When women of color disappear, who says their names?

Gabby Petito was eulogized last week, her father celebrating the adventurous spirit who took her final road trip. To the many people who followed her story in the news, she was Gabby. Like a daughter, a sister, a niece. Someone who should be cared for.

Petito was also white, joven, blond, pretty and valued by society for everything that that implies, say advocates for missing women of color who watched conflicted as her story spread from social media to major newscasts. While the 22-year-old’s death is helping spotlight other missing person cases, they say being white is a social currency that women of color don’t have, which is painfully clear when they disappear.

Law enforcement deployed drones, helicópteros, dogs and dozens of people to find Petito, whose fiance, Brian Laundrie, is a person of interest in her disappearance. Searchers found her remains near the Grand Teton national park in Wyoming, the same state where hundreds of Indigenous women have been reported missing from 2011 y 2020. Their disappearances received no such fanfare.

“No one can name one missing woman of color who has bubbled up [on national news], not one. Can you name one? Because I can’t, and I’ve been in this a long time,” said Derrica Wilson, cofundador de la Black and Missing Foundation, created 13 hace años que.

But the names of missing white women roll off her tongue: Chandra Levy, Natalee Holloway, Laci Peterson before she stops at half a dozen names.

Of the more than 89,000 active missing person cases at the end of 2020, 45% were people of color, according to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center. Yet only about one-fifth of missing person cases involving people of color receive coverage, de acuerdo a una 2016 análisis by criminologist Zach Sommers.

Media critics have called out news organizations for Missing White Woman Syndrome, the practice of amplifying the stories of missing white women while marginalizing those of women of color, a term introduced by the late journalist Gwen Ifill. But gender and women’s studies scholars say the media mirror a society with deep-seated racist and patriarchal beliefs about femininity. While media and law enforcement attention are one measure of how women of color are valued, the issue is more complex, structural and historical.

“In general, they are not thought to be valuable. I think that is something our society acts on and manifests without explicitly understanding. They say, sí, they matter, but their actions and how they engage are very, very different,” said Christen A Smith, director of the Center for Women and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “That has everything to do with how we associate femininity with whiteness and our understanding of security and patriarchy.”

Society isn’t concerned about all women, ella dijo, just those that fit a “certain racialized and gendered understanding of our society and its social contract”. Históricamente, Black, Indigenous and other women of color were not part of the contract. Slavery and colonialism required viewing them as something other than feminine.

“I’m always going to go back to the moment of slavery and the moment of colonialism. We see the need to racialize gender to justify the enslavement and abuse of African and Indigenous women,"Smith dijo. “If all women are women, then slavery becomes an ethical dilemma. But if these women are not women, it allows the system to justify and perpetuate itself.”

What goes unsaid today, ella añadió, is that those deemed worthy of care are cisgender white women.

In the US and many places in the world, whiteness historically has signified purity, nobility and wealth. The Renaissance celebrated alabaster skin; today a Twitter algorithm deems the ideal face to be younger, slimmer and whiter. These standards of beauty apply to character as well. The labels often attached to women of color anchor their status in society as objects, as opposed to people in their own right: hypersexualized and sexually submissive, exotic and coarse, aggressive and compliant, angry and detached. While all women share being objectified, their experience is compounded by race and class.

Cultural critic Koritha Mitchell, a professor of African American literature at Ohio State University, says society has been programmed to place more value on pretty, white and rich women. “What patriarchy decides is precious and needs protecting is something that we are all taught to see as precious and protect,” Mitchell said.

The perceptions inform how law enforcement views missing women of color, Wilson said. In the case of girls of color, stereotypes about their sexualization mean they can be treated like women before their childhood has ended. Wilson points to “keyboard gangsters”, people who use social media to disparage missing girls of color. “They say, ‘She’s fast. She’s this. She’s that. And that is so far from the truth in so many cases.”

There are nuances in how women of color get erased, said Smith. For Indigenous women it’s going to look different than what happens to a young Black woman. She calls the spaces in which women and girls of color disappear the “geography of abuse”. Indigenous and Black women have different experiences based on history, where they live, how they interact within their communities as well as others. “It’s those specifics that we have to pay attention to,"Smith dijo.

The common denominator is that they are both going to be treated poorly, ella añadió.

Look beneath the surface of the cases of missing Indigenous women and girls and another stereotypical belief will appear: that all abuse drugs or somehow contributed to their victimization, said Lynnette Grey Bull, an advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous people whose cases she says have been ignored by the media. Grey Bull is based in Fort Washakie, Wyoming, sobre 110 miles south-west of Grand Teton national park. It was painful to watch all the national coverage of Petito’s disappearance, said Grey Bull, founder and director of Not Our Native Daughters, a non-profit that publicizes those unsolved cases.

“Not to take anything away from Gabby Petito’s case – I’m glad she was able to have all the search and rescue, the whole state involved – but we do not get the same treatment when it comes to one of ours,” Grey Bull said. “I think it’s just America’s betrayal of a brown person or a Native American person, and we’re always fighting these negative labels, like we’re all drug addicts.”

Part of the complication with dealing with the missing and murdered in Indian Country is that the US Bureau of Indian Affairs, chronically underfunded, is in charge of law enforcement on the reservations, Grey Bull said. Some reservations are the size of an American state, and there might be two police officers on duty at a time.

These and other forces have converged to leave hundreds of cases unsolved. Like that of Dawn Day, a young Native American woman whose body turned up in a Wyoming lake nine years ago. Entonces, en 2016, her brother was murdered. Their father, Greg Day, has been advocating for law enforcement to work harder on the cases, which remain open.

“This poor broken man has done everything he can to get justice for his children,” Grey Bull said.

Of active missing persons cases in Wyoming from 2020 a 2021, four Indigenous women and girls remain missing, according to the University of Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center. A reporte from the university found that 710 Indigenous people were reported missing in the state from 2011 a 2020.

While Smith understands concerns about unequal treatment of missing person cases by law enforcement, policing isn’t the answer, ella dijo. “Most folks who are abolitionists, and I count myself as one them, will tell you one of the justifications for policing is sexual assault, disappearances and abuse of women. But police officers rarely if ever prevent sexual abuse and assault of women and routinely mishandle those cases,"Smith dijo.

Part of the problem is how people think about and look for women and other people who are missing: they depend on the state, patriarchy and law enforcement, which she describes as “father-protectors”.

“We need to change media narratives and how our society thinks about the disappearance of women, girls and gender non-conforming folks," ella dijo. “Patriarchal approaches to protecting their victimhood only perpetuate the problem. They mark the narrative of women as vulnerable and violable, and that same narrative fuels their disappearance.”

Sommers, the lawyer who wrote the oft-cited 2016 study on Missing White Woman Syndrome, said the media scrutiny follows the same subtle racism that determines who is valuable – and for young women, that often means who is desirable.

His study shows that cases of missing people of color are covered by national news organizations less frequently and with less intensity. Sommers, a criminologist, attributes the syndrome to mainstream America identifying most often with people who remind them of themselves or people they know.

“With respect to race, it’s very easy for us to see a young white woman and say that could be my cousin or that person I used to babysit for or my neighbor," él dijo, adding that people might even attribute a level of innocence to such a person.

Hace algunos años, Sommers was walking through the lobby of a building with a bank of television sets. He noticed coverage of a missing blond white woman of about 18 o 19.

“I thought to myself she looks a lot like the other people who have gotten this kind of coverage,” Sommers said.

After finding that there was little to no research in this area, he decided to conduct his own using FBI missing person data and stories from major news sites. Creating his own formulas, he found that Black people were the subject of less than 13% of news coverage on missing persons cases, but made up more than 35% of FBI missing persons cases.

What happened to Petito was horrible, él dijo, but she shouldn’t be the only one to receive intense news coverage – a theme that advocates for missing people of color hope to spread.

When the Black and Missing Foundation was created in 2008, Wilson said she was motivated by the disappearance of Tamika Huston, a young woman from her hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina, who had gone missing a few years earlier. Even though one of Huston’s relatives was in public relations, the family couldn’t pierce the media ceiling to get coverage of her disappearance, Wilson said. A year after her she went missing, Huston’s boyfriend confessed to killing her.

The foundation helps Black and Latino families search for their loved ones while trying to change the narrative of missing people of color. “We only want to even the playing field,” Wilson said. “It’s not a Black issue. It’s not a white issue. It’s an American issue.”

But missing person statistics show there are two Americas – one for Nathalee Holloway, Laci Peterson and Chandri Levy; another for Keeshae Jacobs, Deidre Reid, Relisha Rudd and other people on the foundation’s website.

“The list goes on and on,” Wilson said. “We have to change that.”

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