OPINION: Pay Attention When Women of Color Disappear Too, Not Just the Gabby Petitos

by Ali Pensky

It is necessary to hold space and grieve for Gabby Petito while also recognizing that if Petito was Black, Latina, Asian, or Indigenous, the disappearance would not have garnered nearly as much attention.

Petito does not deserve any more collective advocacy, resources, and outrage than the thousands of other missing women in the United States.

Many people see a friend, a sister, an aunt, a mother, a grandmother, themselves, or a combination of these — in Petito. The story of a missing woman likely abused by her romantic partner is more relatable than it should be.

But why has this missing woman gone viral?

Gwen Ifill, who was a Black American journalist, author and newscaster, coined the term “Missing White Woman Syndrome” to bring attention to the media’s tendency to give extensive coverage to white, upper-middle class missing women — and little coverage to women of color, who go missing at much higher rates than white women. This dangerous practice creates the idea of “worthy” and “unworthy” victims.

The single mother, the sex worker, the woman who runs away, the nurse, the woman with an addiction, the houseless woman, the school teacher, the unemployed woman, and the woman who stays with her abuser for years, all deserve for their cases to be addressed with urgency. They are all worthy victims.

Mary Johnson, a Native American woman from the Tulalip reservation in Marysville, Washington, was reported missing on December 9th, 2020. Late last week, around the same time that Petito’s case began making headlines, the FBI put out a reward for whoever can help find the person or persons involved with Johnson’s disappearance. Though Johnson has been missing for almost a year longer than Petito, and her case has a reward tied to it, she is far less known than Petito.

The fact that Johnson’s case has made headlines and has a $10,000 reward attached to it is unusual, as the issue of missing Indigenous women has been pushed aside and underfunded by the government and media for years. Law enforcement’s lack of action gets blamed on legal complications such as jurisdiction. State and federal data regarding missing Native American women is not comprehensive, which is why The Sovereign Bodies Institute started doing their own research.

Black women also disappear at higher rates than white women, and often they are categorized as runaways, shifting the blame onto the missing woman as an individual, rather than making her safety a priority for law enforcement. The “Black and Missing Foundation” reports that “nearly forty percent of reported missing persons are persons of color, yet Black people make up only thirteen percent of the population.”

The FBI, major news outlets, youtubers, twitter users, and tik tok users alike have contributed to turning women like Gabby Petito into the “worthy” victim. Petito is a worthy victim, and so are the endless amount of women who don’t make the headlines, or whose cases are not even filed.

Ali Pensky is a resident of Knoxville, and a sophomore in college at Appalachian State University.

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