Between March 19th and March 24th about a dozen black and Latinx children were declared to be missing in Washington D.C. It took public outrage and the spreading of inaccurate information via social media for the country to recognize the amount of Black and Latinx girls that frequently go missing in our nation’s capitol.
The story, shared from a popular Instagram account, spread like wildfire after being shared on Twitter. Inaccurate tweets about 14 missing girls in a 24-hour period in Washington, D.C. eventually caused an argument circling the lack of media attention given to girls of color. It brought up conversations about the issue of sex trafficking across the country, and the damage caused when missing children of color are reduced to being called “runaways.”
The Metropolitan Police Department stated that, “most of the D.C. girls who drew public attention due to social media outcries over the past two weeks have since been found.” The MPD has also deemed the rest of the unsolved cases “runaways.” There is no denying the harm caused when law enforcement uses that term to describe a missing young person. It all together erases any legitimate reason why many youth leave their homes, such as abuse, neglect, etc. Put simply, the word “runaway” doesn’t typically generate an intense desire for media coverage nor does it perpetuate a sense of urgency due to the way it is interpreted by the public. Runaways, in a sense, don’t need to be found because they left the safety of their home and more importantly, if they ran away it’s assumed they have some kind of plan. Often they don’t and are simply fleeing with little thought of where they’re running to. This puts them at the same risk of abducted girls because they can also be, and often are, targeted for sex trafficking.
“Children of color go missing more often than white children, yet they receive far less media coverage and public attention. This phenomenon is so observable that there’s a name for it: Missing White Girl Syndrome. Advocates for missing children of color argue that the racial bias against thoroughly reporting on and investigating cases concerning missing children of color kicks in from the moment of their disappearance: One study found that out of 173 Amber Alerts issued in 2010, 47 percent were for white children while only 30 percent were for black children.” (Vox.com)
And the perfect example of this syndrome may be Brittanee Drexel, a local teen who for all intents and purposes did run away, traveling to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina during spring break in 2009 against her mother’s wishes. While there she had a falling out with the friends she drove down with and was last seen leaving the Bluewater Resort, after visiting a group of local men, one of whom she knew before the trip.
The list goes on. There is no shortage of accounts of missing white girls, whether they ran away and need to be found or were abducted. However, even when girls of color are included in the media, they rarely receive the same comprehensive or long-term coverage.
Also missing from most media reports are the voices of black and Latinx young women themselves who are grappling with the misinformation about these missing girls, and confronting some of the dangers involving the media and representation of women of color. I decided to speak to some young women of color in our own city and ask their opinion on the matter.
“As a person who wants to work in media in the future, I think it’s important to talk about how the media negatively portrays people of color. Mainstream media often uses mug shots or details us in a negative light. But, when it’s a white person they’ll use a graduation picture or talk about their accomplishments. For example, mainstream media labeled Brock Turner as a star swimmer rather than a rapist. They like to dance around the facts when it comes to white people. The missing girls in D.C. were not getting as much coverage as they deserved and that is either because women of color hold no value to mainstream America,” said Aleah Adams, a School of the Arts graduate attending The University at Albany double majoring in Documentary Studies and Journalism.
“If I died I don’t feel that the media would accurately represent me,” said Kayla Duval, a photography major at MCC. “I don’t feel that the media does black girls justice when it comes to representation at all. Violence against women of color in general is rarely reported in the news, and the media often depicts black women as the aggressors or the suspects of the crime. The current news coverage is harmful, because it dehumanizes women of color and plagues into harmful stereotypes such as the “angry black woman”. White women have the ability to be complex in the media, whether the news coverage has emphasis on their lives or deaths. The language used to describe crime between white women vs. women of color is completely different. The images used to physically represent white women vs. women of color is different. Black women are often depicted in the news with mugshots or images that allude to deviant behavior (i.e. gang signs, alcohol and/or drugs in the images, guns), while white women are allotted delicacy and innocence with emotionally compelling images.”
“You mean to tell me that the people responsible for finding these girls want us to believe they’re all runaways? How convenient the excuses are. We as black/brown girls are always seen as inadequate, inferior, expendable, and disposable.” Says Imani Jackson, an 18-year-old Rochester resident.
There is one thing these young women were certain of: they do not feel the media would represent them accurately and respectfully if they ever went missing themselves because the media has not done it’s job the same when it comes to representing people of color as opposed to white people. They all fear what could happen if they ever wound up in an emergency that required the media to represent them to the public. Another common conversation was the lack of faces that looked like theirs in mainstream news that is supposed to represent them.
“To be a black/brown girl is live with that little voice that tells us that if we were to ever go missing, our disappearance would go widely unnoticed. As far as the way media presents us as a whole, they don’t. We are only interesting when we’re feuding with each other. VH1 has made sure of that, our whole selves are bought and resold to us by people who don’t even mirror us. If we are given representation, it usually has this underlying feeling that we’re being fetishized…. if we see any positivity being shown to black/brown girls in the media, it’s usually through networks that are specifically catered to just us. We can’t count on mainstream media,” said Ariana Highsmith a 21-year-old sophomore at Monroe Community College and producer at WAYO 104.3.
Activists and many of the concerned public agree that the inaccuracy of the initial post should not in any way detract from the wider issues it has highlighted. These include the dangers confronting runaway youth, and the racial dimensions of how law enforcement and the media treat missing kids, especially missing kids of color. More important than the exact number of girls of color that go missing, is the way they are being represented by the media and the lack of assistance given the large number of what police are calling “runaway” youth.
There still seems to be a downplaying of the characterization of the current number of missing girls in D.C. The reality is that communities of color throughout the U.S. are definitely justified in their argument that missing persons cases involving people of color, are absolutely not receiving enough attention.
Another good question we should be presenting is: Why are so many youth running away instead of putting their lives in the hands of police and law enforcement that have theoretically been placed in position to protect them?