A Dozen Black Girls Went Missing, and The Press's Deafening Silence Reeks of Misogynoir

03/28/2017 01:41 pm ET Updated Dec 26, 2017

Within the last few days alone, D.C. officials suddenly have publicized over a dozen previously unknown reports of missing Black and Latinx girls, and up until then, almost every mainstream news network had neglected to cover this national emergency. The discrepant underreporting of cases involving Black families, compared to White ones, may not surprise many, but getting to the bottom of exactly why this happens disproportionately to Black girls necessitates a much more nuanced conversation about racism.

Earlier last week, residents of the predominantly Black Southeast section of D.C., joined by their council member and police officials, held a town hall intended to shed light on the controversy. The negligible coverage by local and national media platforms left the community members feeling rightfully indignant that neither news stations nor city officials seemed to prioritize concern for the welfare of missing children from majority-Black neighborhoods. For one thing, several family members and friends of the missing girls claimed that they relied on word of mouth to mobilize search teams since the D.C. police did not release Amber Alerts. Over the next few days, social media served as one of the few sources of information and updates about their loved ones.

The prolonged scarcity of reports in the press underscored the collective sentiment of the Southeast D.C. community, most of whom believe that racial and gender bias––however unintentional––inclined major news networks to flout their ethical commitment to informing the community. A multitude of research corroborates their skepticism.

Quite a few studies show that in broadcast news, mainstream media outlets often over-represent White victims, depict minorities stereotypically, and trivialize women. [1] [2] [3] [4] For example, a 2010 study examining ‘selection bias’ in news stories about missing children compared statistics from the FBI to evening news reports from five national televisions stations. Findings revealed that Black and female missing children­­ received the least amount of coverage. [5] Additionally, a 2008 study also found that “as [a situation's] level of emergency increased, the speed and quality of help white participants offered to black victims relative to white victims decreased." [6] And in a very recent 2017 study, White women exhibited less willingness to help Black women who appeared to be at imminent risk of sexual assault. [7]

Outside of academia, accessible and understandable language to describe the compounded oppression that Black girls and women face barely existed until professor Moya Bailey of Northeastern University coined and popularized the term “misogynoir”. Fusing the words ‘misogyny’­­ and ‘noir’, an avant-garde term for ‘black’, she named and conceptualized one of the most preeminent sociological theories that distinguishes anti-Black sexism from the ubiquitous sexism felt by all women, as well as racism experienced by Black people, regardless of gender. Overall, misogynoir has been discussed mostly in relation to Black women, but it impacts little Black girls, too.

For example, we’ve seen schools all across the nation attempt to assimilate the cultural expression and phenotypes of Black girls by implementing anti-Black “personal grooming” policies, such as Butler High School's ban of cornrows, dreadlocks, and twists in Kentucky, and Lorain Horizon Science Academy’s prohibition of Afro puffs and braids in Ohio. We’ve also witnessed the ban of 9-year-old Marian Reed’s Afro puffs in Texas, 3-year-old Amia Norris's coconut oil moisturizer in Illinois, and 12-year-old Vanessa Van Dyke's “distracting” natural hairstyle in Florida.

Then the same degradation of Black girls shows up in popular culture, as evidenced by the plethora of disparaging comments online about 5-year-old Blue Ivy’s facial features and hair texture, Lil Wayne’s matter-of-fact statement that he consciously chose to father children with non-Black women because did not want another dark-skinned daughter, the endless body shaming directed at teenage Olympic gymnasts Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles in 2012 and 2016, and Glen Beck’s smearing of 11-year-old Malia Obama in 2010. Also, let’s not forget the vitriolic backlash that J.K. Rowling faced when revealing that she envisioned Hermione as a Black girl.

With midtreatment like this, it almost seems as if some folks do not see little Black girls as children at all, which might be the case, considering that at only 9 years old, child actress Quvenzhané Wallis had to remind reporter David Muir, “Well, I’m still a little girl”, when he asked her, “Did you ever watch Annie as a kid yourself?” The Onion also called her “the c-word” for correcting reporters’ pronunciation of her name on the red carpet at the Oscars.

And before jumping to the faulty conclusion that anti-Black sexism seems no worse than the racial profiling and state-sanctioned violence that the media associates almost exclusively with Black boys and men, remember that Black girls experience both. Racist police officers have projected aggression and combativeness onto innocent and unarmed Black girls, too, like the officers who have body-slammed teenage Black girls in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas. Almost all of them have been acquitted.

All of this evidence proves that the policing and rejection of Black women’s humanity begins at a very young age. Society hurls misogynoir at Black girls long before they begin struggling through the typical body image and self-esteem issues of adolescence. Their race and gender almost never afford them the freedom just “to be” or the opportunity to love themselves without pushback from somebody or somewhere.

In viral posts about the missing girls in D.C., many have expressed confusion and shock in response to the media’s deafening silence. Yet, what else should we expect from a society with a 500-year legacy of racism and sexism, but for its centuries-old political and social institutions to evade accountability for protecting Black girls and women? Even though folks know for a fact that Black women have been devalued all throughout America’s history, they still blame Black women and girls in oppressive circumstances for ending up there. So, when most of America would rather ignore an Amber Alert or news story about an abducted Black girl from a Black neighborhood, why would the media or the police bother broadcasting it?

Perhaps the many missing girls and their families will fare better off if those of us who actually care help them tell their stories, twice as loud and twice as often, because they too are newsworthy.

A list of the studies:

[1] Byerly, C. M., & Ross, K. (2006). Women and media: A critical introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell.Cable News Network. (2002, June 19). CNN Evening News [Television broadcast]. Atlanta, GA: Author.

[2] Dixon, T. L., & Linz, D. (2000). Race and the misrepresentation of victimization on local televisionnews. Communication Research, 27, 547–573.

[3] Entman, R. (1994). Representation and reality in the portrayal of Blacks on network television news. Journalism Quarterly, 71, 509–520.

[4] Keever, B., Martindale, C., & Weston, M. A. (Eds.). (1997). U.S. news coverage of racial minorities: Asourcebook, 1934–1996. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

[5] Min, S.J., & Feaster, J.C. (2010). Missing children in national news coverage: Racial and gender representations of missing children cases. Communication Research Reports, 27(3), 207–216.

[6] Kuntsman, J.W., & Plant, E.A. (2008). Racing to help: racial bias in high emergency helping situations. Journal of Personal Psychology, 95(6).

[7] Katz, J. et al. (2017). White female bystanders’ responses to a black woman at risk for incapacitated sexual assault. Psychology of Women Quarterly.

If you have any information about any of the missing girls in D.C. or across the country, contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children Hotline: 1-800-The-Lost.
If you believe you are the victim of a trafficking situation or may have information about a potential trafficking situation, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) at 1-888-373-7888.