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Missing White Women Syndrome

Photo by Andrew Neel from Pexels

In a casual conversation with a young female friend, with a certain ominous tone in her voice, she asked me, “Have you been following the case of Gabby Petito?”

The honest answer was that I had been trying very hard not to follow the case of the missing, rather angelic looking 22-year-old; the blond, blue eyed, petite young woman who was smiling out at the world through nearly constant news coverage for several days.

The woman who asked me about it was sincere and visibly shaken by it. She is a petite, blond, blue-eyed, young single mom, making her way through the world on her own but living in an apartment around some kind of scary people and she has had boyfriends over the years who had some rather frightening bad habits.

So, I realize that she has some very real fear that is being constantly stoked by the coverage of Gabby Petito’s disappearance and murder, apparently, at the hands of a bad boyfriend.

The case of Gabby Petito is horrifying. Her story is sad and heart wrenching and a cautionary tale to vulnerable women everywhere…. But then, the cases of Elizabeth Smart, JonBenet Ramsey, Laci Peterson, and Natalie Holloway, were also horrifying.

In this country of 350 million people, more than 250,000 women go missing every year, most of them are younger than 21. Of course, as many if not more men go missing every year as well.

Racism is like a self-perpetuating machine that just keeps cranking out new generations of racists until we make the conscious decision to start balancing the news, advertisements, and TV sitcom characters.

Some are abducted, some are murdered, but they are all people and arguably, people who are as important as Laci Peterson, JonBenet Ramsey, Natalie Holloway, Elizabeth Smart, or Gabbi Petito.

I don’t want to take anything away from the trauma and grief experienced by their families in each of these cases, but when journalists who are women of color start to complain about the “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” we all need to acknowledge that the media simply does not treat missing people of color the same way that they treat young white women.

In Wyoming, where Petito's body was found, at least 710 Indigenous people, mostly women and girls, vanished from 2011 to 2020, according to a report by Wyoming's Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Task Force. Native American women are abducted at a rate 10 times as high as white women and yet, we almost never hear about it and no one knows their names.

My daughter is of Korean birth and, thankfully, race has not played a big part in her life. Having come to the United States when she was only 4 months old, she does not speak English with a foreign accent, and she is remarkably beautiful. So, in almost every setting, her race has not been an issue. However, I know that as I stand here today, there are between 50 and 100 Korean women who have been trafficked into the sex trade, right here in this small city.

A network of massage parlors and brothels circulate tens of thousands of Korean women around the country, keeping them from learning English or forming lasting friendships. The police know where they are and almost never do anything about it. However, if these women were abducted, blond, blue-eyed, English speakers, all of these sex shops would be closed down before nightfall today.

The whole point of the Black Lives Matter movement has not been to say that Black Lives Matter more than white lives, or Native American lives, or Latina lives, because there has never been in time in America when white lives did not obviously matter. The emphatic statement that Black Lives Matter is asserting is that black people are also people, that their lives matter just as much…. But you couldn’t tell it from the news coverage.

I don’t want for this to become a “hair on fire” message today. I understand that the news media has a very real obligation to inform the public about what is going on and the cases of each of the white women I have mentioned were certainly newsworthy. But I also recognize that our news agencies are all in a capitalist competition with one another and so, when they consider what stories to tell, which stories to repeat and follow up on, day after day, they tend to pick the ones that the most people will find interesting.

In that sense, the media can become something like a snake eating its own tail. The media creates concern about beautiful young white women through repetition of stories about beautiful young white women and then they become obligated to report on the next missing beautiful young white woman.

I moved here in 1991. At that time, the demographics of Springfield, Missouri was almost a racial plenum with only 1% black, 2% Asian, and 97% white. My daughter was only 2 years old at the time and I was determined to make being Korean totally normal in my house, so I ordered Korean garments, coloring books, music, videos, and toys because I didn’t want for her to grow up with blond Barbies being the image of “normal” in her young mind because, if there is anyone abnormal and deformed, it has to be the traditional blond Barbie.

However, at that time, parents of young children shopped at ToysRUs for Christmas and birthday presents and while they had lots of white dolls, and several choices of black dolls, in Springfield, at that time, Asians outnumbered blacks, 2 to 1 but because race in America has often been portrayed as the divide between blacks and whites, the second largest racial minority in town was not a part of the conscious awareness of even the people who are trying to make money selling stuff to doting parents. As I pointed out to the store manager at the time, 100% of these dolls are made in Asia, it seems like there should be a few on the shelves that looked Asian. Thankfully, he agreed and made sure to stock a selection that represented the growing diversity of our city in the years that followed.

Over the years, as David and I have mapped out our sermon outlines for the months that follow, one of the issues that we keep coming back to is how can we, as a society, pull racism out of our culture by the roots? Why does it persist? After the genocide of Native Americans in the 17th and 18thcenturies and three hundred years of African slave trade, after all of the miserable examples of Jim Crow laws, red lining, school segregation, and the very public work of the Civil Rights movement, how is it in 2021 we are still trying to undo the assumption that white lives matter more than black lives, or that Native Americans, Latinos and Latinas, and Asians are all a part of what makes America, America?

I love the song from the Broadway musical, South Pacific, that so artistically states that “you’ve got to be carefully taught” racism. Sean has sung it for us several times:

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You've got to be taught To hate and fear,

You've got to be taught From year to year,

It's got to be drummed In your dear little ear

You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,

You've got to be carefully taught.

Sadly, however, I must beg to differ. Because, in truth, racism is taught by just absorbing it from the culture. We are programmed by what we see on TV, who we see on billboards and in magazines. It becomes the unconscious assumption of everyone who reads the news that who is important, and who really matters, are the people we see in the news, the movies, on TV shows, and on stage.

Admittedly, we do still have people among us who are actively teaching racism. You can see them in the news daily in the school board meetings where people are decrying Critical Race Theory, by which they mean, any history lesson that includes accurate information about the American genocide of Indigenous tribes or the abuses of African slavery or the inscription of captured Chinese labor.

It doesn’t take an Archie Bunker type, spewing racial prejudice on a daily basis to pass racism on to a new generation. Racism is like a self-perpetuating machine that just keeps cranking out new generations of racists until we make the conscious decision to start balancing the news, advertisements, and TV sitcom characters.

As hard as people like me worked to break down the prejudices most church people had towards gay and lesbian folks, I know that it was characters on sitcoms and talks shows who were gay that really did the groundbreaking work of changing the way that people thought about gay people, just as the same sorts of shows began to change the way that white people thought about black people and, for that matter, how they thought about Jews, through drama and comedy. But that was a deliberate choice, networks decided to take a chance on using their platform to aid the public in opening their eyes to issues of race and sexual orientation, using laughter to dispel hatred.

Having openly gay sitcom characters and talk show hosts were not the only elements of the social change we have seen over the past decades, but it was a part of it. Just like asking news networks to treat people of color as being as important as white people will be a part of changing how young people of color value themselves. And, honestly, it really isn’t just about race. You never hear the media getting all pumped up about a missing person who is not attractive. They never cry about a missing fat person or an older person who is poor.

Obviously, they can’t cover everyone equally, but they can diversify their coverage and help to pull racism out of our culture by the roots so that we don’t keep raising new generations of racists.

So I implore you to be patient when people of color or people in marginalized groups push back against the majority culture. It doesn’t always feel good.

I kept up the demanding pace of writing a newspaper article every week for years, which, along with writing sermons and teaching classes, doesn’t always give you enough time for research and editing. I remember writing a piece advocating for the rights of the trans community but in my essay, I used the word “transgendered,” and a very angry trans person called me to let me know how uninformed and misguided I was. He explained, becoming trans is never a past tense event. We are all in the process of change and becoming. When you say “transgendered” you make it sound like it was a singular event that happened one day in the past.

I am certain that my response was not nearly as diplomatic as it would be if I were confronted about the same issue today. Language does matter. Changing words, images, characters in a play, or faces in the news, can change the way we think. Though I think it is all too easy for liberal to attack their sympathizers and supporters, the truth is that the critic on the phone was teaching me, even if I didn’t feel like being taught at that moment.

It is true enough that none of us ever change unless we are uncomfortable. When we are happy with the status quo, we don’t do much soul searching and we don’t expend the energy to grow and change.

When we are being asked to be aware of police killings of unarmed black men, when we are told of hundreds of missing Indigenous women, or even when we are being asked to change the name of sports teams that either glorify the Crusades or exploit Indigenous tribes, if that makes us uncomfortable, we should slow down and ask ourselves if we are uncomfortable because someone is discovering which rock our racism has been hiding under.

Being uncomfortable may mean that you are being presented with an opportunity to learn something, to grow, to become more of that “better person” we have told ourselves we wanted to be. I am suggesting that we all let go of our defensiveness about a too comfortable status quo and to welcome the challenges hidden in our progress towards a time when racism will be a part of our past. We are not there yet, so defending the status quo is not a good idea. We can envision a world without racism and that is where we want to live, so don’t grow tired to thinking new thoughts and letting go of old prejudices and privilege.

We are literally tearing ourselves free of the prejudices that defined our past to live in a newly free way that will make us all free.