This post is truly uncomfortable. I’ve been reluctant to even post it, considering the unresolved nature of both these cases, the raw emotions involved, and the pain of the families. I can’t imagine the agony the families of Nia Wilson and Mollie Tibbetts are experiencing. My heart goes out to all those affected. It is gut wrenching to imagine how it must feel to lose a young woman like Nia to such senseless violence or to have someone like Mollie simply “disappear” while jogging the same familiar route each day.
This is not a post comparing/contrasting the worth of either of these young women. They both seem so full of life and potential. Rather, this post is a reflection on how these cases are portrayed in the media and how those portrayals reflect and reinforce our own implicit biases. As for these young women, my heart breaks. For the families I wish resolution and healing. I am holding out hope Mollie Tibbetts is returned safe and sound to her family soon. No one should ever have to endure what her or Nia’s family has gone through.
Like I said, this is a post on media coverage. My thought are as follows:
A veteran journalist once said to me that in terms of which stories get coverage in the US market, the following formula holds true: 1 American life = 5 Europeans = 10 Israelis = 20 Palestinians = 50 Asians = 200 Africans.
Cynical? Yes. But when we consider which tragedies get air time, column inches, and tweets, it’s hard to ignore the truth of the statement. Case in point, my Kenyan friends asked—rightly so—why there was not the same outpouring of international mourning after the terrorist attacks in the Westgate Mall in 2013 or Garissa in 2015 (where 67 and 152 people were killed respectively) as there was in 2016 when 137 and 32 people were killed by terrorists in Paris and Belgium. In 2016 thousands of us modified our profile pictures with the French and Belgium flags. In 2013 and 2015, I don’t remember seeing a single Kenyan flag superimposed on a profile picture.
The notion of bias in media is nothing new. But how this bias reflects racism. . . we have a harder time admitting.
That brings me to these two cases of Mollie and Nia. The disappearance of Mollie Tibbetts is deeply disturbing and tragic. As I write this, she is still missing. I know everyday she is not found is torture for her friends and family. I am praying she is found safe and sound. I don’t wish this ordeal on anyone. I do wish for her to be returned safely to her loved ones.
What is noteworthy is the coverage. Of course, Mollie is still missing, so the urgency of finding her is great. In that sense, the saturation of coverage and stridency is completely called for. I don’t question that for a moment.
It’s just, we don’t always do it for everyone. And that’s the deeply uncomfortable bit.
If you are white and don’t understand why your black friends or neighbors might not see the latest coverage of a missing white girl the same way you do, read this article:
As the article points out, the bottom line is that even though African Americans represent only about 12 percent of the US population, they account for 34 percent of all missing person cases. They are OVER represented in missing persons cases, just as they are over represented in incarceration figures. To quote the article: "If you Google 'Natalee Holloway,' how many impressions would you get?" Black and Missing cofounder Natalie Wilson told ABC News last year. "If you Google 'Unique Harris,' who's missing from D.C., the story is not the same."
Where do these missing women of color go? Many are fleeing domestic violence. Women of color experience domestic violence at rates 35 percent higher than white counterparts. Many end up as unsolved murder cases. Many are trafficked into sex work. In my own home county, King County which encompasses Seattle, 84 percent of child trafficking victims (18 and younger) were female, and 52 percent of them were African American. The general population of King County is just 7 percent African American.
Those statistics are not making headlines. That leads to a long-standing complaint from people of color about what grabs media attention (and thus ours). A young missing white woman in Iowa garners national headlines and primetime coverage. Hundreds of missing black women in US cities doesn’t.
We can’t say the media is solely to blame here, because the media is made up of people just like you and me. The media is us. We are also its consumers. And we’re biased. We’re racist. Even if we don’t mean to be biased, we are biased. Even if we don’t mean to do racist things, we still do racist things. Often without even knowing.
Stories of missing white women or white women who have been victims of violence are packaged for our consumption with a familiar outline that harkens back to the damsel-in-distress trope. For women of color, the same treatment is not merited. That brings us to Nia Wilson.
As many might know, Nia Wilson (21) was stabbed to death on a BART platform in an unprovoked attack July 28th of this year. The man who murdered her and stabbed her friend was apprehended. He is white. Nia was black. Some are alleging this was a hate crime. In my own Google search for Nia’s image, I found at least half a dozen pictures of her. She was a photogenic woman. She wanted to be a paramedic and liked the idea of helping others. She appeared happy and approachable in her photos. There were half a dozen flattering photos that came up in my cursory search, much like the ones I used above. But when the local Oakland television station KTVU, ran the story, the picture they chose, from Nia’s Facebook profile, was one of her holding a toy gun.
Nia, who had been brutally murdered, for some reason, did not merit the “damsel in distress” treatment. Instead she was portrayed holding a weapon, confirming the implicit associations, on the part of whites, that black people are dangerous, criminal, and violent.
We’ve progressed enough as a society that plenty of people cried foul. Dahleen Glanton in the Chicago Tribune credits Anne Hathaway as one sympathetic and influential voice that brought attention to Nia’s story and the outrageous, biased, and racist way she was portrayed through the choice of this picture http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/glanton/ct-met-dahleen-glanton-anne-hathaway-white-privilege-20180730-story.html
The headline of Ms. Glanton’s article is another hard truth: Nothing is more powerful than privileged white people talking about white privilege.
What’s striking to me is the privilege so many of us white people (youth AND adults) have to dress up as Storm Troopers, Gangsters, Bounty Hunters, (complete with imitation guns) but we’re not DEFINED by it, nor are we imperiled by it. We can gather at various CON, events, e.g. Dragoncon, Comicon, Emerald City Con, and no one calls the police on us. If we’re murdered, the picture put on the evening news is likely not of us posing in Han Solo cosplay with a replica ray-gun.
Meanwhile, my friends, parents of black children, can’t even let their kids play with water guns, for fear they might be shot by police.
Nia Wilson dressing up as a 1920s gangster and holding a toy gun doesn’t scare me. You know what does scare me? These white men with real guns.
Those pictures were from the Oath Keeper’s armed protests last month outside member of Congress, Maxine Waters’ office in Washington DC and from Ferguson Missouri. I am not advocating violence, no matter how problematic I find the politics of groups like the Oath Keepers. But consider this: an extraterrestrial visitor lands on your street tomorrow morning. He’s been watching CNN. He asks you why there have not been “misunderstandings” that lead to police shooting dead these white men carrying real firearms and threatening people, when black children are shot dead for carrying toy guns. Can you explain this to him without implicating racism?
Oh yeah, and speaking of white guys with guns, someone keeps shooting the sign commemorating the murder of Emmett Till. It’s been shot, dragged, and thrown in the river, like his body was, numerous times. Each time it is replaced, someone shoots it up. https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/06/us/emmett-till-sign-vandalized-trnd/index.html
It’s 2018, right? Just checking.
Back to Nia. The damsel-in-distress narrative vs. the dangerous-black-person-with-a-gun feeds into the toxic (if implicit) bias that “well that black person probably did something to provoke/deserve it that treatment.” I’m afraid we white people feed ourselves this line when we encounter these stories and then move on under the illusion that all OK with the world. Our police are virtuous. Our society is post racial. These fallacies allows us to suppress our own cognitive dissonance. They let us ignore how we might be reaping benefits of a horribly prejudiced system.
All is definitely NOT right with the world. Actually, things are pretty damn wrong. To paraphrase Ving Rhames as Marcellus Wallace: “Things are pretty f***ing far from OK.”
And things are far from OK when it comes to how we track these things. In researching for this post, I looked up government statistics on missing persons. It’s heartening to see that at least some agencies are tracking these cases. But (again) attention is not applied in equal measure. When I tried to find data on missing Native American women, I found out that the US government does not even track reported disappearances for this group. It was a sobering reminder that we don’t act as if ALL lives actually matter in this country.
To that end, ALL lives will NEVER matter, until we act as if women’s lives matter, black lives matter, and native lives matter. Mollie Tibbitt’s life matters. So does Nia Wilson’s.
No more or less so than one another. No more or less so than anyone else’s.
Hopefully, in a not too distant future, the data we collect, the media representation—our representations—of these women and women like them, will reflect that.