“Missing White Woman Syndrome” and Invisibility

By Zanada Joyner

The tragic discovery of Gabby Petito’s remains, who disappeared two weeks ago while hiking with her boyfriend in Wyoming, has left me thinking about the curious “Missing White Woman Syndrome.” As first coined by the great Gwen Ifill, the syndrome describes the media’s overrepresentation or focus on missing white women and girls. Ifill is credited with describing the curious tendency at a Journalists of Color conference in 2004. Numerous scholars have chimed in over the years pointing out how the intersection of class, wealth, and beauty standards contributes to the American mythological creature – the sympathetic white female victim. As it goes, the proper victim is middle to upper class, drug free, physically fit, and most importantly deserving of our collective attention. Few forget the names JonBenet Ramsey, Laci Peterson, Natalie Holloway, and now Gabby Petito. 

Last summer was dubbed as the season of racial reckoning. The broadcasting of the gruesome murder of George Floyd by an uniformed police officer before a crowd of police officers and citizens, touched off racial justice protests, think pieces, discussions, panels, videos, conferences, in every corner of America. Many people believed that acknowledging our country’s difficult history and its impact on our current conditions collectively, Americans would be able to remake our country consistent with the highest ideals enshrined in our Constitution. So to arrive this fall with every major media outlet consumed by Petito’s disappearance seemed surprising and yet not surprising at all. 

Sadly, the reality is the little media attention given to missing women and girls of color, men or boys, and even poor white women feeds and encourages a sense of invisibility. According to a report issued by Wyoming’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Task Force, in the decade between 2011 to 2020 at least 710 Indigenous people have disappeared. The task force reported more dismaying statistics about the indigenous murder rate in Wyoming and overrepresentation in light of the state’s 3% indigenous persons population. The most distressing part of the report was the conclusion that “the true number of MMIP [missing and murdered Indigenous persons] in Wyoming is likely higher than what this report conveys” because of the “striking inconsistencies” in reporting and data. In other words, the shoddy reporting and data contributed to the “the creation of a faulty narrative that results in the underreporting of scope of the MMIP epidemic.” 

Remembering the "Missing And Murdered Indigenous Women And Girls" (#MMIWG).
Mural in Tucson. Arizona.
Remembering the “Missing And Murdered Indigenous Women And Girls” (#MMIWG).
Mural by Wagon Burner Arts.
On E. Broadway Blvd. across from S. Bryant Ave., Tucson, AZ. Photo taken by David Aber. More information: https://www.lcsun-news.com/story/news/2019/07/11/mural-raising-awareness-missing-murdered-indigenous-women-vandalized/1696697001/

Invisibility is a palpable reality in our society, in our workplaces, in our libraries, in our lives. It permeates life in big and small ways. Tales of shoplifting gangs descending upon suburban department stores, the one black member drawing the attention of the sales staff while the white members of the crew steal brazenly are legendary. Or tales of the corporate, academic, government, library boardroom where the ideas of women summarily dismissed or ignored are suddenly deemed ingenious when reintroduced by white males are not new. Over and over and over again, the stories are told, retold, recast, and become the fabric of our society. The consistency of the stories is clear but the depth of the denial by white Americans that these instances are not motivated by gender, racial, class, or appearance bias is laughable. 

Acknowledgement of another person’s humanity (err..existence) is integral to communication, reconciliation, and healing. The fact remains that in America some lives matter and some don’t. It’s not debatable. It’s not disputable. Facts. The suspension of disbelief continues to astound even the most optimistic people who have seen this story play out far too many times. It’s exhausting. It’s maddening. It’s America. 

So it goes in our profession with a duality of existence – invisible but never unseen. According to recent data, in 2020 over 83 percent of professional librarians identified as white in 2020, women accounted for 83.2 percent of all librarians and just 9.5 percent of librarians identified as Black or African American, 9.9 percent as Hispanic or Latino (of any race), and 3.5 percent as Asian-American or Pacific Islander. Library and information institutions publicly seek diverse candidates. However, the number of librarians leaving the profession continues to trigger discussion. Librarians of color cite non-inclusive workplaces, lack of advancement opportunities, but most frustratingly feelings that their contributions were unheard or unwanted as reasons for leaving the profession altogether. The paradox of being unseen of course is the persistent unloading of all “diversity” work in libraries on these few professionals of color. From creating the Black History Month displays to completing the Human Resources training checklist; persons of color find themselves working a second shift of assuaging white guilt while simultaneously not disrupting the status quo. 

“I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”James Baldwin

Recently on The View, co-host Whoopi Goldberg exasperated by the absurdity of it all proclaimed, “”You cannot say that this is happening because people are woke. I was never asleep. I’ve never been asleep, OK? So in the culture that I’ve seen, we are fighting because there’s a big gap … you don’t see us as being viable parts of the United States and that’s the problem. Not just us, but Native Americans and all of the other that we’ve been talking about, women, just the whole thing. So you know what everybody, America? Get it together!”


Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. Their essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.