"I shouldn't have to beg": Petito search finds missing white woman syndrome at forefront of conversation

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Carmen Bolden Day, mother of Jelani Day — Image courtesy of The Week
Carmen Bolden Day, mother of Jelani Day — Image courtesy of The Week

Gabby Petito - Photo courtesy of Instagram  

The 2004 Unity: Journalists of Color conference saw the debut of the term "missing white woman syndrome." It was first used by journalist and author Gwen Ifill to describe the extensive and obsessive media coverage of white, upper-middle-class women and girls who have gone missing.

Ifill coined the term based on social scientist's reports showing that the disappearances of upper-middle-class white women are given media coverage compared to cases of missing men, women, or children of color. Her examination of this phenomenon and her choice of terminology have shed light on the important intersections of race, gender, and hierarchy in relation to media coverage.

Like many things created by Black women, the term may have once been entirely new to white people. However, since the recent disappearance of 22-year-old Gabby Petito, the concept of "missing white woman syndrome" has been making headlines and trending on Twitter.

While we're all grateful for the efforts made to bring justice to Petito and her family, the problem is that the resources and coverage devoted to cases like Petito's are not also given to cases with BIPOC victims of all ages and genders.

For instance, Wyoming (the state Petito went missing in) published a Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Task Force report that states 21% of missing Indigenous people remain missing for 30 days or longer, while only 11% of white people remain missing for that long. Petito's body was found in eight days.

The insulting part of this situation is that although Indigenous people account for less than 3% of the population in Wyoming, they have accounted for 21% of the state's murder victims in the last 20 years. Only 30% of these victims made the news, compared to 51% of white victims.

The intensity of the media coverage in Petito's case led to the discovery of her remains. Had the media not reported so diligently, the two YouTubers who tipped off authorities might not have noticed her van in their personal video footage.

Black people comprise only 13% of the US population, yet 40% of missing persons in the US are people of color. Although BIPOC people make up the majority of missing persons, they rarely get aggressive media attention due to racism in classification of the reports. Most minority children are classified as runaways instead of missing, so they never get the amber alert that could help find them.

The problem is so extensive that people like California journalist and activist Erika Marie Rivers have shouldered the burden of seeking justice for missing BIPOC people. In 2018, Rivers launched the website Our Black Girls to focus on the untold stories of the nation's Black girls and women who go missing or are found dead. A one-woman show she produces all on her own, after her day job.

Missing white woman syndrome perpetuates systematic racism and throws it in our faces. Twitter is rightfully abuzz with anger at the fact that if Gabby Petito had been a person of color, we wouldn't have known she existed.

Jelani Day - Photo courtesy of the family  

Jelani Day, a Black grad student at the University of Illinois, was reported missing on August 24. This aspiring doctor disappeared around the same time as Petito, but his case received little to no media coverage. It took 11 days to find his body, and another 20 to identify it. All in all, Day's family waited a month after his disappearance to find out his fate.

"I shouldn't have to beg," Day's mother exclaimed on Good Morning America. "I shouldn't have to plead; I shouldn't have to feel that there is a racial disparity. I shouldn't have to feel anything like that. I want these people that have these resources to realize this could happen to them."

It's heartbreaking to realize the immediate attention and amount of dedication given to one classification of people in our country and the complete disregard for another. The strength and resilience associated with the minorities in our country was not only forced on them but is also used against them in their times of need.