Earlier this summer amid the global re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and a nationwide reckoning of anti-Black systemic racism, ABC named Matt James the first Black male lead of the network’s hit dating franchise “The Bachelor.”
Only a few days into the new season, a slew of allegations of racism against contestant Rachael Kirkconnell, a graphic designer from Cumming, Georgia, began snowballing on social media. The resulting mess that’s distracted from James’ historic season has sparked an overdue reckoning within the 19-year-old franchise itself. At the same time, it’s reinforced a “girls will be girls” mentality that exclusively provides cis-passing white girls and women with a pass for bad, often inexcusable racist behavior.
Longtime franchise host Chris Harrison summed it up in his recent appeal for Kirkconnell, an adult woman, to be granted “grace,” “understanding” and “compassion” for her actions as a “girl” from just a few years ago. It’s an unearned sanctifying of Kirconnell’s perceived youth that stings all the more for how blatantly it’s withheld from Black girls.
Former high school classmates accused Kirkconnell of bullying them for dating Black men. Viewers uncovered likes she’d given to photos with Confederate flags among other controversial images. James was left on his own to address the controversy. When asked about it in a Feb. 4 interview, he simply that “rumors are dark and nasty and can ruin people's lives” and “he would give people the benefit of the doubt, and hopefully she will have her time to speak on that.”
Then on Feb. 6, British tabloid The Sun resurfaced photos of Kirkconnell attending an antebellum plantation-themed ball at Georgia College & State University in 2018. Three days later, Harrison sat down for an interview with Extra TV correspondent Rachel Lindsay, the star of “The Bachelorette” in 2017 and the first Black lead of the franchise. “What are your thoughts about Rachael Kirkconnell and the allegations attached to her?” asked Lindsay.
"The Bachelor" has reinforced a “girls will be girls” mentality that exclusively provides cis-passing white girls and women with a pass for bad, often inexcusable racist behavior.
For the next 13 minutes, Harrison referred to 24-year-old Kirkconnell as a girl seven times — and a woman only twice — using the word and its connotations of innocence and naïveté to paint a particular picture. In the end, Harrison boiled down Kirkconnell’s decision to recreate and celebrate a historic period rooted in the horror of plantation slavery to the blissful ignorance of youth: “My guess? These girls got dressed up and went to a party and had a great time.” They were 18 years old, he added, despite having just admitted “I don't know how old she would have been back then.”
Harrison referring to Kirkconnell as a girl is doubly problematic, simultaneously patronizing this 24-year-old woman and, in his performative protection, reinforcing denigrating perceptions of adult women and stripping them of their self-autonomy. Harrison explicitly compared Kirkconnell’s racist adult conduct to his own childhood and the “games we played on the school ground that are not OK today.” But then, white men like Harrison are all too familiar with the conflation of inexcusable behavior, childhood and youth.
The concept of “boys will be boys,” has for over 500 years been used to defend, indulge and absolve young boys and grown men alike of the bad, often inexcusable behavior associated with and expected of them. The future tense implies that men always remain boys, no matter their age — even when they harass, abuse, injure and kill.
Of course, this rule only applies to straight cisgender men. And while Black men and other men of color absolutely benefit within their respective communities, in the larger predominantly white United States, Black and brown boys aren’t granted the same level of protection. (See: George Stinney, Emmett Till, Tamir Rice, Santos Rodriguez and Jason Pero, for a selection from an all too long list.)
The exhaustive task of condemning and dismantling the dangerous “boys will be boys” mentality has fallen largely on women. But when white women are absolved of toxic white femininity with a similar “girls will be girls” mentality as Harrison displayed, there is no fierce condemnation to be found among white feminists, unburdened as they are from the heavy intersections of misogynoir, Moya Bailey's and Trudy's term for the unique anti-Black misogyny faced by Black women.
When recalling her attempted robbery and assault of a Black 14-year-old, Miya Ponsetto gave a masterclass in this hypocritical defense: “I’m a 22-year-old girl,” Ponsetto told CBS’ Gayle King in an interview last month. “I don’t — racism is — how is one girl accusing a guy about a phone a crime?” I've lived probably just the same amount of life as him, she said. (This same “girl” would later shush the Black 66-year-old journalist, telling her, “Alright, Gayle, enough.”)
The future tense implies that men always remain boys, no matter their age — even when they harass, abuse, injure and kill.
Unlike its masculine counterpart, “girls will be girls” is an unspoken, more insidious norm reserved for white girlhood, white womanhood and white femininity. The harmful, pervasive effects of the conduct they defend go unacknowledged, leaving only a facade of well-intended protection of virtue and innocence. Meanwhile, Black and brown girls are excluded from this shield.
On Jan. 29, a police officer in Rochester, New York, pepper-sprayed a 9-year-old Black girl. In the video, she is screaming for her dad and refusing to enter the patrol car. The officer scolds her, saying “you’re acting like a child.” “I am a child!” she reminds him.
Handcuffed in the backseat of the patrol car, the child pleads, “Officer, please don't do this to me.” “You did it to yourself, hon,” the officer responds. The 9-year-old should have apparently known better, while the Rochester police department extends grace, compassion and understanding to unjustifiable violence perpetrated by four trained adults in the form of paid suspension and administrative leave.
In 2017, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality published a report titled “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood.” The study confirmed that adults view Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers, especially in the age range of 5–14. It also confirmed that, compared to white girls of the same age, survey participants assumed that Black girls need less nurturing, less protection, to be supported less, to be comforted less, are more independent, know more about adult topics and know more about sex.
This lack of grace, compassion and understanding toward Black girls, to use Harrison’s phrasing, has real life consequences, especially in the education and criminal justice systems. At Liberty High School in Kissimmee, Florida, a white school resource officer body-slammed 16-year-old student Taylor Bracey last month. In the bodycam footage, Bracey seems to lose consciousness, her body going limp when her head hits the concrete ground. In the following weeks since the assault on Bracey, her mother disclosed that her daughter has been “having problems sleeping” and “a problem remembering.” Meanwhile, the cop in question — Ethan Fournier, a reported 10-year veteran of his department — is on paid administrative leave.
Our society considers and upholds schools to be safe spaces for children like Bracey. But while much attention has been given to gun violence in schools, time and time and time and time again even the most prestigious schools have proven to be a place of terror and violence for Black girls, especially.
New York Times reporters Erica L. Green, Mark Walker and Eliza Shapiro painted a larger picture of today’s discipline disparities among Black girls in a 2020 article headlined “‘A Battle for the Souls of Black Girls.’” To wit: Black girls are “over five times more likely than white girls to be suspended at least once from school, seven times more likely to receive multiple out-of-school suspensions than white girls and three times more likely to receive referrals to law enforcement.”
“The disproportionate discipline rates among girls indicate what researchers have long said about all Black children: It is not that they misbehave more than their peers, but their behaviors may be judged more harshly," wrote the authors.
Harrison is “stepping aside” from the show’s finale after backlash to the Extra interview, a move apparently of his own accord, not the network’s. As far as consequences go, it’s not a definitive one. Kirkconnell, as of this writing, has released a statement apologizing for and condemning unspecified actions, but has yet to face any consequences whatsoever.
Grace, compassion and understanding are three luxuries showered upon white girls and adult women but skimped on for Black girls. In the white gaze, Black girls are women and Black women represent the antithesis of femininity — angry and emasculatory, homely and lecherous, animals and objects.
White feminists who denounce double standards among cisgendered women and men must make just as much of an effort to call out and condemn how their own community often weaponizes white femininity to perpetuate their own double standards on race. I urge them to report on and critique these incidents as much as when men infantilize and patronize powerful white women in the workplace. Hold each other accountable, so that Black girls and women can focus on the risky, exhausting labor of protecting ourselves. If not for our Black lives, then for the safeguarding of your own inevitable downfall as pawns of white supremacist patriarchy. It’s time to grow up and show up.