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Missing White Woman Syndrome is Just White Supremacy: The Story of T.J.

After a Black woman escaped captivity in Excelsior Springs, a vigil was held on Oct. 16 to raise awareness of the issue of missing Black women in Kansas City, as well as to pay respects to those who have not returned home. (Mili Mansaray/The Beacon)

Gabby Petition, age 22 weeks before she was found murdered.

You couldn’t go anywhere on the internet in 2021 without encountering the name Gabby Petito. After the 22-year old woman went missing in late August, every app from Twitter to TikTok was abuzz with speculation. Was she alive? Who could have hurt her? Where can she be? It was part morbid curiosity and part parasocial concern. It was nevertheless a moment of collective mourning when it was announced on September 19th that remains were found. Two days later, they were confirmed to be Gabby’s. The quest to arrest the prime suspect, Gabby’s fiance Brian Laundrie, would inevitably lead to another body. Laundrie confessed to killing his partner in a letter he left behind.

Now, a year later, a parallel story unfolds. A small community in Kansas City tried to alert the press and authorities to a feared serial perpetrator targeting Black women. The Kansas City Police Department dismissed the claims as “completely unfounded” in September of 2022. Instead of the round the clock coverage, a 22 year old woman, known only as T.J., was locked away for a month without massive media attention. She was able to escape only when her captor left to take his son to school. The woman was subjected to sexual violence and torture while imprisoned. T.J. also claims that her two friends were killed by her kidnapper. Very few people outside the Black Kansas City community knew about T.J.

The difference between Gabby and T.J. can be attributed to the Missing White Woman Syndrome and the chokehold it has on our news media. Missing White Woman Syndrome perfectly encapsulates the inherent disparity of the two situations. Coined by Gwen Ifill, Missing White Woman Syndrome describes the media’s obsession with missing and endangered white women. This obsession is also replicated on social media as stories of missing white women go viral. The disproportionate attention paid to missing white women comes at the cost of others. Black women are more likely to go missing but are least likely to be found.

Missing White Woman Syndrome is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. It is purposefully created and maintained by the decisions media outlets make. Newspapers in Kansas City decided to not take the concerns of Black people in the area seriously. Instead, they took the police at their word and did not investigate further. These were a journalistic choices. The media perpetuates real world harm when they hyperfocus on conventionally attractive, thin, able bodied white women. But can we solely blame the media?

The fascination with protecting pretty white women (i.e. women who will be able to bare strong, normative children) is a hallmark trait of white supremacy. Society has already deemed certain bodies as more valuable and the mainstream media appears to fall in lock step with this idea. However there are people looking to change this. The Kansas City Defenders has maintained steadfast support for community members who first brought concerns of a serial attacker. The Black and Missing Foundation spotlights Black and missing persons. Other solutions include diversifying newsrooms or, more expediently, we can completely dismantle white supremacy within our culture and society.

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