In America, headlines about missing women and girls are all too normalized. Names like Natalee Holloway, Laci Peterson, and Amanda Berry are nationally recognized because of the countrywide coverage these women’s disappearances gained. But what these women have in common — aside from disappearances — is their whiteness.
Women (and children) of color go missing every day and yet national recognition for their names, pictures, and cases does not exist. Over 500 Native American women and girls have gone missing since 1943. Can you name even one of them?
The Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI) found that at least 506 indigenous women and girls have either gone missing or been killed in 71 American cities. In the past eight years alone, 330 indigenous women and girls have either disappeared or been murdered. What’s worse is that the UIHI report also revealed that 95 percent of these cases were never covered by national or international media. Why not?
Abigail Echo-Hawk, Chief Research Officer at the Seattle Indian Health Board and the director of UIHI, said,
“Our women and our children, our girls, they hold such value within our communities. For us to let their deaths to just go unnoticed — for people not to know that we have missing women in our communities, for their voices not to be heard — to me was unacceptable.”
The UIHI also recognized that while 506 is a staggering number of missing (and murdered) women and girls, it’s also a number that is likely well underestimated.
Gathering the information for this report saw a slew of difficulties simply because of the lack of information recorded about missing and murdered indigenous women. Nearly half of the municipal police departments that were contacted either failed to respond to the data gathering entirely or did not respond within the survey’s time constraints.
So what does that say about the priority level of missing and murdered indigenous women and children? If news coverage ignores these cases and municipal police departments don’t even report their data, what message does that send? I’ll tell you: It sends the message that women and young girls of color do not matter. And that is bullshit.
But it gets worse. About 15 percent of the municipal police departments that returned data to the survey “cited an inability to search for American Indian, Native American, or Alaska Native people in their data systems.” How do 15 percent of our police departments not have the ability to search for missing or murdered people by the category of American Indian, Native American, or Alaska Native people?
The UIHI found over 150 cases, dubbed “the invisible 153,” that did not even exist in police records. Did not even exist in police records. Let that sink in.
More than 100 of these cases of missing and murdered indigenous women are directly tied to issues of either domestic violence, sexual assault, or police brutality. All other circumstances of these deaths and disappearances are largely unknown. When will we demand justice for the women of color, these women whose disappearances haven’t made headlines, haven’t even, until now, deserved recognition by local police?
It’s not a new narrative. We’ve seen it with the aforementioned cases above — Caylee Anthony, Natalee Holloway, Laci Peterson. And we’ve also seen it in fiction like Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, The Lovely Bones. Being murdered or kidnapped is a white girl’s game. Why? Because at least those disappearances and killings get coverage, are recorded in police departments, and sometimes they even find justice. The truth is that it only pays to disappear or be murdered if you’re white. Just look at all the white kidnapped or murdered women you can name: Carlina White, Elizabeth Smart, JonBenét Ramsey… How many women of color can you do the same for?
White women are often found or laid to rest; they often find justice, though of course, not always. When middle-class women disappear, their families often have funds and resources to find them or fight for justice in court. When a person in a lower-class disappears, their justice often goes overlooked. When a woman of color is murdered or kidnapped, it falls through the cracks.
Getting justice should not constitute privilege. And yet…
If a killer murders a white girl, there is often public outrage and a scramble to find answers. Think of the news coverage, think of Nancy Grace’s indignation across every television in America. What happens when women of color disappear or are murdered? This data gathered by UIHI makes it clear: virtually nothing; Virtually nothing has happened since the 1940s. And it’s about time that changed.
Consider Amanda Berry. Amanda was one of the three women kidnapped by Ariel Castro between 2002 and 2004. You probably recognize her name from all the news coverage at both the time of her kidnapping and the time of her escape. But Castro also held two other women — Michelle Knight, and Gina DeJesus — captive for 10 years. They were beaten and raped. Gina DeJesus, the only woman of color out of the three women, was 14 went she went missing; an Amber Alert was never even sounded.
There’s actually a term for it, for the outrage that ensues when a white woman or child goes missing. It’s called Missing White Woman Syndrome. The syndrome refers to a phenomenon acknowledged by social scientists, who reference the extensive media coverage a missing person who is classified as young, white, and/or upper-middle-class receives. You see it when headlines glorify the missing white woman as “beautiful, blonde, and blue-eyed” or nickname her “the blonde angel,” like the 2013 case in Greece.
Missing White Woman Syndrome delves deep into the psyche of how the public reacts to and treats a case. It even pertains to the women accused. Chances are you know the names Casey Anthony, Jodi Arias, and Amanda Knox who were all accused of horrific crimes. But I bet you can’t name their victims.
That’s because Missing White Woman Syndrome works that way, too — in favor of the white, middle-class, pretty, and accused. In these trials, the women suspected of murder receive more attention than their victims do. I know who Casey Anthony is with instantaneous recognition, but it takes me a second to remember little Caylee’s name.
Missing White Woman Syndrome informs how the media reacts to cases of missing or murdered white women. Sadly, a disproportionate amount of media coverage is given to cases involving women of color, women of lower social classes. Can this be attributed to the fact that white women go missing or are murdered more often? No. Women of color and of lower social classes go missing nearly as often — simply look at the staggering number above. Black Americans account for 38% of all missing persons reported in 2012. White and Hispanic people combined account for 60% of all missing persons reported in 2012.
Look at the staggering number above: Five hundred and six. Five hundred and six Native American women have gone missing. Can you name one of them?
Isn’t it time that changes?
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Steph Osmanski is a freelance writer and social media consultant who specializes in health and wellness content. Her words have appeared in Seventeen, Life & Style, Darling Magazine, and more. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Stony Brook Southampton and writing a memoir.