Gabby Petito: Missing white woman syndrome

Social media influencer Gabby Petito was reported missing by her family on Sept. 11, 2021; police found her body on Sept. 21. Hundreds of news articles from varying sources covered her disappearance and the events leading up to it, dragging up every detail authorities provided. Meanwhile, the missing cases of Black and Indigenous people are going largely ignored, both by law enforcement and the media. 

Petito, a #VanLife influencer, documented her life on the road on Instagram, YouTube, and Tiktok over the past two years. In the weeks leading up to her disappearance she had been on a cross-country road trip with her fiance Brian Laundrie, who now has a warrant out for his arrest.

In Wyoming, the same state Petito disappeared from, more than 400 Indigenous people have gone missing over the last decade; they received little to no media coverage. Of the 543,000 missing persons cases in 2020, 36 percent were Black; however, Black people make up only 13 percent of the total U.S. population. These groups go missing at a disproportionate rate, and yet their cases are rarely given attention. 

This unequal media response is an example of “missing white woman syndrome” in which society fuels its fascination with the tragedies of young, attractive white women while turning a blind eye to the disappearances of hundreds of Black and Indigenous people.

There is a twisted sort of enjoyment society receives from following cases like Petito’s. For centuries, the stereotypes of the white damsel in distress and the victimized white woman have been perpetuated. In Petito’s situation, the result of this was the blurring of the line between a current event and a fictional crime show or podcast, and she became more of a character instead of a real person. This underwhelmed the tragedy of her death, and instead served to feed the media’s suspense story while people of color’s cases went neglected.  

The main causes of missing Black and Indigenous people, such as domestic violence, are often ignored. They are written off as drug or gang-related, as an unfortunate result of the inherent crime in the area, or as the victim’s own fault for living in a place where such things are common. Children of color who disappear are most often thought to be runaways. Because of these incorrect assumptions, these cases do not receive appropriate attention from law enforcement. 

This issue is rooted in deeply ingrained racism and inequalities in our society, but there are ways to combat it. Accountability for both law enforcement and the media should be increased in order to ensure each missing persons case, no matter the race of the victim, is given an appropriate response. More diversity in the newsroom would help to oppose this obsession with white danger. The perpetuation of this inequality is costing lives, so working against it is crucial. 

6 thoughts on “Gabby Petito: Missing white woman syndrome

  • October 26, 2021 at 9:55 am
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    This is such a crazy thing too because not only are the missing Black and Indigenous people dehumanized, but so are the white women. When people of color go missing they get brushed aside. The amount of coverage they get is minimal, if any. However, when white women go missing, they become a character in someones perverted fantasy of saving a ‘helpless’ woman.

  • October 26, 2021 at 8:43 am
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    I can see how people are treating this case as if it were some sort of entertainment. I’ve seen comments online about how “it’s would be a great true crime documentary” or something like that which I think is completely inappropriate. Petito’s case led to the discovery of other missing people which reveals that law enforcement is capable, but they only put this much effort into it because of the large media presence. Missing people of color are just as important, but they never seem to get the same attention as their white counterparts.

  • October 26, 2021 at 8:14 am
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    I was thinking the same exact thing when this story broke but I felt weird saying it. Truth be told, there really is no attention for people of color when they are missing. The police can do their jobs when they want to, however, they simply pick and choose who they really put efforts in searching for.

  • October 25, 2021 at 11:21 am
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    This is a sad but very true fact. This has been going on for way too long, I’m glad to see that people are now bringing it to light. We often don’t talk about such sensitive subjects because they can make people uncomfortable. When it’s hurting more people and their families to not talk about “missing white woman syndrome”

  • October 25, 2021 at 9:45 am
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    Why would the boyfriends parents hide there son , and let him get away . It Crazy to me because the the bfs motive was not necessary

  • October 25, 2021 at 7:53 am
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    There were thousands of protests held these past years demanding that the large numbers of missing Indigenous women to be found, and yet the fact that those demands have still yet to be taken seriously is really upsetting. When you see how disproportionately these cases happen and are handled it’s really disturbing, there are thousands of Indigenous and people of color who have yet to be found, and yet one white woman brings a media frenzy. While it’s good they take the time to find her, it cannot be ignored the other women that they have neglected to find or even mention in the media. I hope that the demands of Indigenous people and people of color are listened to soon, and that there is some progress in those cases.

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