Pediatric dentist Dr. Misee Harris of Kentucky is petitioning to become the first ever Black “Bachelorette.” This prospect means a lot is surfacing for me regarding the harmful stereotypes reinforced by women of color on reality television. How would she be received? If she did get an opportunity to be on the show and chose a non-black man, what would the social implications of that be? But more than that, I feel disheartened because I know that this reality reflects how America feels about who deserves to be happy and who doesn’t.
Author and commentator Keli Goff argued on The Huffington Post that “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette”‘s collective 25 seasons with no Black people in the coveted role isn’t an act of racism. I disagree. Society tells us that marriage and the supposed happiness that is derived from it aren’t meant for everyone — hence the multi-decade struggle to legalize the right of gay folks to marry. This reality reflects how Americans feel about who deserves to be happy and who doesn’t. Whether these exclusions are purposeful are irrelevant; many of us consciously reject stereotypes yet still hold subconscious negative associations about people who are different than we are, TV execs included. It’s an implicit bias (subconscious prejudice) that informs their decisions about who they choose to be on the show. These executives genuinely fear what putting a Black man or woman front and center might do to their ratings – and as voyeurs, we’re often not privy to those kinds of conversations.
America has a long legacy of dictating success outcomes based on variables like race, immigration status and sexual orientation. Fictionally, there wasn’t a Black Disney Princess — Tiana in “The Princess And The Frog” — until 2009, 72 years after the first Disney movie, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” in 1937. As a former employee of one of the largest entertainment and media groups creating reality television today, I know better than most how regressive reality TV and those who create it can be. There are no social consequences for enticing, documenting and exploiting sexist, racist and homophobic behavior. On the contrary, they’re often rewarded for that very behavior. The fault lies on the millions of Americans who encourage it by tuning in week after week — after all, with no ratings there’s no show. As someone who deconstructs all kinds of media, reality TV appears to be an equal opportunity exploiter. When I think of shows like the “Real Housewives” series, “Honey Boo Boo” and “Jersey Shore,” I’m reminded that there isn’t any value in producers limiting their exploitation to only people of color because there are plenty of white folks to misuse, too.
But the problem is white Americans are represented in a multitude of ways on television, including some that counter the damaging stereotypes that reality TV reinforces. People of color do not receive that same kind of diversified representation and that is a direct reflection of how the lives of non-whites are perceived. After 17 seasons and more than a decade on the air, “The Bachelor” has never featured a Black man as the bachelor. After eight seasons, “The Bachelorette” is well on its way to meeting that same fate. Last year, two Black men even filed a lawsuit against “The Bachelor” claiming that the show discriminated against casting participants of color. In October, the lawsuit was thrown out citing the First Amendment as protection to cast whomever they choose.
Despite my commitment to the First Amendment, that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t some merit to the case 0r to Misee Harris’ need to start a petition to see herself on “The Bachelorette.” Despite producers’ claims that they seek diversity on both shows, the actual casting tells a different story. It is not my belief that Misee should be given the opportunity to be the first Black “Bachelorette” just because she started a petition. Truthfully, I wish we, as people of color, didn’t authenticate our personal successes this way. But if it must be, then women and men of color should receive the same opportunities to vie for fictitious love as our white counterparts.
Producers of reality TV have the opportunity and platform to shift culture in this country. It would be fascinating if they used it to do some good.
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