By now you know the name Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito. Both traditional media and amateur sleuths on social media have committed countless hours and energy to raising awareness for her disappearance and trying to locate her. Tragically, her body has been found, and it’s speculated that she is a victim of interpersonal violence — murdered by her boyfriend.
But cisgender and transgender Black women and girls who experience the same kind of violence hardly ever get this type of attention. Their names never become household names. When they disappear, media silence and public inaction is yet another blow to their grieving loved ones.
The refusal to extend empathy to Black people and other people of color when we experience violence and trauma is overt. I am saddened to hear Petito’s story, and I know that there are so many more stories like hers. Every life has value and our compassion can and should be limitless.
One in three women experience some form of physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. For women of color, the numbers are even more extreme: In 2011, 94 percent of murders of Black women were committed by someone they knew, and those numbers have not improved in the last 10 years. But can you think of the name of a single Black woman who went missing? I’ll wait.
How about the 710 Indigenous people, predominantly girls, who went missing in Wyoming — the same state where Gabby disappeared — between the years of 2011 and 2020? Where was the media-driven outrage for our Indigenous siblings — the true-crime-fanatic gusto or the hashtags? Nationwide, 202,899 people of color were reported missing in 2020 alone. That number makes up nearly 40 percent of all reported missing persons last year. These numbers are astronomical.
The disproportionate media attention and subsequent social frenzy for White women who fit the dominant narrative of “attractive” (petite, blonde, young, etc.) is a fixation that is preventing Black, Indigenous and other women and girls of color from getting justice. It has a name: “Missing White woman syndrome,” coined by the late American news anchor Gwendolyn Ifill.
While not every missing persons case can receive widespread media attention, it is very obvious who the American media believes is deserving of such coverage, which also shapes who the American people think is worthy of our compassion. The media is wrong, and this commitment to white supremacy increases our risk to violence as Black women and girls.
In 2020, 145,467 reported missing persons of color of the nearly 203,000 total were under the age of 18. While this number is not exclusive to Black youths, it makes it clear that our children are vulnerable. Missing children of color are grossly underreported in the news, leaving them less likely to be found. Children of color are deemed as less than — they are more likely to be categorized as runaways and criminals, and because of this mind-set, people are desensitized to their pain. The news last year of three Black trans women who were killed or disappeared in the same week never made national headlines. In a time when media coverage is driven by what will get more clicks and engagement on social platforms that have been flagged repeatedly as being anti-Black, it is no surprise that reality is suppressed by both the algorithm and those with power.
We must hold systems accountable and shift our culture, which currently allows violence against women to endure. This is why I was personally called to found Girls for Gender Equity, which for nearly 20 years has worked to end gender-based violence by focusing on those whose suffering is most inivisble: Indigenous and Black cisgender and transgender women and girls and nonbinary people. Other important organizations in this space are Black Girl Freedom Fund, which I co-founded, the National Women’s Law Center and A Long Walk Home.
Our government and society must invest in strategies and tools that end violence and offer supportive services for transgender, cisgender and nonbinary people in schools, communities and public spaces, starting with Black and other communities of color who are most at risk.
They must do the work of finding missing women and girls of color but also interrupt the pipeline of violence that makes girls and women vulnerable to begin with. And it is on us to practice awareness, think critically about our individual actions, and change the culture of centering White femininity while devaluing the lives of cis and trans Black women and girls.
Joanne N. Smith is the president and CEO of Girls for Gender Equity (GGE). GGE works intergenerationally, through a Black feminist lens, to center Black girls and nonbinary and gender-expansive young people of color in policy and advocacy, direct service and culture change work to achieve gender and racial justice.