Robin Boylorn on Missing White Woman Syndrome
Missing White Woman Syndrome is a phrase, coined by black journalist Gwen Ifill, that refers to the public fascination and media focus given to the disappearance of young white women, often at the expense of other missing people. While white womanhood is the premise of disproportionate media attention, worthy white women are young, thin, upper middle class, conventionally attractive, traditionally feminine and almost always blonde. It is not surprising that this aesthetic, largely upheld in the public imagination, attracts attention, a willingness to help and an investment in the woman being found.
Victims must have power and visibility to gain legitimacy, so while white women are centered in news stories when they are missing, black and indigenous women who are missing under similar circumstances are often missing from those headlines. When we learn about missing black women and girls, it is always through a harrowing statistic, nearly never by their individual names. This imbalance in coverage creates a myth of merit implying that the stories we see are the only ones that exist-- or the only ones that matter, which has a devastating impact on the outcomes of the most vulnerable in our population.
One of the reasons black and indigenous folk, poor folk, trans folk and those with physical or mental disabilities are usually not included in missing person coverage is because they are not telegenic or seen as ideal victims. Ideal victims generate the most sympathy from society. Marginalized folk, however, are evaluated by separate standards. For example, black and brown children are likely to be classified as runaways, black and brown men are often criminalized, and people with disabilities are largely underserved and sometimes unhoused. In addition, cases of missing trans people are rarely solved and the public is socialized to be desensitized to people of color in poverty so that their vulnerability is not registered as risk. Incapable of being a so-called “perfect victim,” these victims are often vilified and blamed for their own deaths.
The most recent case of Gabby Petito has resulted in several conversations about the imbalance in coverage, as people wonder why some names become immediately and permanently recognizable and others are forgotten, if ever spoken, like Jelani Day and Daniel Robinson. The number of missing people of color is disproportionately higher than white people, but their stories are underrepresented in national conversations. This focused attention on missing white women syndrome happens every time a high profile case is amplified in the media, shedding light on the numerous cases that remain unsolved.
Humanization often happens through storytelling, so if we are not telling the stories of non-white women who are missing with the same frequency or compassion as we do with white women, they will continue to be forgotten. News outlets and law enforcement agencies need to be more intentional and proportionate about whose stories they are telling and whose lives they are valuing.
The problem is not that white women get attention when they go missing, but that people of color don’t. As Charles Blow says, in his New York Times article, Gwen Ifill Was Right About ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome, “it is not that [white women] should matter less, but rather that all missing people should matter equally.”
I’m Robin Boylorn. Until next time…keep it crunk!
Written by Robin Boylorn
Edited by Brittany Young