In her shadow: unrecognized trauma of women and girls of color

Dr. Dionne Hart

Forty years ago, Malcolm X said, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” Four decades later, has anything changed?

Recently, I had the privilege of moderating a discussion focused on the silent epidemic of missing women of color with a group of physicians, community leaders, and elected Minnesota legislators.

In 2020, the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) received reports of 298,884 missing women and girls. Thirty percent of those reported missing, or 90,333, were Black, despite Black people making up just 16% of the overall population. By the end of 2020, 40,576 women and girls were listed as still missing. Thirty-four percent, some 13,899, were Black.  

In 2021, the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) received reports of 257,385 missing women and girls. Thirty-five percent of those reported missing, or 89,020, were Black. By the end of 2021, 41,906 women and girls were listed as still missing. Thirty-four percent, some 14,323, were Black. 

Black girls and women are not the only minority group impacted by this crisis. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, murder is the third leading cause of death among Native American and Alaska Native women. Rates of violence on réservations are up to 10 times higher than the national average.

These rates of violence are unsettling, especially because the exact number of missing and disappeared women is unknown because the data is incomplete.

Recently, there have been documentaries, news stories, and blogs focused on missing women and girls of color, increasing the amount of media attention. In fact, after the disappearance of Gabby Petito, the phenomenon of “missing White woman syndrome” was given new attention.

This “syndrome” coined by the journalist Gwen Ifill, describes how White women receive significantly greater levels of media attention, to the exclusion of others.

In the United States, White women are perceived as vulnerable, fragile, and valuable while women of color are regularly depersonalized, oversexualized, labeled impulsive, and lacking innocence.

The cases of all missing persons are important and should be given equitable attention, but unfortunately, this is not the current reality in the cases of minority women.

When minority girls and women disappear, their families are often dismissed by law enforcement as their cases are misclassified as runaways. Their families are often denied an opportunity to open a missing person’s case, forcing them to investigate on their own.

The delayed investigation leads to a loss of critical time, particularly in the first 48 hours. Their lives are disregarded and dehumanized by law enforcement and the media.

In Minnesota, two pioneering legislators, Sen. Mary Kunesh and Rep. Ruth Richardson, are trying to bring attention to this crisis. They authored new Minnesota laws forming task forces to address the issues of Missing Indigenous and Black women and girls. Sen. Kunesh stated, “We have to prioritize the investment [to provide resources] to investigate this crisis.”

The lack of attention given to minority women who disappear or go missing places a target on the back of minority women, per Rep. Ruth Richardson. Belonging to a socially invisible community has consequences beyond being misunderstood and stereotyped. Women of color are less likely to get amber alerts and their cases are more likely to be unresolved.

Missing Black and Indigenous girls and women are not fully recognized, understood, or legitimized by the media, law enforcement, or policymakers, in general.

To change the narrative, minority communities must advocate for timely equal coverage of missing minority girls and women, resources to investigate their disappearance, and mental health services to address the direct and indirect effects of the traumatic losses experienced in minority communities.

As members of minority communities, we must increase the understanding of crimes against minorities to bring these lives out of the shadows and into the public’s awareness to prevent further losses of life and secure sufficient resources for law enforcement and related research.

The latter is especially important because, according to both Minnesota legislators, the lack of data severely hinders advocates and policymakers from securing resources to protect minority women.

Simply put, saying “Black lives matter” is not enough—we have to demand equitable action in all areas of health, social justice, law enforcement, and research.