When a pretty white woman disappears, viewers are glued to their screens in disbelief. Women of color, “ugly” women, “fat” women do not garner the same reaction.
Carla Abreu, She/Hers
There's something sinister about the simplicity of our words in times of grief. Mundane, unadorned, blindingly obvious.
"She was just walking home." Just like I did last night, hoping to God, or something similar, that travelling by foot would be the safer option this time. That or a stranger's car or an all too quiet bus stop. Maybe I'm paranoid; if I wear these shoes maybe I can run; maybe I'll stay in. It’s been chiseled into our minds since the day she went missing.
No more can be drawn from those words than the simple fact that women should be able to walk home safely, without the need for a clammy pair of keys and a metallic-scented hand.
Helplessness is hopefully rare and usually lonely, remedied by simple distractions or nothing at all. Since the pandemic began, helplessness has become constant, collective, normal. One year in and we're used to moving forward with blind hope and no expectations. Still, some weeks are worse than others. For Black and Brown women everywhere, the first two weeks of March were full of resentment, dis-belonging, anger, and resignation. As many countries neared their one-year anniversaries of the first COVID cases and lockdowns, all many women could think was: why not me?
For Black and Brown women everywhere, the first two weeks of March were full of resentment, dis-belonging, anger, and resignation.
Sarah Everard went missing in Clapham, South London on March 3rd, 2021. On March 8th, eerily-stylized Instagram infographics lit up our screens in celebration of International Women's Day. The celebratory mood was soured by the lambasting reaction to Meghan Markle's interview with Oprah Winfrey, which aired on the eve of IWD. Two days later, Sarah Everard's remains were found. In the coming days, Metropolitan police officer Wayne Couzens would be charged with her kidnapping and murder, and the police would act with violent force at a vigil for Sarah on March 13th.
I was hesitant to engage with much of the early media coverage surrounding Sarah Everard's disappearance. But, as journalist Gaby Hinsliff wrote in The Guardian, "Sometimes you don't forget a face." She's holding up a medal in the photo they use, a fan of running just like me. There's no doubt she was aware of her safety every time she stepped outside — to run, to get to work, to go home, to call her boyfriend. As more details rolled out, each one more harrowing than the next, I couldn't look away. She was too much like my friends from home, too much like me, just walking home. But my initial hesitancy was more than a knee-jerk reaction to a regular stream of bad news. As I saw many women speaking out about women's issues throughout the week, their apparent unity left me feeling like an impostor feminist, unable to muster the same passion I do in other fights. Perhaps it was because, when Meghan Markle shared her experiences with racism and suicidal thoughts earlier that week, many people — including women — were quick to discredit her words. And while some negative reactions garnered important insights into colorism and classism, I saw the mass refusal to believe a Black woman nonetheless.
As I saw many women speaking out about women's issues throughout the week, their apparent unity left me feeling like an impostor feminist, unable to muster the same passion I do in other fights.
I was 17 when Donald Trump was elected. I remember going to school the next morning, painfully aware that a man could publicly express his hate for Black Americans, Mexicans, and women and still be called president of the United States. As the 2017 Women's March went on and women and girls everywhere proudly donned their knitted pink pussyhats, I was paralyzed by the fact that white American women could be divided on Trump, and more pro-Trump than the overall electorate. In 2019, I attended a talk at the MCA, where former editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, Elaine Welteroth, was the keynote speaker. Welteroth described her hesitancy to take on an essay assignment commemorating the 2017 Women's March. She told the audience, "I really had to sit on that ask for a minute because I remember going into the Women's March feeling, in full transparency, detached from that mission. I felt that that mission, that umbrella, didn't include me." The detachment she described wasn't an exception, but an ordinary feeling, a fact of life for many Black and Brown women. She laughed, adding, "some of these same women would come into the office and touch my hair, and I'm like, 'You don't get it. You want me to march with you but you don't get it.'
The connection between Welteroth's reluctance to commemorate the largest single-day protest in US history and the microaggressions inflicted by ignorant colleagues may be hard to grasp — even for those of us who have had similar experiences. Sometimes, however, white women’s refusal to acknowledge the struggles of more marginalized women is too frustrating to go unnoticed. Welteroth recalled coming into work the day after Philando Castile was killed by a police officer during a traffic stop. She said, "I remember… feeling so alone in that moment. I did not see anyone crying at their desk, I didn't see other people gripped by that horror." The world can't stop for every account of unspeakable violence, but it seems that those involving Black people, and especially Black women, as the victims rarely see the light.
When I sat down with Professor Tina Post of the University of Chicago, who earned her Ph.D. in African American Studies and American Studies at Yale University, we spoke about the lack of attention afforded to missing and murdered Black women in the media. To do so, however, we had to talk about racial performativity — a topic she has written about in multiple publications and continues to contemplate in her current book project. Racial performativity, as Dr. Post sees it, isn't exclusive to non-white people. We all perform racial identity, whether or not we
are aware of it. Dr. Post looks at this performance through a Judith Butler sort of lens, in which we step into the structures that perceive us, primed to perpetuate others' ideas of who we might be.
But how do the performances expected from Blackness differ to those expected from whiteness? And more importantly, what are the consequences of racial performativity? Popular media has long used Black characters as tokens meant to assuage public criticism of less-than-diverse casting. It's not far-fetched to question whether or not these one-dimensional portrayals of blackness impact the sympathy given to Black victims in the media. However, public perception of Black victims "far precedes the current moment, going back to slavery, at least." Dr. Post explained, "Black people, and really the terminology at the time was often 'primitives,' were understood to be a racial other to the European. To them, this was humanity in a previous state. They thought, if you take a child away from a Black slave, that can't possibly hurt them as much as it would to take away the child of their delicate, white owner."
The world can't stop for every account of unspeakable violence, but it seems that those involving Black people, and especially Black women, as the victims rarely see the light.
These tropes, she says, have been repeating themselves with varying differences over many years. She describes a current and long-standing "cultural callousness" in America, whose origins can be explained as a "residual holdover of slavery." The American public is content to shrug past — or indulge in — missing Black bodies because, well, that is Blackness. To be Black is to be subject to disproportionate violence. American culture expects violence both from and towards Black citizens, and its acceptance of this violence precludes any possibility for collective shock or grief.
But it's the initial shock that makes a story successful. When a pretty white woman disappears, viewers are glued to their screens in disbelief. Women of color, “ugly” women, “fat” women do not garner the same reaction. Dr. Post described this cognitive dissonance as a “sort of fatalism in American culture.” She said, “it’s not that we’re asking for it, it’s not that we deserve it. It’s just that, inevitably, no one can muster surprise.” The disproportionate level of shock and outrage that certain missing persons cases glean is a media phenomenon dubbed Missing White Woman Syndrome. The term has been used to criticize harmful journalistic biases since at least 2006. And while its first use is attributed to PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill, it’s Zach Sommers, a Northwestern University sociologist, who has led the research charge on the phenomenon.
She said, “it’s not that we’re asking for it, it’s not that we deserve it. It’s just that, inevitably, no one can muster surprise.”
What Sommers found wasn’t necessarily surprising, but rather confirmed what previous research had simply implied. Sommers used FBI data, cross-referencing missing persons reports with missing persons news coverage in 2013. The FBI reported these cases by race as 60 percent white and 35 percent Black. Latinx people, however, weren’t separated from white people, meaning that the total percentage of white missing persons was likely to be overstated. What’s more, the Bureau does not provide breakdowns of gender and race combinations, so it is unclear how much of the 60 percent were white women.
In comparison, Sommers found that more than 50 percent of articles in his data set covered the disappearances of white women. “Women and girls are more readily accepted as victims that need saving, and white women and girls in particular are more easily seen as… victims with whom all viewers and readers can identify. Their outsized presence in the news as crime victims implies that they are inherently good and innocent,” he wrote. As for Black women and women of color, the implication is that “their lives are less valuable and less of a priority for rescue.”
There was an air of doubt towards the end of my conversation with Dr. Post. What were we trying to achieve, if anything? Sommers’s work has actually been questioned for the same reason, as there is little evidence that media coverage actually helps to solve missing persons cases. I asked Dr. Post if equitable media coverage is what we’re striving for. It seems like a hopeless solution to the longstanding denial of Black pain. She said it’s a complicated question, but she’s used to standing in the midst of complication.
“On the one hand, there’s the easy consumption of Black pain. And on the other hand, the disappearance of Black pain.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean that equitable coverage of missing persons cases would hold no value.
“It takes all of our responses for anything to change. Some people are organizers and some people are teachers and scholars. There is something really ironic, tragic, and complicated about all of these things happening within the week of IWD. But I believe in the role of education in changing things. I do think that is an important step: to prime people to even notice everyday injustices. You can’t get anyone to organize to change something that they’ve never even seen.”