In 2004, PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill coined the phrase “missing white woman syndrome.” “If there’s a missing white woman, we are going to cover that, every day,” she explained to her audience. Seventeen years later, nothing has changed. If anything, the internet has exacerbated that tendency, with digital outlets battling tabloids and broadcast stations for the attention of an increasingly splintered audience.
All of this has seemingly reached a crescendo with the recent disappearance of Gaby Petito. As soon as the 22-year-old white woman went missing in Wyoming earlier this month, her case gained immediate media attention, which only intensified after her body was found and her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, appeared to be on the run. Since she was first reported missing, her name has been mentioned hundreds of times on cable news and has inspired countless articles, videos and hashtags focused on her disappearance.
Once again, “missing white woman syndrome” had obscured the estimated 90,333 missing Black women and girls in the country, or one-third of all the missing women in the U.S. (despite Black women representing just 6.7 percent of the population). The numbers are even more extreme for Indigenous women; according to the Justice Department, American Indian and Alaska Native women living on tribal lands are murdered at more than 10 times the rate of non-Native women.
Per Zach Sommer’s empirical research from 2016, the media’s focus on white women sends a clear message to the audience about who matters and who doesn’t. “The disparities imply that these companies believe their audiences will care more about or will more readily identify with those kinds of victims,” he wrote. “And given the serious nature of missing persons and abduction cases, that differential suggests that the lives of those missing persons not covered, who are disproportionately nonwhite, are worth less.”
While groups such as the Black and Missing Foundation, Native Women’s Wilderness, Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women and Our Black Girls are working to bring attention to the issue — and more importantly, helping to find the missing — the majority of social media campaigns, Reddit forums and sites like Websleuths mimic the media’s coverage biases. That’s why redditor Alohaworld created and serves as head moderator of r/MISSINGBIPOC, a subreddit that aims to “create awareness about cases of missing, murdered and/or unidentified BIPOC people throughout the world.”
Alohaworld, who uses her mod name for security reasons, has ambitious plans for the community — even though she remains both cautious and careful with her endeavor. For good reason, too, as she endures near-daily racist trolling. “I’ve received everything from insults to, ‘You’re racist,’ to sometimes veiled threats,” she tells me. “But, I mean, that’s par for the course on Reddit.”
Over a recent phone call, we discussed the urgent need for the community she’s building, how a venture that’s so vital and beneficial can still upset so many people and why she hopes to never see another Daily Mail link on the subreddit again.
Has it surprised you to see such hate for something as innocent and good-hearted as trying to raise attention for someone who’s gone missing?
If you create something exclusively for Black, Indigenous and people of color, just a space… We’re not asking Reddit to segregate users or anything like that; we’re just asking for our own space, where we can make our own rules and broadcast our own interests. But some people take that really seriously. Like, “Why are you excluding white people?” My answer is, “You’re not being excluded from Reddit, you have the rest of the space. We just want this one.”
Why do people feel so threatened by anything that places a singular focus on Black, Indigenous and POC? Is it that they feel it’s a denial of their worldview, or just that they’re not used to being excluded?
In the case of our subreddit, we just want to create awareness. That young lady who just disappeared and unfortunately was found dead, I’m so happy she was found, I’m so happy for her family. Nobody deserves to be involved in something like that.
But I can tell you that if you go to any website that lists people who disappear — women who disappear or children — there’s hundreds and hundreds of cases of people of color that have just one name, one picture, and that’s it. We don’t want anyone who disappears — man or woman — not to be looked for.
So I created this. It literally was a pandemic project. I read all these cases, and I kept telling my husband, “They only have a name. They don’t have a case number. They don’t have…” Where other cases, they get movies, they get documentaries. Why can’t we have a little bit of that help and attention from law enforcement? That’s really what this is about. A lot of people interpret that as a threat, but I can’t speak for them. If bringing justice to one person of color is a threat to you, I don’t understand it.
Do you imagine that this subreddit will become a storehouse for investigations, similar to Websleuths?
I’m going to be completely honest with you: I’m a little overwhelmed because I’m not law enforcement. I’m an engineer. I want to grow this organically; I have the help of a few people. I just want to fulfill that mission in any little big way that we can. But it’s really fluid because it’s growing really fast.
We’re also talking about missing people; we’re not talking about the fashion that this actress wore at the Emmys. We’re talking about people who lost their relatives — they can’t find them, maybe they’re dead. So I’m very cautious when it comes to those things because true crime sometimes isn’t that careful. I want to be very careful. Because maybe the family is reading this stuff online, trying to find their missing family member. I want to be respectful and careful about that.
There’s a pro-police vibe on Websleuths. Is that something that you’ll try to moderate?
We’re victim-oriented. I’m absolutely against police brutality. You can probably tell by my accent that I’m Hispanic. I wasn’t born in the States. I’m a U.S. citizen, but I’m from Colombia. I grew up in a very race neutral environment. We didn’t really talk about race back home in Colombia. But then I came here and married my husband. He’s African American. We started dating when Michael Brown, the young man who was killed in Ferguson, was murdered. I told him, “I can’t believe this is happening.” He was like, “This has been happening forever. But you’re so optimistic about life that you never saw it.”
Being here, though, I can see the oppression in our communities. But on the other side, in my opinion, there are police who are making an effort to reach out about missing person cases. So it’s a fine balance. Because we want to make sure those resources go to the victims of crime. And I can tell you that a lot of the time, it’s important to have an ally inside an organization.
Because the numbers of missing people of color are so large, how do we tell these stories without the numbers overwhelming people, without them being made callous by the statistics?
Well, I haven’t gotten there yet. This has been something that I’ve read about a lot, and I think about a lot. At the end of the day, my philosophy is: Do the next right thing.
America has never grown numb to any missing white lady. I’m a woman. I’m very aware of what happens to women. I don’t even run outside because I’m afraid somebody’s going to grab me. So I know that there’s a lot of risk in being a woman in America. And God bless every single one of those white ladies who were found, but America’s not numb to that. Every time a white lady goes missing, you hear about it and see it everywhere 24/7. So I don’t know how to say that, but I do the next right thing. If we can do right by one family, if we can help to find one person, that’s the next right thing.
There seems to be a need for special attention placed on Indigenous women and the lack of attention that they’ve gotten, even within this conversation. Would you agree?
Absolutely. Missing Native American women — there are hundreds of those cases. Poverty is one factor, but there’s also the places where they live; the reservations have a different type of police enforcement. And again, they found this missing young white lady in six days. There have been several hundred people missing in Wyoming — many Native American women — and they haven’t been found. That alone tells you, theirs is a completely special case within the whole nature of this conversation about missing people.
As you just mentioned, there are often other larger issues and societal patterns like poverty that intersect with the cases of the missing. Are you hoping to create a deeper, engaged discussion on the intersections of, say, domestic violence, foster care and sex-workers rights?
That’s very important. Look at the police’s resistance to opening a case for a sex worker. Their sex work shouldn’t matter because that sex worker is a person, regardless of their profession. That absolutely needs to be discussed — poverty, homelessness, there are a lot of factors. It’s not only race and gender, but there are a lot of people that society doesn’t think or believe they’re worth looking for.
Are there any sources or websites that you don’t allow people to use on the subreddit?
There’s one particular source that we never like: the British tabloids. I have a problem with them. If you read the tabloids, everything is always distorted from a very far right angle. We normally post mainstream, middle-of-the-road stuff, like the Washington Post, New York Times and NBC. Media that can be verified and embedded. Like the Daily Mail, I wouldn’t really go there — those tabloids are like, ‘This person is missing, even though they had a DUI 10 years ago.’ They investigate the victim. Like, ‘She didn’t stop at a stop sign so maybe it’s an indication of why she’s missing.’
What? If you read the tabloids, if it’s a person of color, they’re going to look for the note the teacher sent 10 years ago. It’s crazy.
Let’s say it’s five years from now, and you’re looking back at what you’ve done, what would make you feel proud of your effort?
Again, this effort is an effort by a lot of people. For me, the main thing is that we want to create a space for these families, for these missing people. And I hope that it becomes a part of mainstream America. I know that’s a huge task. But I hope to create awareness, I hope people will look for people of color because our lives matter, our families lives matter.