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The Impossible Role of the First Black Bachelor

Matt James being cast as the first Black Bachelor is both a surprise and a relief, but it comes with a sour aftertaste. Photo: Craig Sjodin/ABC via Getty Images

On June 12, The Bachelor franchise announced on Good Morning America that Matt James, a 28-year-old real-estate broker and social-media influencer, will be stepping into the well-worn shoes of many a single young man before him. The catch? James is the first Black male lead in the popular reality show’s 18-year history.

The casting of a Black Bachelor is a long time coming, and one that has been fought hard for by fans and critics alike. When pressed about the show’s lack of diversity in the past, The Bachelor producers always claimed they would cast a Black Bachelor when the “right man” came along. What they didn’t want to do, they insisted, was cast a Black Bachelor for diversity’s sake. But in moments of candidness, like when host Chris Harrison spoke about the show’s diversity problems in a 2015 interview with NPR, the real reason behind the decision became clear. “Television is a business, like anything else,” Harrison said. “We can’t just say, ‘We’re changing the world. We’re going to do whatever it takes to change the world and make a stand on any social issue’ … What happens when our show is off in six months, and you’re not watching it anymore, and now hundreds if not thousands of people are out of a job?” Translation: If we hire a Black male lead, our white audience will flee.

So James’s casting came both as a surprise and a relief to fans who felt they could no longer ignore the stubborn and glaring whiteness of the show’s cast. But it also came with a sour aftertaste for many critics, including season 13’s Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay (the only Black lead up until this point), who suggested the decision to cast James was a “knee-jerk reaction” to the social and racial upheaval of recent weeks. “I hate that [casting James] is in response … to what happened in our society, what happened with George Floyd,” said Lindsay in a podcast appearance the same day James was announced. “It’s almost like a man had to die in such a gruesome and public way for us to get a Black Bachelor.”

The feeling that James’s casting is a hollow victory was exacerbated by the unusual timing and nature of the announcement. Bachelor devotees are used to the new Bachelor being announced during a post-finale special that follows a period of “campaigning” by the most recent season’s male contestants. But this time, James hadn’t even graced the screen as part of any Bachelorette season (although he was already slated to appear as a contestant in the upcoming season). All these factors combined made James’s unveiling feel abrupt, reactionary, and anticlimactic to savvy Bachelor fans.

But despite the slapdash quality of his television debut, Matt James held his own, appearing calm and unflappably self-assured on GMA. He dodged more controversial questions with finesse, refused to condemn the franchise for taking too long to make a change, and expertly invoked his mother when pressed about what qualities he looks for in a woman. When asked if he felt any pressure being the first Black male lead, James demurred. “I’m just going to lean into myself and how my mom raised me,” he said. “Hopefully, when people invite me into their homes on Monday night, they’re going to see that I’m not much different than them.”

To the casual viewer, casting James as the Bachelor might seem like a no-brainer: He is smart, accomplished, hardworking, athletically gifted, philanthropically inclined, and most importantly, incredibly handsome. Why then, did it take 38 seasons and 25 leads for ABC and Warner Bros. TV to finally cave?

The answer to that question becomes more obvious on a close watch of James’s rollout on GMA. When listing his Bachelor qualifications, there’s an emphasis on James’s relationship to two very popular former Bachelor Nation stars: former contestant Tyler Cameron and former Bachelorette Hannah Brown. In fact, his friendship with Cameron and Brown was mentioned much more often than his other, arguably more notable accomplishments, like playing football at Wake Forest University or founding his own charitable business. It seems likely that what pushed James firmly into mainstream territory was his relationship with these two powerful, white Bachelor Nation stars — friends who had publicly and frequently given him their stamp of approval via social-media channels. The gatekeepers had spoken: James’s Blackness got a “pass.”

It’s not a coincidence that The Bachelor producers cast a Black woman (the aforementioned Rachel Lindsay) years before they cast a Black man. Americans’ fear of Black masculinity is as old a tradition as the country itself, and based on the show’s past casting practices, it is likely that many of the women competing for James’s heart will be white. Considering the complicated legacy of interracial relationships in the United States, the sight of James romancing a legion of white women still might not sit right with some people, especially those in more conservative circles. The reality is, even when Black men aren’t romancing white women, they are still viewed as a potential threat to the white American status quo. And the threat of Black masculinity multiplies exponentially when they are publicly kissing white women.

Historically, Black men who’ve decided to step into the public eye have been deeply aware of the perception of them, and have all employed various methods of image manipulation to navigate America’s racial politics. Sidney Poitier said it most eloquently when disclosing his mother’s advice to him when he was preparing to move to the U.S. to pursue a career in acting: “Charm them, son, into neutral.” Even in the 1940s, Poitier’s mother seemed to have an acute understanding of what it took to transcend the color barrier as a Black man in white America: You must take steps to “neutralize” your Blackness by whatever means necessary, charm being one of the most obvious tools. To be successful and Black in America, you must make your Blackness palatable, amiable, and safe.

The circumstances surrounding the casting of Matt James as the Bachelor bring to mind the greater legacy of Black men onscreen, particularly the ones who were able to transcend the color barrier through expertly navigating racial politics. Men like Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, and Will Smith have all, in their own ways, manipulated their performance of Black masculinity so that it was more palatable to white Americans.

Looking at Poitier’s career, it appears he took to heart his mother’s advice of charming white people into neutral. Poitier’s persona was that of a virtually flawless hero, an idyllic image of masculinity that transcended race, effectively making him immune to rebuke. Poitier’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner co-star Katharine Houghton summed it up perfectly when discussing Poitier’s brand: “As a black man, he was going to be judged. He knew this. He had to be better than a white man. And that was his great gift to America. He chose to be the perfect man.” While James’s white connections have allowed him to cross the color line, Poitier’s expert manipulation of his image and white people’s perception of his image allowed him to do the same thing. Different methods, similar outcome.

Denzel Washington was very much Poitier’s successor in the “perfect Black man” image, starting off his career by playing “safe” roles of doctors and detectives. And while Washington’s image was sexier than Poitier’s (he was even named People’s Sexiest Man Alive in 1996), it was still relatively toothless. Sure, Washington was a romantic hero in the sense that he was a leading man, but he didn’t do very much romancing. He admitted that he hated filming love scenes, and he was rumored to have turned down roles in which he would star opposite white love interests (rumors he later denied). Whether intentional or not, he seemed to be aware that becoming a pinup sex symbol like many of his contemporaries would alienate white America and force the white gatekeepers who kept him steadily employed to close their purse strings.

You can’t talk about Black men onscreen without talking about Will Smith, a man who has built a career off his superhuman ability to charm white people. But unlike Poitier and Washington, Smith rejected the “perfect Black man” route in favor of his own persona: the lovable clown. But there were still parallels to the careers of the Black men who came before Smith, one of them being his initial aversion to interracial relationships onscreen. Like Washington, at the beginning of his career, Smith avoided playing opposite white actresses when it came to romantic roles. “The idea of a black actor and a white actress comes up,” Smith famously said in 2005 when discussing the casting what-ifs of Hitch. “That’ll work around the world, but it’s a problem in the U.S.” Smith became the biggest star in the world by refusing to rock the racial boat, all while charming white America through an irresistible cocktail of affability, humor, and charisma.

Poitier, Washington, and Smith all had their unique methods of making their Blackness safe for white America. But none of these men were biracial, and Matt James, it should be mentioned, is. Could it be possible that when casting James as the Bachelor, producers thought that having a white mother made James a “safer” kind of Black man? Judging by both the amount of pictures GMA viewers were shown of James with his mom, as well as how many questions he was asked about their relationship, it’s a theory worth entertaining.

It wouldn’t be the first time a Black man leaned on his biracial heritage when trying to win the trust of white America. Indeed, the most culturally significant Black man in American history, Barack Obama, notably used his biracial identity as a tool to convince white Americans to trust him in spite of his Blackness. Obama’s performance of Blackness or whiteness (depending on the situation) was a method of image manipulation uniquely accessible to biracial people. As a biracial man, James has the same theoretical tools at his disposal.

The legacy of The Bachelor is a complicated one, and that’s not even taking into account the inherently problematic premise of a group of women competing over the love and attention of one man. Many of the previous Bachelors have had a less-than-stellar track record, from small grievances like being a momma’s boy or painfully indecisive, to more serious issues like being emotionally abusive or criminally negligent. The difference between these Bachelors’ shortcomings and the hypothetical shortcomings of Matt James is that these white men’s flaws have never reflected poorly on the entirety of the white race. And why would they when the entire concept of white privilege is predicated on the idea that whiteness is rarely ever thought about by white people?

In the past, when fans were faced with a particularly disappointing season or a dud of a Bachelor, they’ve typically shrugged their shoulders and waited for the next season to come around — one that was always guaranteed to be the most dramatic season ever. Matt James, however, does not have the luxury of being a dud. He does not have the luxury of being too vulnerable, too needy, too selfish, or too sexual. He must follow in the footsteps of the Black men before him who have chosen to put themselves squarely in the line of the white gaze. He must find his own way of charming Americans into neutral, whatever his methods may be.

The Impossible Role of the First Black Bachelor