As the disappearance of Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito, the young woman who left in June on a cross-country trip with her fiance and never returned, blew up into a national obsession, I kept hearing the words of Gwen Ifill and Sharon Rocha.
Ifill, the late great PBS anchor and journalist, is credited with coining the incisive phrase “missing white woman syndrome.” That’s the odd phenomenon where the media pays excessive attention to the disappearance of a young white woman like Petito or, in past years, Natalee Holloway, Chandra Levy, Shannan Watts, and Laci Peterson. It’s the kind of saturation coverage that has never been afforded to any missing Black, brown, or Indigenous girl or woman.
Rocha is the mother of Peterson, who disappeared in 2002, weeks before she was due to give birth to her first child. Her body was later found and her husband was convicted of murder. During a 2006 NBC interview, Rocha said, “I mean if there’s anything, one point I would like to get across is I want these men to stop murdering our daughters.”
Like Rocha, I’m tired of violence against women. Like Ifill, I’m tired that the only victims deemed worthy of concern and attention are young and white.
The death of Petito, whose body was found Sunday near Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, is a tragedy. On social media, as much as traditional media, it’s a sensation. Online gumshoes have been pouring over everything Petito posted on Instagram and YouTube about her journey with her now missing fiance, Brian Laundrie, who authorities have named a person of interest in her disappearance. Fueled more by heat than light, the bottomless interest in the story is ghoulish and macabre.
Still, at least people are paying attention to Petito.
After offering “condolences, smoke, and prayers,” to the Petito family, the online community Indigenous Women Hike posted on Instagram, “For everyone that followed and became invested in this devastating story I ask that you put that same energy into caring and amplifying the stories of the many MMIWGTs2 [Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Transgender, and Two-Spirit people], Black women, and other Women of Color whose families are still searching for answers.”
That’s how it was for the family of Shawtyeria Waites, a young Black woman who went missing in July while celebrating her birthday. There were no cable channel “breaking news” alerts reporting the latest developments. Unless someone lived in Houston, where Waites was last seen, it’s unlikely many knew about her disappearance.
Before Waites’s body was found weeks later and a man was charged with her murder, Quanell X, a Houston community activist, said out loud what so many Black people recognize when Black girls and women disappear.
If Waites had been white, he said “[police] would be swarming this place trying to get answers, but no one really cares when it’s a brown or Black girl involved.”
Of course, the unspoken truth is that too few care about violence against any woman. Stories about white women in peril serve the same purpose today as they have historically — to fuel white fears about rampant lawlessness that are designed to defy calls for gun reform and heighten policing of Black and brown men rather than keep women safe.
Never does the coverage of missing white women include informed discussions about the prevalence of domestic violence, or the fact that women are more likely to be murdered by a current or former intimate partner than by a stranger. No one mentions that murder is the leading cause of death for pregnant women.
It’s been a long time since anyone has chided Senate Republicans, who wield “law and order” as a campaign issue when it’s politically convenient, for blocking reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act for the past three years.
And don’t even get me started on how little attention is paid to the murders of trans women, the majority of them Black and brown — a staggering toll that is again on pace make this the deadliest year ever for transgender and gender nonconforming people.
In a society where TV shows and podcasts sell murder as entertainment, it’s the spectacle of violence against women that fascinates. Petito’s disappearance has been treated like the hot new true crime series to be discussed and dissected for hours — but only because she’s white.
“Missing white woman syndrome” magnifies the grim reality of how some lives are valued more than others. Regardless of race or ethnicity, these are all America’s daughters. Yes, Petito’s disappearance and death deserve our attention — so does every missing and murdered girl or woman.