After Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive, was kidnapped and killed while walking home from a friend’s house in London on March 3, her death made headlines worldwide. Coverage focused, in part, on how women were demanding change to make streets safer; many shared their outrage over the steps they take to protect themselves from the threat of gendered violence in public spaces.
Just over a week after Everard’s death, on March 12, London’s Metropolitan Police confirmed that investigators had found Everard’s remains; later that day, a White male police officer was charged with her kidnapping and killing. News related to Everard, a White woman, made headlines again when Metropolitan Police clashed with attendees of a March 14 vigil in Everard’s memory.
But some women began speaking out about what they saw as the role of race in raising the international outcry over Everard’s killing. Mariam Khan, a 28-year-old Muslim woman and gender studies student based in London, told New York Magazine: “I think that had Sarah Everard been a Black woman, there would not have been this rage.”
Others shared similar sentiments on social media, with many pointing to the comparative lack of attention given to Blessing Olusegun, a 21-year-old London-based business student and Black woman. In September, she was found dead on a beach in East Sussex, just under 40 miles from where Everard was found. Many British national news outlets, including the Independent and the BBC, only began covering Olusegun’s death in the wake of Everard’s.
Similar stories abound in the United States, where many of the killings of Black women, Indigenous women, and other women of color have not elicited the same public awareness that violent acts against White women have. The late PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill, a Black woman, is credited with coining the term “missing White woman syndrome” to describe the overrepresentation of middle- and upper-class cisgender White women and girls in media coverage of abductions and other crimes.
In reality, women of color tend to experience higher rates of physical and sexual violence than White women do, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Experts have said these overrepresentations serve to reinforce white supremacy by positioning White women as primary victims in need of protection, and women of color as somehow culpable for the violence inflicted upon them. More recently, coverage of the fatal shootings of eight people — six of them Asian women — in Atlanta on March 16 has been criticized: Many decried that the perpetrator, a White man, was quickly humanized by police officials and media.
According to Soraya Chemaly, executive director of the Representation Project, an organization that challenges gender stereotypes, this inequitable representation carries real impacts: It “creates a distortion in people’s understanding, and that then affects policy and resources and allocation of resources.”
To combat these disparities, a number of activists have taken matters into their own hands, tracking the killings of women of color in particular. They say they hope that by doing so, the women’s stories will not go untold.
Dawn Wilcox is the founder of Women Count USA: Femicide Accountability Project, a publicly available database through which she has tracked femicides — or gender-based killings of women and girls — since 2017. Most of the killings Wilcox tracks are domestic-violence homicides, she said. (These account for 38 percent of all killings of women worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.)
Wilcox, who is White, said she spends about 30 hours a week — on top of her full-time job as a school nurse — scouring news reports, police records and social media to piece together portraits of these women. Partly motivating her is the fact that local law enforcement agencies are not required to report demographic data, including race and gender, of victims and perpetrators to the FBI.
“It’s almost like I feel the weight of the women wanting me to tell their stories, or not let them be forgotten,” Wilcox said.
Her data shows the disproportionate impact of this violence: Of the more than 1,800 women and girls she documented in 2018 for whom she has information about race, 53 percent were Black or Latina, she said.
A recent case sticks out in Wilcox’s mind, in part because it took place near her own Plano, Tex., home: A man killed 43-year-old Sarmistha Sen, an Indian woman who worked as a cancer researcher, while she was out for a morning run last August. (The man, a stranger, was charged with capital murder in connection with Sen’s death.) And while the killings of three White female runners — Karina Vetrano in New York, Alexandra Brueger in Michigan and Vanessa Marcotte in Massachusetts — made international headlines when they occurred in the span of nine days during the summer of 2016, Sen’s death did not elicit the same level of reaction within the running community or national media, Wilcox said.
Wilcox also tracks the killings of transgender women — most of whom are women of color — but points to the Human Rights Campaign’s annual tracking of fatal violence against transgender and gender nonconforming people for a more complete picture of that data.
So far this year, at least 11 transgender or gender nonconforming people have been fatally shot or killed by other violent means, the organization reports, adding that many of these killings go unreported or misreported, often by misgendering or deadnaming victims — a term that refers to identifying transgender people by the name assigned to them at birth, rather than the one they presently identify with.
“It’s all about making sure that we’re not just telling stories truthfully, but also telling them accurately,” said Tori Cooper, the director of the organization’s Transgender Justice Initiative and a Black transgender woman. “We have to tell full stories, not to make people more sympathetic, but to make people understand that trans people are real people.”
To do this, the HRC relies in part on relationships with other organizations within the transgender community to find details to properly memorialize victims. One recent death the organization tracked was that of Diamond Kyree Sanders, a 23-year-old Black transgender woman fatally shot March 3 in Cincinnati. Sanders was known as a “ball of energy” who loved her family, fashion and traveling, her obituary notes, which adds that “her unique style, charm and personality will be greatly missed.” Police said Sanders was the victim of a fatal robbery, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, which notes that the investigation is ongoing.
Indigenous women and “two-spirit” people have faced similar issues in media coverage of violence against them, according to Annita Lucchesi, a descendant of the Cheyenne tribe and executive director of the Sovereign Bodies Institute, an organization that collects data on gender and sexual violence perpetrated against Indigenous people. Indigenous women experience much higher rates of domestic and sexual violence than the rest of the U.S. population, with some counties reporting rates of fatal violence against women that are more than 10 times the national average, according to the Justice Department.
“Historically, the press have had a pretty negative impact on this issue, by choosing to not cover the vast majority of cases,” Lucchesi said. “I think also there’s a long history of sensationalizing the cases that do get covered, in really dehumanizing, voyeuristic language.”
To avoid these misrepresentations, representatives from the Sovereign Bodies Institute do not share with journalists details, which they maintain in a database, of the individual cases of missing and killed Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people. Instead, representatives share aggregate data with journalists who request them, and they prioritize data-sharing with tribal nations and leaders and Indigenous service providers, including tribal domestic violence programs, Lucchesi said.
Chemaly, of the Representation Project, said all the deaths of women killed by strangers, such as Everard’s, are undoubtedly tragic. But it’s crucial that coverage of those news events also offer context about where and with whom women are most at risk of violence: in their homes, and at the hands of men they know, she said.
“Especially during covid, we know there has been a rise in intimate partner violence in the home,” Chemaly said. “I think there’s a cultural denial of the reality of gender-based hate and its intersectional compounding of other forms of hatred.”