The Disturbing Phenomenon of Missing White Woman Syndrome

On the news, think about the last time you saw media coverage about a missing young, attractive white woman. Now, what about a woman of color? Do you often see extensive media coverage about a missing person of color? I didn’t think so. This phenomenon has been called “missing white woman syndrome” – the term used to describe when missing upper-class white women make up a majority of the media coverage surrounding disappearances as opposed to women of color. This is an issue that has been bothering me for quite some time. I’m a big fan of true-crime, crime documentaries, and all things criminal psychology and this comes up a lot.

collage of the faces of many black women currently or formerly missing
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When a person of color is missing or murdered, the media often focuses on the victim’s past and problems, such as criminal history, and in many instances, uses the victim’s past mugshots. One of my earliest instances of noticing this is the disappearance of Natalee Holloway and the disappearance and murder of Laci Peterson. For some reason, the media has a fascination with the endangerment of young, upper class white women, but barely bat an eye when a black woman (especially transgender people of color) go missing or is murdered. I mention transgender women of color because in Philadelphia, there have been many murders of transgender women. They never make the headlines. They get a few minutes on the news and that’s it.

Missing white woman syndrome has sociologists, psychologists, and myself speculating what impact this has on whiteness, race, and the overall media. How I see it, this lack of media coverage in women of color reinforces a racial hierarchy and reiterates white supremacy, the idea that white people are valued more than people of color. These ideas are enforced because of the obvious display of care towards missing white women, but not missing people of color. As disturbing as it is, this is often how it comes across. Now, I pose a final question, and it is definitely a challenging one. What can we do with this information? How do you think real change can be made in how the media covers crime and disappearances?