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Missing White Woman Syndrome

Ten Black and Latinx teenage girls went missing in the Washington D.C. area within less than two weeks, and beyond the police department’s Twitter account and a few online news sites, few media outlets are covering the story. While two of the missing teens have since been found safely, eight of the girls are still missing. These disappearances are even more concerning considering that there has been a rapid increase in the amount of sex trafficking in the area. The lack of media coverage for these missing girls reveals a further issue of persisting racism in our society that is jeopardizing the lives of women of color.

According to the Black & Missing Foundation, nearly 40% of all missing people in the United States are people of color. However, missing people of color generally receive much less news coverage than that of their white counterparts. In fact, there tends to be significantly more media coverage for young, white, upper-class women or girls who are missing. This phenomenon, originally coined by PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill, is known as “missing white woman syndrome.”

The greater media attention given to missing white women perpetuates the social hierarchy in our culture that values white people over people of color. Furthermore, it reinforces the idea to children of color that their safety is somehow valued less than white children. Sociologist Gwen Sharp suggests that one of the reasons missing white children receive more media coverage than missing children of color is because we assume the innocence of white children while children of color, especially Black children, are “often adultified, their behavior attributed to intentional maliciousness.” While we are concerned when any women, child or man disappears, it is deeply disturbing that only certain types of victims are deemed to be “worthy” of media attention.

Although the mainstream media has largely ignored these disappearances, some media outlets have spoken out in hopes of finding these missing Black and Latinx girls and to bring attention to the issue of why their disappearances were not as widely reported as missing white girls. The Black news site The Root was one of the first news sources to bring attention to these disappearances and the subsequent lack of media attention. Furthermore, news of the missing Black and Latinx girls was spread via social media accounts like @BlackMarvelGirl, which is credited with making the Washington D.C. police department’s tweets of the missing girls go viral.

We need to call out media outlets for their practice of valuing the lives of white children over the lives of children of color. Pushing for this coverage, as well as sharing news of missing children of color through social media and with friends and family, are some of the many ways we can begin to combat “missing white woman syndrome.” We also need to make sure that our feminism is intersectional so we can better understand the intersecting oppression of both sexism and racism that not only creates “missing white woman syndrome,” but also endangers the lives of women of color.

If you would like to join in the effort to help find these missing Black and Lantinx girls in Washington D.C. through spreading the word of their disappearances, click here.

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