Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Chocolate Industry Exposed: Child Labor, Trafficking and Fair Trade Mislabeling

Our favorite chocolate brands look sweet, but what lies behind the wrapper?

Our favorite chocolate brands look sweet, but what lies beneath the wrapper?

With Valentine’s Day behind us and Easter just a few weeks away, I thought there was no better time to write a post on the chocolate industry than now, when ‘chocolate season’ seems to be in full bloom. Even though it may seem that I am taking somewhat of a detour from my current series on fashion by writing about all things cocoa, the fact is, the chocolate and textile industries share much in common. Both produce things that give people around the world pleasure, and yet that pleasure often comes at a cost. My previous posts on fashion, conflict minerals and technology have attempted to reveal the obstacles in maintaining transparency across our global supply chains, and chocolate is no exception here. If glamor is a facade that often hides the exploitation behind the fashion industry, then the sweetness of chocolate found within the brightly foiled wrappers can be an easy distraction from the gritty, sad reality of how that chocolate is made. The ultimate irony is that an industry that especially caters to children’s Willy Wonka fantasies too often relies on the trafficking of children to make it.

Sigh. There is always a buzzkill. But don’t worry gfs, we’re going to talk about what’s wrong with the cocoa industry, and then we will discuss actions we can take to make it better.

A child labors in the cocoa fields (photo courtesy of ethical living).

A child labors in the cocoa fields (photo courtesy of ethical living).

Here are the hard facts. Two million cocoa farms across West Africa produce around 73 percent of the world’s four million tons of cocoa. Exports from the Cote d’Ivoire account for 10 percent of its GDP, bringing in $2.3 billion to the region annually. This lucrative business relies on more than 1.8 million children, most of whom work without pay and in hazardous conditions, which include exposure to harmful pesticides and forced use of machetes in their work. Between 200,000 and 800,000 children under the age of 18 are working under the ‘worst forms of child labor,’ and it is estimated that over 10,000 are trafficked annually in West Africa alone.

The child labor situation in the cocoa industry is tragic, and yet too little has been done to institute the needed regulations to ensure that this exploitation does not occur. In 2001, a few members of U.S. Congress proposed a federal system to certify and label chocolate products as slave free: right on the wrapper, next to the calories and ingredient list where it sometimes says “may contain peanuts,” it would read “may contain child labor.” This proposal—the Harkin-Engel Accord—passed the House of Representatives, but lost by a razor-thin margin in the Senate when chocolate manufacturing giants like Hershey, Mars, Nestle and agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland threw their money into a massive lobbying effort.

Thanks to the efforts of Senator Harkin and many others committed to see a change, a ‘voluntary protocol’ was nonetheless negotiated. That meant cocoa companies could try and stop child labor, if they wanted to. It set goals for ending abusive and forced child labor on cocoa farms by 2005. These terms have still not been implemented, due to a lack of certification standards, the Ivorian Civil War in which ‘blood chocolate,’ along with conflict minerals, was making money for the militants, and a lack of political will among cocoa corporations. I mean, they didn’t see fit to end child labor before—why was a law with no teeth going to change their behavior now? Every few years, the law gets reviewed, the lobby pushes back, and a new deadline for implementation is set. Meanwhile, kids are enslaved in the cocoa fields. Farmers dream of making as much as $1 a day—a dream as far off as tasting a chocolate bar most never have, since it’s too expensive. At the same time, kids in the West buy cheap chocolate, and dollars pile into coffers of the same giant companies that continue to bat down this legislation.

The Harkin-Engel Protocol - a commitment or wish list? (photo courtesy of candyusa.com)

The Harkin-Engel Protocol addressed again, in 2010. A commitment or wish list? (photo courtesy of candyusa.com).

What do we have to show for these efforts, a decade later? Miki Mistrati and U. Roberto Romano wanted to find out, and launched an undercover investigation into the cocoa industry, which they revealed in their startling, award-winning documentary, The Dark Side of Chocolate. The film reveals that, contrary to the chocolate industry’s claims, child trafficking is still very much central to the production of cocoa in Western Africa, especially the Ivory Coast. Many of these children come from the poorest families in the region, and are tricked into thinking they will be paid for their work so that they can help support their families. Children as young as eight years old travel miles from countries like Burkina Faso or Mali, and are forced to labor in hazardous conditions from sunrise to sunset and live in small shacks in the plantations.

Who is to blame for 8-year old Hussein being a child laborer? Is it corporations, suppliers, consumers or governments?

Who is to blame for 8-year old Hussein working on a cocoa farm? Is it corporations, farmers, suppliers, consumers or governments? Or is everyone to blame? (photo courtesy of Jessica Dimmock for CNNMoney).

But who is to blame here exactly? Much like the fashion industry, the transnational nature of the cocoa industry makes it difficult to ‘pin the blame’ on any particular person, country, or institution. The chocolate companies point fingers at farmers, who in turn have argued that what they’re paid for cocoa is too little for them to pay adult wages—so they hire cheap children instead—or worse. The Ivorian government has similarly accused chocolate companies of not paying farmers enough for their produce since farmers must sell their beans to middlemen at dramatically low prices, even though the prices for cocoa in the commodities market have risen. In response, chocolate companies have countered that it is too complex to track where their cocoa beans come from, especially since global commodities exchanges might mix Ivorian cocoa with other cocoa. The suppliers in turn argue that they can’t be held responsible because they don’t control the farms. Meanwhile, consumers claim that it is difficult to know where their chocolate was produced given the distance between consumers and producers.

Raise the Bar, Hershey! campaign is revealing the hidden costs of their sweet chocolate.

Raise the Bar, Hershey! campaign is revealing the hidden costs of their sweet chocolate.

So what can be done? Mistrati recently gave an interview on the issues of transparency revealed in The Dark Side of Chocolate, and he believes that if major manufacturers who are located in the Ivory Coast are truly concerned about where their cocoa comes from, then they should buy the fields and control the cocoa directly. He also doesn’t think companies are spending enough money on projects fighting child slavery in Africa relative to the revenue they make. For example, take Hershey, which owns a whopping 42 percent of the U.S. market for cocoa, making it the country’s largest purchaser of West African chocolate. Although the company is investing in a $4 million, five year program that helps to train Western African farmers on good farming and labor practices, scorecards recently released by Not for Profit Uniting Church Across Australia and the International Labor Rights Forum revealed Hershey is lagging far behind retailers like Mars and Nestle in eliminating child labor in its supply chain. Hershey has since announced its plan to produce 100 percent certified cocoa for all of its products by 2020, which, if met, could have a profound effect on an industry in which only five percent of its cocoa volume is certified.

Students protest in Times Square in front of the Hershey store (photo courtesy of fairtradecampus.org).

Students protest in Times Square in front of the Hershey store (photo courtesy of United Students for Fair Trade).

Still, as I have written before, there is always a potential that companies will resort to greenwashing when they are not legally bound to follow through with their promises, and Hershey thus far has been somewhat vague on what their certification plan would entail. In fact, Whole Foods Markets Inc. just recently pulled Hershey’s ‘artisan’ chocolate brands Scharffen Berger and Dagoba off the shelves after activists in International Labor Rights Forum, Green America, and the Organic Consumers Association raised concerns about the company’s lack of transparency in their social accountability programs. One of Hershey’s largest shareholders has filed a suit against the company for its alleged use of child labor. The ‘Raise the Bar Hershey‘ campaign, which involves elementary school children as its core base, aims to pressure the company to ethically source 100% of its cocoa by its proposed deadline of 2020. Many children have given up eating chocolate from Hershey’s until the brand makes the full switch. One can only hope that a company built by Quakers on a foundation of educating disadvantaged children would once again become an industry leader.

A young boy dries out cocoa beans in the Ivory Coast. Would more Fair Trade certification make it possible for him to go to school?

A young boy dries out cocoa beans in the Ivory Coast. Would more Fair Trade certification make it possible for him to go to school? (photo courtesy of IRLF).

The Hershey example outlined above clearly demonstrates why companies must operationalize according to a ‘logic of distance’ between producer and consumer as a way to maximize their profits. This logic assumes that the further removed a consumer is from the conditions under which a producer labors, the less likely they will be to have awareness and ultimately, motivation to protest. This is perhaps why Mistrati believes that change in cocoa production methods will be more likely to happen when consumers demand change and pressure chocolate manufactures to increase their purchases of Fair Trade cocoa. The standards for the Fair Trade certification mark prohibit child labor according to the ILO conventions, and qualified auditors are supposed to routinely check producer organizations to ensure that these standards are being rigorously met. By working to strengthen the position of farmers and workers in international supply chains so that they do not have to rely on child labor, a convincing argument can be made for the elimination of child trafficking by creating a greater demand for Fair Trade chocolate. And when children are not forced to work the argument is that they will have greater opportunities to go to school, which is one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of poverty that fuels child trafficking in the first place.

However, sometimes transparency in labeling for even movements we trust can be suspect. While Fair Trade advocates have always touted transparency throughout the Fair Trade supply chain as central to its mission, there is a growing concern that as more businesses incorporate the Fair Trade label into their products in an effort to gain new consumers, the high bar for accountability might become filtered. The Fair World Project decided to go to various stores to investigate how transparent various chocolate brands were about their labeling. They were shocked to find out that two “privately labeled chocolate bars,” one of which was from Trader Joe’s and the other from Whole Foods, claimed to be Fair Trade when in fact, only a few of their ingredients were certified Fair Trade. So if Whole Foods’ brand chocolate bar has fair trade cocoa butter, how does the consumer know that the sugar and vanilla included in the bar was not made with exploited labor? Trader Joe’s is even more secretive about its Fair Trade ingredients, with none being identified in their ingredient list (this lack of transparency on sourcing and labor practices is not just limited to chocolate at the cheap retailer, as this article points out).

Misleading labels: This Trader Joe's bar is cheaper than other Fair Trade chocolate bars, but how do we know the ingredients on this bar weren't made with exploitative labor?

Misleading labels: This Trader Joe’s bar is cheaper than other Fair Trade chocolate bars, but how do we know the ingredients on this bar weren’t made with exploitative labor when the labeling isn’t transparent?

This is egregious not just because it allows these companies to sell a Fair Trade product without being fully transparent about their supply chains, but also because these private brands are cheaper than true Fair Trade companies like Alter Eco, Divine, and Equal Exchange, all of which invest in fair prices and premiums to ensure that more money is going directly to cooperatives controlled by farmers. Their bars clearly indicate which ingredients are Fair Trade, and furthermore, they include relevant information and pictures about the co-ops they work with in the inserts of their packaging and on their websites. Still, consumers have become so conditioned to trust the label, they might buy a cheaper product that has fewer Fair Trade ingredients (and yes, I was one of those consumers. I’m not exactly a fan of being lied to, so hence. this. post.).

What is so strange is that the Swiss-based Institute for Marketecology (IMO), a certifier for companies using the ‘Fair for Life’ label, requires that a product be 80% fair trade by weight in order to display the Fair for Life logo on the front. Furthermore, neither of these bars indicates the audited company responsible for manufacturing the bar, a key component of IMO’s Fair for Life program. So, what explains these misleading labels?

Certifier IMO failed to intervene when Theo, a Fair Trade certified company, did not uphold its Northern workplace standards.

Certifier IMO failed to intervene when Theo, a Fair Trade certified company, did not uphold its Northern workplace standards.

Even more difficult to explain is the recent lapse in Fair Trade workplace standards that was revealed a few weeks ago when the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) released a report titled Aiding and Abetting. The report documents how certifier IMO neglected to uphold its commitment to international labor standards promoted by its Fair for Life label when it failed to intervene on behalf of workers at Theo Chocolate who were attempting to organize at their North American factory. In fact, IMO then proceeded to initiate new labor standards that included recommendations for employer-hired consultants who discourage union organizing to be included in a list provided to its workers. While one can argue that this violation was a failure to uphold their Northern workplace standards, not necessarily their ‘Fair Trade’ standards, we should still question, if the certification system wasn’t working in North America, whether it would work for producers in the Global south.

The question is then, how do we make the system financially accountable to the people it is supposed to help, namely both workers and consumers? According to Rachel Taber, who worked at Theo Chocolate for three and a half years as a tour guide, one of the central problems lies with the fact that auditors are being paid by the management of companies like Theo, thus setting up a potential conflict of interest. This is why the ILRF is recommending that complaints by workers be reviewed not by company-associated auditors, but by an independent “International Fair Trade Board of Appeal.” As Judy Gearhart, Executive director of ILRF noted in an interview with me:

“We definitely need more accountability and transparency in our system. And we need to acknowledge that not all of these systems are treated equally. Fair Trade International, which is based in Europe, can partly attribute its more rigorous Fair Trade standards to more robust support by the labor movement there. And that makes a big difference. While we feel that Fair Trade has the right social justice commitments, we need to work harder to ensure that farmers have a strong share in these companies.”

Yes. Because ultimately, farmers and producers, not labels, are at the heart of this movement. There are some wonderful company leaders who are indeed staying true to their Fair Trade ethics, in that they are constantly striving for transparency and are committed to giving their workers a platform to voice their concerns. They’re reaping economic benefit on a more equitable level and taking unique approaches to do it.

Children of the families of the Dominican cocoa co-operative CONACADO, a partner of Equal Exchange.

Children of the families of the Dominican cocoa co-operative CONACADO, a partner of Equal Exchange, at their elementary school.

Take for example, Equal Exchange, the oldest Fair Trade coffee company in the United States. Of the nine seats on their board, six are reserved for non-management worker-owners, and all nine are nominated and elected by the workers themselves. They share worker testimonials on their online site, and as Rocio Motato of the Columbian cooperative ASPROCAFE put it, “We have not only a commercial relationship through the coffee, but more importantly, a very human relationship.” Their commitment to environmental sustainability and organic food practices is evident in the quality of their products—the chocolate bars sourced from purely made ingredients are some of my favorites in the business (and I know my chocolate!).

18-3farmers_gathering

Farmers in Madagascar gather their beans after sun-drying. Madecasse works with cooperatives to keep the profit in the region so that farmers do not have to rely on cheap child labor (photo courtesy of madecasse.com).

There are other notable models that should also be highlighted. Divine is a Fair Trade company in which farmers own 45% and share the profits, and there is a special focus on women leadership. Alter Eco Foods works with small-scale cooperatives in countries that include Bolivia, Peru, and Thailand, and is an interesting company because its environmental commitments include organic agriculture training for farmers and also partnering many of their cooperatives with reforestation projects. And then there are other chocolate producers that are not certified Fair Trade, but are making quality chocolate that benefits local communities. For example, the Chuao cooperative in Venezuela sells to high-end chocolatiers, and the farmers organize and distribute money fairly among themselves and make really amazing chocolate that is culturally appropriate to their land-based indigenous background. The Granada Chocolate company makes organic chocolate in Granada using their own cocoa beans, while Madecasse, a chocolate company sourced and manufactured from bean to bar in Madagascar, keeps the profits local.

The certified Fair Trade and non-certified Fair Trade companies highlighted above are all excellent examples of models that work, and provide a compelling rationale for why consumers need to start looking beyond the label to truly transform the system, because the Fair Trade seal, which traditionally used to symbolize rigorous monitoring and transparent labeling, is in danger of being diluted and hijacked. Furthermore, we need to start thinking more deeply about whether we should rely solely on a certification to bridge the gap between producers and consumers. While the Payson Center proposal of an oversight committee on certifiers is a good, easy starting point for where we are now, to create a more accountable workplace, Rachel Taber believes that we can go even further to institute a real system of “checks and balances.” As she told me:

You need a union, a real functioning democratic co-op, a way that workers themselves can communicate directly with consumers in a way that their own words will be heard. I mean really, skyping with interpreters would probably be much cheaper than paying out of country auditors.”

On a related note, NGO-sponsored ‘worker tours’ which include a small panel of workers sharing their personal narratives of laboring within global commodity chains are proving to be a powerful way for producers and activists to build coalitions with schools, congregations and most urgently, unions.

Two Cacao farmers from the cooperative CONACADO speak on tour:

Finally, we need to encourage civic engagements and direct action of consumers and workers together to hold abusive companies responsible and reward companies that have implemented worker and consumer demands on them and are actually following through on their commitments. Organizations like the United Students against Sweatshops (USAS), Coalition of Immokale Workers (CIW), and even the Raise the Bar, Hershey! campaign have given corporations a taste of the power of consumers rising against them.  For example, after learning that Nike had failed to pay $1.54 million in severance pay to over 1,800 workers in Honduras, USAS led several University boycotts of the brand which led to Nike ultimately agreeing to pay the workers the severance that was owed to them. It is clear that the corporate accountability model is capable of working, in that costing companies money gets things done. You might be surprised just how much your voice can make a difference.

USAS organizers, here with BJ&B workers, have had some key victories (photo courtesy of USAS).

USAS organizers, here with BJ&B workers, have had some key victories (photo courtesy of USAS).

Here is the deal. Child trafficking in the cocoa industry is very real, and it is tragic. If we are going to seriously address it, then we need to not just resort to knee-jerk responses such as ‘buy Fair Trade chocolate’ if we don’t even know what that means. Though I want to be clear here, my issue isn’t with the person who buys an Equal Exchange bar over a Hershey bar knowing that the former supports democratic co-ops while the latter is potentially trafficking children to supply their cocoa. We do need to demand more ethically sourced chocolate, and supporting disenfranchised farming communities is a very powerful choice.

Where we get into a problem is when we buy products because we trust the label and we don’t realize that the label might be diluted. Or when we think of ourselves only as consumers and not also as citizens who have the power to organize for system-wide changes, such as the Harkin-Engel accord, or anti-corporate campaigns against cases of abuse. We need to get to know the companies behind the labels to see which ones best represent our values of social justice and transparency, and take cues from organizations we respect, such as the Fair World Project, or a faith-based organization which is active in Fair Trade issues, or any of the ones mentioned above. In the words of Public Enemy, ‘Don’t believe the hype.” In order to better direct the energy of the labor rights movement, we need to think critically, ask questions, and ultimately, refuse to lower the bar for justice.

Update: In late March, Hershey announced that it would commit to 100% Fair Trade cocoa by 2020, and that it would source through certifiers UTZ, Fair Trade USA, and Rainforest Alliance. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, we need to keep in mind that these three certifiers are known for being less rigorous than other Fair Trade certifiers. The Fair World Project’s list of credible Fair Trade certification programs does not include any of these certifiers. Here are links to criticisms of Fair Trade USARainforest Alliance and UTZ. This demonstrates again, the importance of sustained conversation, and thinking beyond the label!

In late 2012, IMO wrote this letter to the Fair World Project promising that they would remove the Fair for Life logo on the front of their label until they had ensured that they had corrected the Fair Trade ingredients percentage in their chocolate. The Fair World Project confirmed that as of 2014, the private labels are sourcing fair trade sugar.

Trader Joe’s has pulled the Fair for Life logo from their fair trade chocolate, but they are still not indicating who it is that is certifying their chocolate as fair trade, if anyone.

Fair Trade USA has repeatedly been criticized for its labeling policy that lacks transparency and its low percentage of required fair trade ingredients. They have made some changes, such as agreeing to mandate a percentage disclosure and to not exempt milk from calculations of fair trade ingredients. But they are still excluding sugar and vanilla as mandatory in products labeled ‘fair trade.’

In December 2015, a food blogger published a series of posts on DallasFood.org investigating how the Mast Brothers – an “artisanal” chocolate company known for its “bean to bar” production and  commitment to authenticity and transparency – did not always make its chocolate from scratch and is less than transparent about its production sources.  As this Quartz piece noted, the story highlights how a company’s marketing, which in this case included beautiful packaging and bearded, hipster founders, can successfully launch a product of questionable quality into the market and help shape it into a consumer and media darling.

Take Action:
  • Want to email companies like Hershey and Nestle, as well as the World Cocoa Foundation, pressuring them to abide by Harkin-Engel? Check out this page where you can also message Tom Harkin and Eliot Engel!
  • Get involved in the Hershey, Raise the Bar! Campaign, where you can find petitions and some great resources!
  • Check out 10 Campaign’s excellent breakdown of the main issues around child labor in the chocolate industry, and be sure to download their comprehensive but clear “Campaign Briefing Document.”
  • Sign this petition initiated by the Food Empowerment Project asking Clif Bar to disclose where they get their cocoa beans.
  • The Global Cocoa Project has some great resources for increasing awareness about the realities behind the cocoa industry.
  • Looking for more ideas on how to get young people involved? Or how you can raise awareness by hosting your own ‘chocolate party?’ Stop the Traffick can hook you up!
  • How about hosting a screening of ‘A Dark Side of Chocolate’ as a way to spread awareness among your peers and larger community? You can purchase it on ILRF’s website. And check out their ‘Take Action’ page.
  • Concerned about Theo’s recent actions against its workers, and IMO’s failure to uphold Fair Trade standards? Want to hold accountable and improve the parties involved? Sign this petition demanding that IMO’s Fair for Life certification label adopt reforms to protect workers.
  • Share this video testimonial of a former Theo worker.
  • Share this amazing TEDx talk by ChocoSol founder Michael Sacco, where he discusses the horizontal trade model that emphasizes community supported agriculture, diversity of production, and intercultural relationships. Watch the ChocoSol philosophy here.
  • Share this video about chocolate company TCHO‘s work in Costa Rica.
  • Screen Nothing Like Chocolate, a documentary by Kum-Kum Bhavnani, which focuses on how Mott Green of the Grenada Chocolate Company and independent cocoa farmer Nelice Stewart produce chocolate sustainably and ethically. You can watch the trailer here.

Good Chocolate List:

  • You should take these recommendations with a grain of salt given some of the points made in this post, but this is a good basic list of which chocolate companies source from areas in West Africa where child slavery is the most pervasive, as well as ethical and sustainable alternatives.
Additional Resources:
My Related Posts:

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Filed under Critical Fashion

Misee Harris: Why a Black Bachelorette May Matter More Than You Think

"I'm totally in love with this island and $40,000 ring — I mean, you."

“I’m totally in love with this island and the $40,000 ring — I mean, you.”

The Bachelor. For 25 seasons, millions of viewers have watched a familiar formula of women crying, helicopter rides as first dates, and so many red roses given and ‘I love yous’ exchanged that have, with the exception of three cases, ended in break-ups. The show isn’t exactly a rousing advertisement for the institution of marriage, but rather a venue for many contestants to pursue pseudo-permanent reality television careers and fratty cruise events where they can hook up with other like-minded, shallow people.

Can you tell I’m not a diehard fan? (And yes, I know I enjoy my Housewives. But we all have our contradictions, and I’m living with mine every day, gfs).

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Pediatric Dentist Misee Harris campaigns to be the next Bachelorette.

So it may surprise you that I’m actually a big advocate of Misee Harris’ social media campaign to become the first black bachelorette. The pediatric dentist from Tennessee is an absolute knockout who also has a huge heart, given her commitment to mentoring young women and volunteer efforts with children who have autism. She has a precious video of her with her dog, is sweet with her Facebook fans and quotes 2 Chainz. Nuff’ said.

I'm annoying and shady and nobody liked me...thank God I'm white! It's like, totally awesome.

I’m annoying and shady and nobody liked me … was I picked because I’m white? That’s like, totally awesome.

So why the social media campaign? Although Harris applied and was chosen to be a contestant on a previous season of The Bachelor, she ultimately withdrew because she was concerned about ‘being another token.’ Given that all 25 seasons of the franchise have featured white Bachelors and Bachelorettes, and that there have been very few contestants of color, this is totes a valid concern. Here is what bothers me. Misee Harris is pretty much perfect. I mean seriously, how many people do you know who possess all of her exceptional qualities? When you consider some of the other not-so-perfect contestants on the show (Vienna Girardi anyone? Or Brad Womack? OK those were the only seasons I watched, promise ;)), it seems a bit ridiculous for creator Mike Fleiss to make the claim that diverse contestants don’t come forward, and that when they do, it feels a ‘bit forced,’ like ‘tokenism.’

An earth angel, not a token! (photo courtesy of Jaimie Tull of Tull Studios).

First of all, isn’t there an argument to be made that viewers have been ‘forced’ to endure ten years of nearly all-white casts that for many of us, do not reflect the diversity of people we engage with in our daily lives? Also, tokenism in this context would imply that a non-qualified contestant was picked simply because they added diversity. But to dismiss a beautiful, successful, charitable woman because of the color of her skin? How does that constitute anything but systematic racial exclusion? Seriously dude, check out the Wikipedia definition of these terms before you preach such foolishness, fo’ real.

resized_aliblue

I was SO heart-broken a week ago, but now I’m the new Bachelorette—score!

Furthermore, why is it that the Bachelorette must be a former contestant? Isn’t the formula getting a tad stale? I mean really, every season, it’s the same deal—white woman gets ‘heart broken’ on The Bachelor, sits in Chris Harrison’s hot seat during the reunion show for ten minutes and cries about how she is ‘looking for love’ and has finally moved on from the Bachelor who she fell in love with over those two dates she had with him, only to come back a week later smiling and radiant as she is announced the new Bachelorette. We. get. it.

Now I know there are many peeps out there who will argue that The Bachelor isn’t a show that contestants of color should strive to be on in the first place, and that it might actually demean an accomplished woman like Harris. I have a few responses to this, and I highly recommend that you act out a Snap! as I make each point, so get ready. First of all, regardless of whether or not you think Harris should be on the show doesn’t take away from the fact that Harris wants to be on the show. At the end of the day, she should be granted an equal opportunity, period. Yes I know, she could have been a contestant on The Bachelor and won a chance to become the next Bachelorette, but considering that very few contestants of color have gotten far on previous seasons of the show, the odds of that happening were very much against her. Secondly, The Bachelor is one of television’s most popular franchises that is watched by millions of people religiously and has, like it or not, cultural influence. To give a show an all-inclusive title like ‘The Bachelor’ implies that there are going to be all kinds of contestants on the show, not a whitewashed view of relationships and marriage that as Jezebel put it, “couldn’t be further from reality.” I mean seriously, if Mike Fleiss is going to be so blunt about his reasons for excluding people of color, then he should have named it ‘The White Bachelor.’ Or, ‘The Fratty Bachelor.’ Or even better, ‘The White, Fratty, Straight, Christian Bachelor.’ You know? Keep. It. Real.

A dating show, or white Greek rush event?

A dating show, or white Greek rush event?

Quick side note. Similar criticisms were leveled at Lena Dunham of the show Girls, for featuring an all-white cast in the middle of Brooklyn. And guess what? Dunham admitted that had been an oversight and promptly addressed the lack of diversity in the second season. I love me some self-reflection. LOVE.

Lena figured it out, so why can't Mike?

Lena figured it out, so why can’t Mike?

Finally, it is precisely this cultural permeability, this accessibility, that can actually make a show like The Bachelor a potentially powerful tool for creating conversations on topics around relationships and some other pretty serious issues. Doubtful? OK, let’s take the example of Sean Lowe’s season, which did feature a fairly diverse group of contestants, including an Iraqi woman named Selma Alameri. Former Bachelorette Ali Fedotowsky took it upon herself to write a blog entry titled “Selma’s boobs, Roller Derby, and Tierra Drama” in which she makes fun of Selma’s cleavage and criticizes her intent to stay true to her mother’s wishes and not kiss Sean on national television.

(Brief aside/rant: There’s nothing I love more than when someone like Ali, who has reaped the benefits from The Bachelor for all the reasons mentioned above, takes an opportunity to shame a woman of color’s body on a public forum as well as provide ‘cutting-edge’ cultural criticism. No really, it’s like, my favorite thing ever. She should totes come back for another season of The Bachelorette, cause last I checked, season one didn’t work out too great. Oh no. I. didn’t. Oh yes I did! Snap!).

Aside over. When reading the comments in the article below, there was definitely quite a bit of backlash against Ali for, as one person put it, “discussing other cultures in a blog when you don’t know anything about that culture.” Then one person responded to that comment by asking,

Maybe you can help explain why this point of view is wrong. To those who don’t know much about/understand these cultures, Selma is a bit confusing. Where do we draw the line of modesty on national television? I don’t know much about the Muslim faith myself, but I was under the impression that women were supposed to dress more modestly, abstain from drinking alcohol, and not be spooning and caressing on national television. What makes kissing so taboo in relativity to those other things?

Then over at Reality Steve, the blogger who posts spoilers every season, someone responded to his comments calling Selma a ‘tease’ for dressing sexy but not ‘putting out’ by noting,

I take MAJOR issues with you going on and on about how Selma dresses sexy and thus she was a ‘cock tease’ for not putting out with Sean. Wow Steve, so if a woman dresses sexy, she has to put out? That’s how rape culture is perpetuated, FYI.

Who knew a date between Iraqi-born Selma Alameri and Bachelor Sean Lowe would provoke cultural conversations?

Who knew a date between Iraqi-born Selma Alameri and Bachelor Sean Lowe would provoke cultural conversations?

This is why I think pop culture shows can be so awesome, because they can facilitate important conversations on issues like culture and gender that need to be had, just by the nature of their accessibility. While the diversity of blogs in the blogosphere is exciting, there is a potential that certain communities which cater to specific topics will only pull in the interested and invested, ultimately preaching to the choir. I love the idea that having a diverse group of contestants on a show that so many people watch might provoke questions and spark conversations on cultures that are different from theirs in a way that they might not normally engage with. I mean seriously, I love that someone might actually learn something, or at the very least, be inspired to learn, about the Islamic faith after watching an episode where two people go on a date, climb a rock, and toast marshmallows over a campfire. Furthermore, as this blogger put it,

Such a show would inherently promote the idea that black women are desirable. It disrupts the cultural narratives in media—that some see as propaganda—promoting the expectation that African-American women should be perpetually single. It de-emphasizes the standard of a white, fair-haired woman as the epitome of female beauty and worthiness, a standard which fuels billions of dollars in sales of hair dye, hair extensions, and skin-bleaching creams globally. This beauty ideal also contributes to the absence of black women from the ranks of the highest paid models and actresses, where our form of beauty tends to be an occasional exotic trend rather than embraced as an everyday normality.

Scandal proves we're reading for a black leading lady.

Scandal proves we’re reading for a romantically attractive black leading lady.

As she further points out, it is not like Americans aren’t interested in high-profile relationships involving black women, including those of Beyonce and Jay Z, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Will Smith, and of course, Michelle and Barack Obama. Seriously, if Americans are ready for a relationship between two black people in the White House, then why can’t they watch a black woman date on a show that isn’t just comical (read: Flavor of Love)? And if Mike Fleiss is so concerned about ratings, perhaps he should look to the show Scandal, which features an affair between a powerful black broker played by Kerry Washington and a white president that is bringing in eight million viewers an episode.

Pop culture visibility matters, and Misee Harris deserves to be part of it. If she were chosen I would totes watch, and it’s not just because she’s black. It is because she is a professional, talented woman who would add interest due to the nature of her accomplishments. That being said, picking a diverse roster of candidates for her would also add a lot of interest, and it would probably get people talking. And that’s a good thing, right girlfriends?

Want to show Misee some love and support? Check out her Facebook page and her twitter account, and tweet Mike Fleiss @fleissmeister letting him know you want @miseeharris as the next #bachelorette!

And check out this Huff Po live interview with Misee!

An abridged version of this article is now on The Huffington Post.

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