanwhile, the predominantly white network, producers, and cast members sit back, benefiting from never having to worry about whether their skin color is acceptable in different contexts, and allow the black bachelorettes to fight over the mantel of "token black girl." 

What's particularly fascinating: Usually, we would never see this behind-the-scenes conflict. Race never even overtly came up during the show, though obviously the subject was discussed in the house. We saw the bad blood, the division into factions, but not the nuanced racial tensions that fostered the discord. On "The Women Tell All," Amber and Jami took the opportunity to attack Jubilee, but they really revealed the depths of the tokenism, isolation, and pervasive microaggressions that make life on the show still more treacherous for black women.

As Jezebel's Kate Dries pointed out

Only because of the way this show has historically been cast and structured (with few women of color) did Jubilee feel so impinged -- and therefore vocal -- about the significance of her race versus the races of the other women. Instead of race aligning her with the other women of color, it pitted them against each other (as it often does), arguably undermining all of their chances of being confident enough during the time they did have with Ben to get to know him better.

Aware of their crumbling foothold on a white-dominated show, women like Amber and Jubilee can easily find themselves fighting each other for that tiny sliver of the pie that's been tossed to the black bachelorettes -- the honor of being the token contestant who "makes it furthest," as Jubilee put it.

What can the show really do to improve the situation, not just with lip service or pretensions of color-blindness? One of the tricky aspects of a dating show like "The Bachelor" is that the lead's taste in partners will guide casting, and even more so the few who make it late into the season and earn consideration for casting as the next lead. And unfortunately, racism isn't absent from dating. Studies have suggested that it's easiest for white people in the U.S., and most difficult for black people and Asian men, to get attention in the dating pool.

Bachelor Ben, for all his virtues, has a pretty obvious type: pretty, all-American girls-next-door -- preferably blonde.

That's not something he can change abruptly, but it seems likely it also wasn't something ABC took into consideration during casting. Attractiveness, fan popularity, a late run into the season, "readiness" for love on reality TV and similar traits, we know, come under consideration when the network is casting a lead. But why not whether the lead is interested in dating women of different races? Why not whether she's dated men of color in the past? Making a conscious effort to cast someone with diverse tastes, romantically, is one seemingly nebulous but vital component in diversifying the series. Not to mention the benefit of contestants of color feeling truly in the running, not just as tokens -- a leveling of the psychological playing field that would only improve the odds of a black contestant winning or being made the next lead.

Maybe the rumored casting of Caila Quinn, who is half-Filipina, as the next Bachelorette will push the dial, but it remains to be seen. Based on the show's history, it seems far more likely to be a gesture to appease the increasingly race-conscious masses than a genuine shift in the show's direction. Let's hope there's more to the story.

For more on "The Bachelor: The Women Tell All," listen to the HuffPost podcast "Here to Make Friends" recap the show:


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