"Between that and just a lot of other things about Greek life, I was like, 'I don't want to be part of this anymore.' So I dropped out after that," she said. "I guess that's the first time my eyes opened about, 'OK, there's a difference between being not racist and anti-racist.'"
While the world learned of Kirkconnell's past actions in early 2021, the reality star stated that she had an awakening prior to the controversy, when a family friend "opened" her eyes to the racist history of her sorority's formal.
"For everyone, including Matt, it had just happened. For them, it was brand new. But for me, it was years," she explained of the 2018 photos. "And so it was weird to go through that and relive it, and have everyone look at me as if I was that exact person back then that I am today."
After learning the history, Kirkconnell said she was "mind-blown" to find out the event's true meaning.
"I'm, like, so ashamed that I basically participated in that unknowingly because I'm sitting here in my own little privileged, selfish world just thinking like, 'Oh, we just put dresses on to go take a photo opp,' you know?" she said. "It was nothing more than, like, an Instagram opportunity. And like, how terrible is that?"
"I didn't think anything about it because it didn't affect me personally, you know? So when I first learned that it was [racist], I was really ashamed that I unknowingly participated in that and basically continued that tradition," Kirkconnell added. "... Back then, if you would've asked me, 'Are you a racist person?' I would be like, 'Of course I'm not'... That was probably the first time I realized there are layers to this. You can obviously be overtly racist, but you can also have implicit bias and these racial tendencies within you that you don't even know about, or you can be racially ignorant."
Kirkconnell's "peak" of learning, she said, happened in the summer of 2020, after Derek Chauvin, a white cop, killed George Floyd, a Black man. It was months later that the TikToks about Kirkconnell and the photos of her surfaced.
"That's when I realized, 'OK, I need to do more than not be racist'... That was the first time I was like, 'Yeah, standing aside and not being a part of it, that's not enough anymore,'" Kirkconnell said, adding that she lost friends and no longer speaks to some family members as a result.
The public, though, was unaware of this when the TikToks about Kirkconnell were posted.
"It was so weird to feel like I had already been going on this journey and then having to relive all of that all over again, and have people think I'm this person," she said. "I get it, because obviously from everything they've seen how could they not think I'm not that person?... Of course I'm telling myself, 'I know who I am,' but what do I have to show for it?... I felt like I had to answer to everyone and had prove to everyone who I am, and what I stand for, and what I believe in."
At the same time, Kirkconnell said she "was so worried" that everyone would think her comments and actions were "super performative" and that saying anything at all would "make things worse."
When the photo from the Old South plantation-themed party came out, though, Kirkconnell said that all her hesitation about speaking out "went out the window," despite people encouraging her to "wait out" the controversy.
It was then that Kirkconnell posted her first statement. Though fans didn't know it at the time, as the Bachelor finale had yet to air, when the controversy broke, Kirkconnell and James were together. The controversy, though, led to their split.
"That was when it got to its worst, because Matt and I, that was our breaking point for both of us. That's when we had split up, right toward the end of February," she said, adding that her breakup led her to post her second statement.
"That same week I was like, 'I have nothing else to lose at this point,' so that's when I decided to post an IGTV of me just speaking," she said. "I didn't try to make excuses for myself because there are none... That dress and the history of that formal was racist, and I was completely ignorant to that and I needed to be held accountable for that. And so, I completely understood that."
"I knew I had to apologize. I wanted to apologize. Not that I had to, but I wanted to," Kirkconnell continued. "I get that, of course, for some people that will never be enough, and I completely understand that. People are more than entitled to not forgive me... That was my rock bottom. I was like, 'I have lost everything at this point and I'm labeled as this person now.'"
"I guess the last few months I have tried to find some sort of normalcy. I've wanted to just shut that whole chapter. I try and look at it in a positive way by thinking like, 'I would do it all over again if I had to or if I could,' because Matt and I are in a great place now and I've grown so much from that entire experience," she said. "I've learned so much and I try and tell myself, 'Well, you do have this platform now that you can make a difference with.'"