There is no question that Gabby Petito’s death is a terrible tragedy. A young woman’s life, full of promise, cut short by what authorities said was likely homicide. It’s a horror that no person and no family should have to experience.
Petito’s life, disappearance and death have captured the imagination of the country. With countless stories, social media posts, persistent cable TV coverage and amateur detectives scouring Instagram for clues, a Google search of Petito’s name yielded 340 million results.
Yet in contrast, the disappearance of Tulalip tribal member Mary Johnson, reported about 10 months ago, garnered a tiny fraction of the attention. A Google search of her name after all this time turned up only about 6,000 results. What’s the difference?
Part of the answer lies in a phenomenon the late journalism pioneer Gwen Ifill dubbed the “missing white woman syndrome.” Petito’s case joins others such as Natalee Holloway and Laci Peterson whose disappearances garnered tremendous publicity, while the disappearances of Indigenous women and other people of color went largely ignored. The phenomenon seems to apply the most when the victims are young, conventionally attractive white women.
As journalist Mara Schiavocampo said on CNN, “This actually has real life implications for women of color. Why? This makes them less safe because perpetrators, predators, know that if you want to get away with murder, you seek the victim that no one is going to look for.”
In Wyoming, the state in which Petito was found dead, a report released this year by Wyoming’s Taskforce on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons found over 700 Native American people went missing in the state alone between 2011 and 2020.
Abigail Echo-Hawk, an enrolled citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, is the director of the Seattle-based Urban Indian Health Institute and executive vice president of the Seattle Indian Health Board. Echo-Hawk helped Wyoming with the MMIP report and was instrumental in creating groundbreaking research-based reports on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and sexual violence against Indigenous women in Seattle.
Echo-Hawk said, as Native people, “we feel for [Petito’s] family and absolutely stand with them and their grief and wanting to see justice for them.” And, she said, it’s also important to recognize the “discrepancy that exists when a white woman goes missing, as opposed to a Native woman or another person of color.”
“What we see is systematic bias, institutional and structural racism and the vilifying and the placing of blame on the victims themselves and their families for when these people go missing and murdered,” Echo-Hawk said. “And what we see is absolute injustice. And that is why Washington state ranks one of the highest for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.”
Echo-Hawk said this victim blaming can manifest in authorities being more skeptical with families when Native girls and women go missing. She said they are asked questions like, “Did she run away? Was she out drinking?” and then have their concerns dismissed, with authorities saying their loved one will likely just be home in a couple of days. She said she has seen outright refusal to take a missing person’s report for days at a time, jeopardizing a critical window for finding a missing person.
“How these victims are talked about places the blame of their murders, places the blame of them going missing, on them, and everybody’s life matters,” she said.
As frustrating as it is to see the gulf in treatment for Indigenous and other victims of color, there are some positive changes on the horizon. Seattle Native-led nonprofit Na’ah Illahee Fund launched the “Red Blanket Fund” this month to provide support for families of missing and murdered Indigenous people. And Echo-Hawk said she would be launching a tool kit in the next few weeks to help law enforcement better respond to missing Indigenous people.
As media creators and media consumers, we can interrupt the “missing white woman syndrome.” We can ask ourselves, “Why is this particular case getting so much attention? Whose stories are not being told? Am I feeding into a paradigm where some lives matter more than others?”
The need is critical.
“We need to do better. Our women should not go missing,” Echo-Hawk said. “They should not be invisible. We deserve justice and we deserve for the families to know what happened to their loved ones.”