What is Missing White Women Syndrome? Gabby Petito case triggers racism controversy

In 2018, 612,846 missing person cases were entered into the National Crime Information Center records. So why is Gabby Petito's case special?


                            What is Missing White Women Syndrome? Gabby Petito case triggers racism controversy
Gabby Petito's case has sparked a racism issue (@gabbypetito/Instagram)

Gabrielle ‘Gabby’ Petito’s mysterious disappearance has captured the imagination of people across the US. Hundreds of thousands of tweets, a bunch of active Facebook grouds with more than hundreds of thousands of people in them, numerous TikTok and YouTube videos, and even a Subreddit with more than 70,000 members continue to discuss the case, speculate, make unfounded accusations, and even dabble in conspiracy theories. But what is it about this case that has so many people engaged?

Missing persons cases are far more common than one might think. In 2018, 612,846 missing person cases were entered into the National Crime Information Center records. Even on the FBI website, Petito’s name on the “Kidnappings & Missing Persons” page is followed by hundreds of others. There’s five-year-old Dulce Maria Alavez. There’s also Lori Boffman, who was last seen in 2006. There’s Akia Shawnta Eggleston, who went missing in 2017. And these are just three from an excruciatingly long list. 

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The reason why Petito’s case has attracted the public’s attention, some have suggested, is her race. Petito is a young blonde White woman. And that may be a reason why this case has been in the spotlight. One Twitter user wrote, “It’s so many black & brown little girls missing but when a white girl vanishes it’s a nationwide search and hits CNN,” under the #GabbyPetito hashtag.

The Twitter user also highlighted the abuse she had received following this tweet. She said, “Stop dming me calling me racist, monkey, n****, and all other racial slurs for literally speaking facts. I never said anything ill about this child I hope she’s found.. When black or brown people are mentioned the racist jumps out just check the comments.”



 



 

Despite the abuse she received, many seemed in agreement. One person wrote, “People mad in the comments: it’s NOT that anyone is against the nationwide search for Gabby. It’s that we want this same level of concern and action when it’s a black or brown girl that goes missing.” Another said, “When I first heard about this story I immediately thought about this. I feel bad that this girl is missing but you're right, it's the same type of person being highlighted. Pretty young blonde white girls. Black women aren't given a second thought, and if your a black man, good luck.” One tweet said, “We can care about Gabby and still admit this is true af and rage-inducing.”



 



 



 

Missing White Women Syndrome

A 2017 NPR story attributes the origin of this term to the late American journalist, television newscaster, and author Gwen Ifill, and cites research undertaken by Zach Sommers, a sociologist at Northwestern University, to check the veracity of the argument that missing White women are disproportionately highlighted in news stories as compared to missing people of color.

As per the report, Sommers undertook a study that looked at every missing person case covered by four online media outlets in 2013 and found that White women were much more likely to be the subject of news coverage relative to their proportions among missing persons, and women in general, were significantly more likely than men to be covered. Though White women make up about a third of the national population, "half of the articles in the data set are just about White females alone," Sommers said.

Sommers also noted that news outlets were more likely to repeatedly report on particular stories of missing White women, which then drove up the total number of articles about white women. "By choosing to disproportionately highlight the experiences of Whites and women, these four news websites (Star Tribune of Minneapolis, the Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and CNN.com) are implicitly — or perhaps explicitly — intimating that the cases of those individuals matter more," Sommers wrote.

Scott Bonn, a criminologist spoke to the Washington Post about the connection of race and the media and public frenzy around Petito's disappearance. Bonn said that if Petito were a woman of color, the national fixation on the case would not likely exist. “It’s about our culture and our society,” he said. “We place a priority on whiteness. We place a priority on youth and on our expectations of physical beauty.”

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