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The media loves ‘missing White women.’ Black women are already missing from public view.

With the latest nationwide news about Gabby Petito, Black women’s expulsion from full citizenship becomes even starker.

- October 13, 2021

You cannot miss what is not seen. Because U.S. society often renders Black women invisible, public outcry may be muted or absent when we go missing.

This time around, the widespread coverage of Gabby Petito’s disappearance and murder set off at least some discussion of its counterpart: a lack of media coverage of missing Black girls and women. That absence can best be understood as part of a larger societal attitude toward Black girls and women, in which the American body politic keeps us on the margins of society.

Although you wouldn’t know it from the news media, approximately 100,000 Black girls and women went missing in the United States last year. Some have been trafficked, others abducted by people in their close circles or by strangers. In a 2016 study called “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” law professor Zach Sommers found that when Black people are missing, the news media cover that with fewer stories in comparison with other demographic groups. All this results from society’s systematic marginalization and devaluation of Black women.

Scholars have explored “the politics of invisibility” within policymaking, news media, the academy and medicine, which results in a failure to represent or include Black women — or as a Harvard Business Review article put it, “the tendency to be overlooked, disregarded, or forgotten due to one’s status as a member of two underrepresented and devalued groups.”

Others have looked at “hypervisibility,” in which Black women are both disproportionately visible and associated with negative stereotypes (mammy, welfare queen, quota queen) that mark Black women as deviant and requiring increased surveillance. We see this with Black girls, who are often treated as adults in the school system and punished at disproportionately high rates.

Invisibility and hypervisibility mean that Black women are ignored or are disproportionately negatively treated. This understanding of invisibility and hypervisibility teaches us why Black women physically disappear and why they are not recognized in the news media.

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Invisible Black women and missing White women

The late journalist Gwen Ifill is widely considered to have created the concept of “missing White woman syndrome,” which opened the door for an intersectional analysis of how news media cover missing people. In 2004, on a Unity journalism panel, Ifill said, “If there is a missing White woman, you’re going to cover that every day.” She publicly voiced what Black individuals often discussed among themselves: U.S. society treats middle-class White people as more valuable than others.

When national media does attend to missing Black girls and women, it is usually because Black-identified individuals have used social media to advocate for loved ones.

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Missing, invisible and regulated

With invisibility and hypervisibility combining to display them as overwhelmingly “other,” Black girls and women are subjected to regulatory mechanisms that control and limit the boundaries of their citizenship, pushing them to the margins of society.

Historically, U.S. society has undermined, rejected, erased and regulated Black women. Black girls are disciplined and expelled from school in disproportionately high numbers; Black women have been disproportionately and forcibly sterilized; Black women’s actions have been criminalized as a matter of policy; and social welfare policy disproportionately separates Black women from their children.

Black girls and women are denied full humanity and citizenship with all of its protections through these overlapping systems. And being seen is part of the protection of full citizenship.

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Failures of democracy

The invisibility of missing Black girls and women reveals how they have been expelled from citizenship — and, therefore, go unprotected, or are punished, or unseen.

In the 1830s, abolitionist and women’s rights activist Maria Stewart asked, “How long?” How long, she asked, before Black women’s humanity would be recognized, and until they would be invited in as citizens of the democracy?

This question was taken up by Martin Luther King, Jr. after the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965 when he, too, asked, “How long? how long?” How long? has been intoned by Black women from the early days of slavery to current times. Yet these women often go unseen, and their physical disappearance and lack of media attention are but one element of how they go unrecognized.

Black girls and women do not benefit from the full recognition of their humanity and consequently are denied access to full citizenship. Language and policies distort Black women’s humanity.

Transgressing democratic norms

The invisibility of missing Black girls and women reveals the holes in U.S. democracy, exposing how Black women experience many moments of precarity. The social construction of Black girls and women as problems, as promiscuous, and as other leads to violence against Black women and society’s inability to recognize and respond to such violence.

Black women such as Stewart have systematically responded to this violence when others remain quiet. Black women have organized, whether through Our Black Girls; #Sayhername; the #MeToo Movement, founded by a Black woman, Tarana Burke; or women using social media to make seen their pain and the humanity of their missing loved ones. Black women have engaged in a politics of talking back — and in doing so have revealed the hyphens, ellipses and question marks endemic in U.S. democratic structures.

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Julia S. Jordan-Zachery (@Dr_JZ) is professor and chair of the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department at Wake Forest University and author of “Shadow Bodies: Black Women, Ideology, Representation and Politics” (Rutgers University Press, 2017).