What is Missing White Woman Syndrome and Why is It Killing BIPOC Women

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2021 was a wake-up call in many ways. Sound bites of inclusivity and big social movements blared across our TVs, podcasts, and social media handles, yet we are inundated with the plague of the Missing White Woman Syndrome. The world is drenching in sweat, shouting for equality, and the racial reckoning seemed to have put us all on high alert for implicit bias and criminal justice. Many of us searched for ways to erase the invisibility around the causes and people most likely to be marginalized. Yet, an age-old blind spot reemerged as surely as the sun rises in the east. The media fascination with endless searches for missing white women and girls is only paralleled by the tireless reminders that justice will be served for them and that someone will answer for their absence and/or death. 

This is the true embodiment of the Missing White Woman Syndrome, which is not new. This atrocity was first named by groundbreaking news journalist Gwen Ifill. True crime scholar Jean Murley elaborated on it when speaking about the Gabby Petito case in her October 2021 New Yorker interview, noting that Americans have a fixation on a certain type of victim, as well as a strange interest in the editorializing or unraveling of true crime stories. The news flooded us with updates on minute and speculative details of Petito’s disappearance, perhaps more so for ratings than for public help in solving the mystery. As the air waves became more and more saturated, I couldn’t help but remember a similar developing story from my own childhood. The 1996 JonBenét Ramsey murder remains unsolved, but still rich with media fodder and seeming police interest nearly 30 years later. All the while, Black women, indigenous women, Latinx women, transwomen, and intersectional womxn everywhere are dying in silence.

Not only are women of color dying to know why white women disproportionately receive substantial media coverage for the heinous acts of violence and kidnapping they experience, specifically because we don’t seem to merit the same attention when we are victims. According to Catalyst, women of color comprised 20.3% of the U.S. population in 2019, and we’re on target to be the majority of all women in 2060. In 2020, over 100,000 Black girls and women went missing. It would be hard to have known it, however, unless you stumbled upon journalist Erika Marie Rivers’ Our Black Girls website that collates as much as can be found on cases going back to 1910. An NPR article on her work reported that although Black women are only 15% of the nation’s female population, we were reported missing at a disproportionately high rate. According to the National Crime Information Center, “268,884 girls and women were reported missing in the United States in 2020. A third of those reported missing were Black—far greater than their share of the overall female population.” With so little coverage of these disappearances, it is no wonder that so few Black women and girls are ever recovered safely,  and we’re not the only ones.

A state-run study revealed that about 710 BIPOC went missing during 2011-2020 in Wyoming, where Gabby Petitio disappeared with her boyfriend in 2021. None of them received the media attention, and presumably the urgency from law enforcement, that Petitio did. The “Say Her Name,” movement followed on the heels of Petito’s murder, in which Native and Indigenous people took to social media, film, and the press to talk about their missing sisters, mothers, daughters, nieces, aunts, and neighbors who had never been given the attention they deserved. A documentary by the same name was released earlier in 2021, where indigenous activists have been seen with the red stained hand over their mouths—a symbol of the silent deaths of so many countless women and girls. The symbolic hand is also the iconic image of a companion film named Somebody’s Daughter, by the same director, Rain. The filmmaker has moved to change policy and to advise seats of power to seek justice for countless Native women and their families. And while changemakers from within affected communities are valued beyond compare, they also serve as a foil for the high-paid and well-resourced journalists and news anchors who claim space over the stories that impact local and national headlines.

The pipeline of neglect oscillates between news media and law enforcement, leaving nothing but cold cases and a lack of accountability in its wake. Using New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services records, researchers argued “that race and gender differences [in the recovery of missing children] may arise due to differential media attention, socio-economic background and police resources.” Not only does this systemic neglect cost vulnerable lives, but it also puts BIPOC women in a state of constant fear. There is endless concern that someone is hunting us because they know that there will be no search party, that law enforcement won’t search for us because they believe our lives are worthless, that the media won’t blast our stories across a month of news cycles because our search won’t attract ratings, and that should we ever find ourselves kidnapped, lost, injured, or helpless, we’re all we got.

For this and so many other reasons, non-white women of color never move past the second step of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: safety. Yet, in these cases that enthrall the media, there is the assumption that white women should and do reach Maslow’s third tier–love/belonging–and in many cases the highest two, esteem and self-actualization. It is the interruption of white women’s professional or personal stability, their stolen dreams, and their heartbroken families that seem to make headlines. But if that were all it took to garner public attention, so many other BIPOC women’s tragedies would surely merit equal outrage, right?

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Being ignored at our most vulnerable screams the unspoken undertone that declares that our needs are invalid and were never meant to be met; should tragedy or trauma befall us it is neither actionable nor newsworthy. Missing White women’s syndrome is not just an illness, it is a virus that silences BIPOC women’s victimization; ironically it doesn’t have a great track record of finding missing White women and girls alive and well when public interest subsides. The media’s approach to its roles and responsibilities in ongoing true crime gender-based violence cases warrants serious reevaluation. At some level, this failure to effectively leverage public knowledge to adequately mobilize law enforcement literally results in killing us all.   

 

Nafeesah Allen, Ph.D. is a multi-lingual author, independent researcher, editor, and contributing writer for various national online publications. She frequently covers personal finance, family, culture, real estate, and discrimination. Her work is best found on NafeesahAllen.com and on IG & Twitter @theblaxpat.


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