Thursday, August 04, 2005

When is the last time your local news station covered a missing woman who wasn't white?

That question comes up often for those of us who pay attention to these kind of things. I honestly can't remember the last time my local news (or the Today Show, Good Morning American, the Early Show, etc) plastered the face of a black, asian or hispanic/latina woman on our T.V. screens.

So I decided to google "black missing women" to see what I got and let me tell you, I'm not the only one who's asked this question. However, it seems that only random people are curious, not the people who matter (but we aren't surprised, are we?).

First I paid a visit to this page which led me to an article in July's issue of Essence, Have you Seen her?. On the website for Essence, the profiles and pictures of the young women who are still missing can be found.

But while missing African-American women like Tamika receive only spotty coverage, mostly on local broadcasts, seemingly headline-worthy names like Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson and Dru Sjodin scream at us in the national news.

When national news is carrying the story of a missing woman, especially female children, investigators might work harder and more diligently. Go figure. When Laci Peterson died, thousands of volunteers were out looking for her. When Jennifer Wilbanks decided to become a real life "Runaway Bride," her face was still being plastered all over news shows long after she was "found (and she's still on with rumors of their impending wedding on August 12th)."

Tamika Huston disappeared in May 2004, over a year ago. I had not seen her face before specifically googling "black missing women" and then being directed to the article from Essence magazine.

Even NPR did a piece on her, comparing her lack of importance to "runaway brides."

So why are white women more important than the varying shades of their sisters?

Rebkah Howard, Tamika's aunt, has this theory: "Broadcasters don't think the public will identify with their stories."

Since when did all women have to be white in order for us to be able to identify with their stories? A woman who is abducted, killed, raped or assaulted goes through very similar, if not exact, circumstances no matter what shade of skin she has.

Every one of us is born the same way: out of our mothers' wombs through their vaginas' (sometimes belly areas). Though each death is a different experience individually, we still all die the same. When a man chooses to abduct and kill his pregnant wife, strangling and then tossing her body into the river, he doesn't see a different skin color. He only sees a woman he no longer wants to deal with.

This business of not being able to identify with another woman's story simply because she isn't white like me is, well, abhorrent.

But I digress. That's not the real issue at hand you say. It's too simple an explanation. Perhaps the reason is more deeply rooted. Think back to our history of slavery, to how unequal black women and men were to begin with, and how a black woman's vagina often was an orifice the white man felt entitled to fill with his white misshapen penis, often impregnating her (Thomas Jefferson encouraged miscegenation as a means of ethnic cleansing). When a black woman went missing, no one cared because it just meant one less black woman they needed to worry about. Of course, if those women were slaves still owned by their masters, they sent the dogs out after her. But this was true of both men and women: they were property and the slave owners wanted their property rightfully returned to them (the story of Harriet Jacobs comes to mind).

I dislike bringing up the slavery argument again, but that's really where most of our segregation issues stem from, especially here in the Capitol of the Confederacy itself. We are an entire city built offthe lives of black people.

In my opinion, this theory actually goes hand-in-hand with Rebkah Howard's: we are a Eurocentric, heterocentric society who has forged their way into existence based on the oppression of other people. We have been taught that white is right. When a person of color dies a violent death (or at all), and we have already been taught that their experiences and culture are different from ours, it somehow makes sense that the decision-makers for the media think no one else would want to hear about it. Especially if those decision-makers are white. Not to mention the fact that somewhere out there, a white woman or man is sitting in front of the T.V. saying something like, "Who cares? Let 'em all kill each other that way they'll be one less n****r left in the world."

Because, after all, it's only black women who are on welfare. Or it's only black women who get pregnant at 15. Or it's only black women who stay in abusive relationships. Right? We want them to keep the devastation to themselves so no one can relate to their stories, not even other black women.

P.S. Here's a blog that has been discussing the racial/gender bias of coverage of missing persons in the media. It's pretty interesting.