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  • Alisha Grech

We're Missing the Point

Reporting on Violence Against Women and the Perpetuation of Missing White Woman Syndrome

Spoken for the CDTPS Colloquium, February 11th, 2022

I am coming to you from Tkaronto, the place in the water where the trees are standing. I also come to you through Zoom, whose headquarters are located on the lands of the Muwekma Ohlone peoples.

This research will take us to the lands of the Cheyenne, Crow, Ute, Bannock and Blackfeet as well as the Chippewa, Confederated Salish, and Kootenai tribes.

This work contains subject matter of gender violence, violence against Indigenous women, intimate partner violence, police involvement, racism, microaggressions, physical violence, missing persons, and mental illness.

I will begin with the words of Desi Small-Rodriguez:

“Why is it that we are more likely to be raped and murdered than go to college. why is it that our young girls are just trying to survive? We would never accept this if, for example, these girls were non-Indian.”

At the centre of this study, there are two women.

Woman A is blonde. She is thin and able-bodied. A is white and is a part of a middle-class family from New York. Her family loves and supports her. She is young, in her early twenties. A loves yoga and making video blog posts. She has worked in food service to save money to travel across America with her fiancé. A has dreams of becoming an internet celebrity, sharing her passions with others

Woman B has dark hair. She is thin and able-bodied. B is a Native woman from the Dixon County area of Missoula, Montana. She is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. B is a part of a loving community, who openly and passionately supports her. Like A, B is also young, in her early twenties. B is a single mother of two boys, whom she loves and protects fiercely. B has dreams of becoming a firefighter.

Both women experienced intimate partner violence—making them two of the 24 Americans per minute that suffer physical, emotional, or sexual abuse from an intimate partner. Intimate partner violence, also known as IPV, involves physical acts of violence, emotional and psychological abuse as well as financial abuse. The World Health Organization cites that while IPV impacts all people across borders of race, gender, religion or socioeconomic status, women of colour, queer, disabled, and transgender women are disproportionately affected.

After experiencing abuse from their intimate partners, some of which involved the intervention of law enforcement, both A and B went missing. Since their disappearances, only A has been found.

On September 22, 2021, CNN posted a YouTube video titled “How 'missing White woman syndrome' has real-life implications.” As the video plays, footage of Gabrielle Petito takes up the screen with bold lettering underneath: “CRITICS: FOCUS ON GABBY PETITO IS 'MISSING WHITE WOMAN SYNDROME.'” Gabrielle Petito sticks out her tongue and waves her hand through her long, blonde hair. She is smiling. She is happy. As she turns her phone, recording herself on the beach, a young man comes into view. He is also smiling. He is also happy. This is Brian Laundrie, Gabby’s fiancé, and abuser. On September 11th, 2021, Gabby was reported missing.

Following the missing person’s report filed by family and authorities, the story of Gabby’s disappearance took social media by storm. From September to October of 2021, Brand24, a social media tracking software, recorded over ten million social media engagements with the hashtag #gabbypetito across platforms of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. This surge across social media rushed outwards to mainstream news outlets such as CNN, the New York Times, the New Yorker, NPR, the CBC, the BBC, and The Guardian. Gabby Petito’s face was everywhere. Her story was everywhere.

On September 21st, 2021, Gabby’s body was recovered, resulting in a national search for Brian Laundrie that concluded in the location of his remains. As of January 17, 2022, the case is coming to its fatal conclusion at the hands of an abuser.

Meanwhile, woman B’s case is still unsolved.

Art by Jenna Rodarte, 2019

Jermain Charlo is a 23 year old Native woman, a resident of the Flathead Reservation in Dixon County. She is a mother of two boys. She is a fan of the television show Supernatural, and she loves experimenting with makeup. She is close with a community of supportive, strong women—her grandmother, her mother, her aunt, and her cousins. She is a part of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai community—Tribal people who stress the importance of observation and spiritual connection with the natural world and enrich the lives of their children with spiritual traditions.

Between taking care of her sons and waiting tables, Jermain was studying to become a firefighter. On June 15th, 2018, Jermain was last seen at the Badlander bar in downtown Missoula, Montana. Since then, Jermain Charlo has not been seen or heard from. The last person believed to have seen Jermain, is Michael DeFrance: the father of Jermain’s children and her abuser.

At first, it was shocking to me that people were more likely to denounce violence committed against a white woman than the abuse of a Native woman. But truly, it is not shocking at all. It is easy to denounce the abuse of a being who is considered a full, valued person. It is easy to ignore the abuse of a being who is not considered a person at all. It is easy to ignore the disappearance of that being, when the United States of America, has never cared about them, to begin with.

In the book Against White Feminism, Rafia Zakaria reflects on her experiences as a mother and survivor of intimate partner violence: “During our last fight, the police officer who arrived on the scene took his cue from my suddenly calm and courteous husband and told me to ‘patch it up.’ It was only much later that I would learn that this is what police officers tell women who look to them for help, all the time... The non-white mother (then and now) is ‘subalternized’ or rendered voiceless.”

On April 13th, 2013, local Montana authorities received a call about a domestic violence incident. Arriving at the Dixon Agency home, law enforcement and tribal police detained an enraged white man. Sitting on the front steps of the residence was a seventeen-year-old Jermain Charlo. That evening, Michael DeFrance ended their argument by physically assaulting Jermain repeatedly. After recording her injuries and taking further statements, Missoula police officers handed Jermain pamphlets detailing what domestic violence was, as well as a notice of victims’ rights in the state of Montana.

The police left. Michael DeFrance spent one day in jail and was charged with a misdemeanour.

Connie Walker, host of the podcast Stolen: The Search for Jermain points out that when dealing with IPV, “what helps women most are social services.” Although, in Dixon County, there are only two IPV social workers that serve a population of over five thousand people. Unlike more privileged, advantaged populations, Jermain had little resources from the beginning.

Ultimately, these cases illustrate the differentiation of care between white women and marginalized women. In her book White Tears / Brown Scars, author and feminist Ruby Hamad explains that white women are perceived as soft, demure, sweet, and worthy of protection—yet also desired by a white male-dominated society. Whereas women of colour, especially Native women, are exotified, commodified, sexualized, and viewed as aggressive. To Hamad, the differentiation of worthiness between white women and women of colour, perpetuates a narrative of white women needing to be saved and women of colour being urged to save themselves.

To further explain this, I turn to what I am gently naming “the scope of care.” The scope of care refers to the range of attention, consideration, empathy, and concern that society applies to a person, eventually resulting in positive or negative treatment. The scope of care that society applies when viewing the experiences of women of colour is much smaller than the scope of care applied to experiences of white women.

In the case of Gabrielle Petito, it is perhaps painfully obvious that the scope of care is larger. The Petito family received global support from thousands of social media users, government agencies and even the President of the United States. Whereas the scope of care applied to Jermain Charlo is minuscule. Ultimately, this reflects what Ruby Hamad writes as: “the white standard for humanity.”

By extension, Hamad explains that: “white society hinges on the myth of ‘protecting white women’”, thus resulting in a lack of care given to those who fall outside of that category. Gabrielle Petito was white, young, thin, cis-gender, perceived as typically attractive and straight passing—all factors that made her more appealing to care for, and so, the scope of care applied to her (because of these attributes) grew.

This enlarged scope of care becomes visible through the language that is used about Gabby Petito’s case. Commonly, people refer to her online as sweet and angelic. As well, social media users applaud the swift and timely action of authorities in locating Gabby’s and Brian Laundries bodies. More people dialogued about Gabby—creating TikTok videos, tweets, reddit threads and Instagram posts, giving her case more attention—consequently, widening the scope of care applied to Gabby.

In most posts about Jermain Charlo, such as this one, focus on the “horrible place” Jermain is from as well as the regular struggle of the “cops” when facing “the locals.” This not only reinforces a long-running, white perpetuated stereotype of Native communities being unwelcoming or dangerous, but also calls into question why authorities are, as stuntbob86 writes, “getting a hard time.”

But why is Dixon County a “bad area” as stuntmanbob86 points out? Could it be bad due to a lack of access to community support, opportunities, or resources? Could it be because most people in Dixon County are economically disadvantaged? Or could it perhaps be because there is a lack of trust in the county police—as historically, Native stories have been discounted and discredited by white governmental systems.

In The Ideal Victim: A Critical Race Theory Approach, Lisa J. Long explains that within a criminal case, societal care depends upon the likability and relatability of the victim. Therein, Long explains that there is an ideal victim—a type of person who is more likely to receive the complete, legitimate status of victimhood by being perceived as worthy. A victim’s worth is held in relation to specific social factors such as economic status, ethnicity, bodily ability, age, weight, race, and sexual identity. Long argues that within North America, “worth is predicated on proximity to whiteness.”

The scope of care, then, is reliant on relatability. Gabrielle Petito was given the complete, legitimate status of victimhood, because to a white-dominant society, she was relatable. When violence occurs against the dominant group—white people within a white dominant society, it is viewed as a more serious issue in relation to violence committed against someone from a group that is perceived to not matter. Jermain Charlo does not meet the white standards of Americanism, womanhood, or the ideal victim. Due to these factors, the scope of care is reduced for Jermain, leading to a lack of publicity, resources and ultimately, justice.

In returning to CNN’s video, clips of Gabby Petito are spliced between the words of journalist Mara Schiavocampo. She explains: “There's an overrepresentation in media when white women go missing... I'm willing to bet that no one watching can name one single black or brown woman who went missing that became a household name.” As consumers of mainstream media, we think of the Natalee Holloway’s, Sarah Everard’s, and the Gabby Petito’s of the world—leaving many others to go overlooked, such as Selena Not Afraid, Tanya Marie Hill, Sunshine Wood, Mary Johnson, Jermain Charlo, or Henny Scott.

“If race and gender directly determine an individual’s treatment in our society, so too does class” - Rafia Zakaria

This, of course, prompts reflection on the notion of intersectionality, specifically, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory that women of colour are not merely marginalized due to gender, but also due to race. Race and gender together directly affect one’s worth and value. Race and gender are extensions of a classist, colonized system that is working overtime in North America.

Jermain Charlo was from an incredibly different economic class than Gabby Petito. Gabby was a part of an upper middle class, white family that lived in both Florida and New York. In Dixon County, where Jermain Charlo lived, 22% of the population—which is about 48 out of 215 people—live below the poverty line. 20% of that demographic, ages eighteen to thirty-four are Native American.

In many ways, the scope of care relates heavily and perhaps obviously to what is known as missing white woman syndrome. Originated by American news anchor Gwen Ifill, missing white woman syndrome refers to the mainstream media and popular culture frenzy that occurs over a white woman who is missing, in danger or perhaps murdered.

When the scope of care is broad, we

see overwhelming examples of care. We can easily participate in the sharing of hashtags, photos, and petitions. We can turn on our televisions, cellphones or laptops and learn about the life and situation of the victim. We can easily advocate for them and spread their story with others. But, when the scope of care is reduced to such a small size, people are ignored, silenced, and erased.

Going forward, I would like

to explore the ways in which scopes of care are widened through recognition and redistribution. To fight the erasure of marginalized experiences, many non-profit and community centred organizations have united to carry the labour of decolonization, support, and advocacy. The justice work that is being done today comes from community leaders, elders and collectives that have often carried the weight of the same oppressions they seek to overcome for others.




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