“If you go missing, no one will look for you. No one looks for Black girls,” my aunt said leaning over to look me dead in the eye. On the television a girl about my age with shoulder-length blond hair and a friendly smile filled the screen as the voice of the newscaster asked us to call the local police if we had seen her. We hoped that the girl would be found alive and unharmed, but there was another feeling in the room. A deeper, older wound that I could sense but couldn’t yet touch.
I often come back to that moment. My aunt’s words humming in my head like the refrain to a song I’d rather not feel so deeply: “No one looks for Black girls.” I didn’t understand it then, but my aunt was teaching me one of my first lessons on American politics. My aunt was letting me know that outside of my family’s home, I would never be as precious, would always be second to that poor lost white girl on the screen. My parents, too, had tried to expose me to that reality in their own way. They often felt the need to subsidize my education with movies about different moments in history. Every February, like clockwork, my father would sit me and my brothers down in front of the TV for eight nights straight to watch Kunta Kente and Kizzy in Roots. From there we’d move to films like Rosewood and Mississippi Burning. Throughout the whole month of February and for weeks after, my biggest fears were not the monsters under the bed that haunted other children my age, but the angry red faces of white men who might at any minute don their pointy white robes and terrorize me and my family. I didn’t tell my parents about this fear because I knew it was all a part of the lesson: White America has never loved us and probably it never would.
According to the FBI almost forty percent of the people missing in this county are people of color (POC), and yet POC do not make up forty percent of the missing persons cases covered by the media. Why? Perhaps it is because we, as a country, are taught to care about the sanctity and safety of white women above all else. This is because of a phenomenon coined by the journalist Sarah Stillman: “Missing White Girl Syndrome.” In order to capture the eyes of the national media, Stillman says, the missing person must be a young, traditionally attractive, affluent white woman. Stillman may have coined this phrase in 2003, but it is something that Black people have known for a long time. A very long time.
American cinema backs this up. From films like D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation to Jordan Peele’s Get Out, you can see which people, and particularly which women, have value and which do not. Take for instance the plot of the 1988 film Mississippi Burning, which tells the story of the case investigating the murder of three civil rights workers who went missing in 1964 in Philadelphia, Mississippi. In the movie, the three missing men are murdered, Black people are tortured, and their houses set on fire by the KKK and police. However, despite all this trauma, the peak emotional moment in the movie happens when one of the Klan members beats his wife after he discovers that she gave information to the FBI. Domestic abuse should never be dismissed, but Mississippi Burning should have focused on the legacy of Black pain at the hands of white supremacists. Instead it prioritizes the trauma of a single white woman. The narrative of one white woman’s abuse was positioned as the greatest moral transgression, her abuse orchestrated into the big dramatic moment. This was not accidental.
Even in movies like the Color Purple, a movie by and about Black women where white people exist on the periphery, even here there were lessons about who has value and who does not. My limited space in the world to dream, to feel safe and valued, spelled out in a series of unending violences against Black women. Throughout the movie Celie endures a whole mess of trauma: She’s beaten, raped, separated from her sister and her infant children, and told that she is worthless and ugly. And yet by the end of the movie not one of her assailants is ever punished, no one apologizes, and they never atone for their sins. They experience no condemnation other than the audience’s scorn.
As if this injustice is not enough—consider who is actually punished in the movie, who actually goes to jail for her “crimes,” who experiences the full wrath of a whole town coming after her?
Oprah Winfrey’s character Ms. Sofia.
When Ms. Millie (a white woman) asks Ms. Sofia if she wants to be her maid, Ms. Sofia breaks the social code by daring to look a white woman in the eye and speak boldly. “Hell no,” and with that all hell broke loose. As a child watching this movie, I liked to put my hands on my hips like Ms. Sophia when no one was watching, and firmly say “Hell no.” But it wasn’t until I watched The Color Purple as an adult that I began to weep at this particular scene: Ms. Sofia is surrounded by a town of angry white people shouting and shaking their fingers at her for daring to say “Hell no” to a white woman, for daring even further to slap a white man back after he hit her in “punishment.” She’s frantic with fear, knowing this is how more than a few lynchings began. When she sees the sheriff, she shouts, “Oh, thank God!” thinking he is here to save her, but he is not. Instead, he knocks her out with the butt of his gun because the police have never been here to protect Black women. They only show up to silence, to quiet their hysteria. Hence when the Black mother in Texas called to report the assault of her son by their neighbor, it’s she and her daughter who are arrested, not the man who choked her son. It’s why Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, Renisha McBride, and so many other innocent Black women are dead, and their killers are often still free.
According to 2011 census data, Black women are only 6.8% of the population and yet the FBI’s report in 2011 on missing persons shows we are over 30% of the women missing in this country, and still no one is looking for us. And why would they? The U.S. has centuries of practice ignoring the frantic pleas of Black mothers and fathers. Separating Black families for profit was once one of America’s most profitable industries, and you cannot in good conscience separate mother from child unless you have refused to see the mother’s humanity, unless you have learned to mute your ears to her pleas for mercy, pleas to have her child in her arms again. Desensitization to the pain of Black women and families is such a huge part of our culture that Black children go missing without even a whisper from the national news, and that’s normal.
This is evidenced most recently in our nation’s capital. In the month of March, over a dozen Black and Latino teens ages 14-18 went missing without any notice from the national news. While the local police department has been posting on Twitter to raise awareness for the missing youth, there can be no uncertainty that if this many white teens went missing in such a brief time span there would be a national outcry. Their pictures would be on the cable news networks, and their parents would be seen imploring us to help find their babies. I don’t begrudge white parents and families this privilege. I simply wish it wasn’t a privilege.
Every day that we don’t look for the missing teens in D.C. or any of the thousands of missing POC all over the country—every day that we choose to ignore the pleas of their families and community members, we continue to affirm that the lives of Black and Brown people don’t matter. Through our cinema, law enforcement (both fictional and in real life), and media we tell a whole new generation of vulnerable girls that if they go missing, they and their families are on their own because as my aunt told me as a young girl, no one looks for Black girls.