‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’ Is A Thing, And We Need To Talk About It

by Lindsay Wolf
Scary Mommy and Dimitri Otis/Getty

24-year old Massachusetts resident Trish Simpson was last seen on Sunday before she vanished. In Michigan, 23-year-old Shakia Jones has been missing for more than a week. And an Illinois-based police department hasn’t been able to locate 24-year-old Bryyanna Nelson since they spoke to her on Monday.

The names of these young women probably won’t sound familiar, and the reason for it is as unfortunate as it is predictable: They aren’t white.And because they’re not white, the chances of them making national headlines are slim at best. And that’s beyond messed up.

“The issue of underrepresentation and, consequently, inadequate attention to the cases of missing Black people in America is an ongoing issue that very few attempted solutions have solved,” writes Jada L. Moss in her 2019 article for William & Mary Journal of Race, Gender, and Social Justice. “A thorough comparison of the number of Black Americans who are reported missing with the number of times news media reports Black Americans as missing makes it even clearer that underrepresentation is an issue. This disparity, dubbed ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome,’ has more recently become a problem as technology continues to grow to be the primary method for access to current events and news.”

This phenomenon, which sounds absolutely ridiculous, is also painfully true. Criminal law scholar Zach Sommers proved its existence in his 2016 study “Missing White Woman Syndrome: An Empirical Analysis of Race and Gender Disparities in Online News Coverage of Missing Persons,” which was published in Northwestern University’s Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.

“The race and gender disparities are evident across multiple sources and using multiple methods of analysis,” he explains in the study. “The disparities are also quite large and, for the most part, consistent with the differences predicted by Missing White Woman Syndrome… Based on these results and in the words of Charles Ramsey, it is safe to say that ‘something is wrong here.'”

Basically, our media’s all-consuming tendency to obsess over missing white girls and women far outweighs the focus it puts on our country’s Black female victims. Disappearances like those of Elizabeth Smart, Laci Petersen, and Natalee Holloway have been so damn widespread that many Americans practically know their stories by heart. But I can almost guarantee if you tried to name three Black girls or women who have recently made sweeping headlines for going missing, you would sadly come up short. And here’s a big-ass reason why. The intersectional experience of a Black woman translates to her being marginalized twice over for living in both a Black and female body, something that our culture still viciously treats as a double whammy of “lesser than” when compared to the white female body. So it makes unfortunate sense, as truly fucked up as it is, that Black women and girls would be treated differently when being victimized or in crisis.

“‘Missing White Woman Syndrome,’ the media’s tunnel-vision-like tendency to focus on the cases of missing white girls and women, has created considerable racial disparity in the world of missing persons cases,” explains Moss. “This trend — the lack of attention to and popularization to the stories of Black victims — coincides with the familiar narrative of Black Americans being both undesired and unlikely victims in American pop culture.”

This should never have been — and should not continue to be — a reality in our society, but considering the exorbitant amount of evidence making the point clear, it very much is.

The gross diminishment that our media inflicts on Black women and girls who go missing has several other infuriating causes. Many underage children of color are initially deemed “runaways” before their case is fully examined, which leaves them without the ever-helpful AMBER Alert System notifications that can help locals become informed about their disappearance in the first place. Missing Black adults are often assumed to be criminals, gang members, or drug dealers, and further desensitization is unduly placed on them based on where they live, how much or little money their family has, and whether there is a high crime rate in their town. In other words, racial bias is running rampant in these missing persons cases — and it needs to change, pronto.

Another sad reality is that media coverage is largely determined by the diversity, or lack thereof, in a newsroom. With the vast majority of writers, producers, and journalists being — surprise, surprise! — white, coupled with the very real possibility that certain news outlets consider stories about missing white women more lucrative than any other racial group, Black women and girls don’t stand a fighting chance of having their stories shared.

It should also not be surprising to learn that many Black families are justifiably too afraid of calling the police when their loved ones disappear, since the staggering levels of country-wide prejudice and discrimination that keeps missing Black girls and women from being given the national media attention they deserve are also experienced locally by the victims’ families. “There’s a sense of distrust between law enforcement and the minority community,” Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, tells CNN. This translates to a vicious cycle of underrepresentation and heartbreaking statistics that only further endanger missing Black girls and women.

While it’s certainly awesome that social media has become the new hotspot to create hashtags like #FindOurBlackGirls, #BlackGirlMissing, and #BringBackOurGirls to rally support for Black females who disappear, it should not be up to the general public to establish enough attention to deem a story worth sharing. And while these victims deserve their long overdue spotlight for the simple reason that they are human fucking beings, our oppressive society has made it even more necessary to spread their stories far and wide. Since a major cause of disappearance for Black girls especially is human trafficking, we have got to get our collective shit together. According to the FBI, Black children — largely girls — comprise 53% of all juvenile prostitution arrests, which is more than any other racial group. And that is not okay.

In terms of creating some kind of solution, Moss calls for new systems designed to tailor fit missing persons cases for Black girls and women. “Systems such as AMBER Alert and general purpose missing persons advocacy groups are still very much needed and desired,” she writes. “However, in a just society, systems, policies, advocacy groups, and organizations tailored toward missing Black girls and women must coexist to ensure that the effects of Missing White Woman Syndrome are felt no more than what is absolutely necessary and to reverse the standard of bias that this phenomenon has created.”

The activists at Black and Missing are also bringing it back to the basics and sharing reminders that need to be on repeat for white people at all times. Diversify your newsrooms. Actively choose to publicize stories featuring Black women and WOC and publish less white women stories to balance coverage out. Stay vigilant about actually finding the missing person. And as if it wasn’t fucking obvious enough, please see the undoubtable value in Black and Brown lives.

I can’t believe I still have to write a reminder in 2020 imploring y’all to give basic respect and empathy to non-white people — especially those who have been victimized — but here we are. Women like Trish Simpson, Shakia Jones, and Bryyanna Nelson simply cannot afford to be placed on the media’s back-burner any longer. We all need to start caring. The time is now.