Missing D.C. girls are more than a hashtag

Viral story about missing black girls indicative of larger issues.

by Kemi Giwa, Staff Columnist

Natalee Holloway and Elizabeth Smart were household names growing up. I was young, but I vividly remember my parents pointing to these girls as reasons for me to stay home instead of attending my classmate’s birthday party or my best friend’s sleepover. My parents even decided to purchase a security system right after the disappearance of Natalee Holloway. The disappearance of these girls took over international news for years on end, and my parents grew overly protective. As a result, I became worried for my own safety.

Fast forward at least six months later, and the disappearance of Elizabeth Smart is still plastered all over television screens. Six years after her disappearance and Natalee Holloway still made headlines. Of course, I understood the outcry over these girls, but what about Sharneica Frazier, who went missing the same year that Natalee Holloway? Or Ashani Creighton, who disappeared shortly before Elizabeth Smart? Were their disappearances not as worthy of headlines? Was it simply a coincidence? Or was it because they were black girls from low-income communities? Because they were part of a group of people who the media has shown are not valuable enough to receive airtime?

In 2014 the Black and Missing Foundation reported that more than 64,000 black girls across the country were missing. More recently, social media erupted in disbelief when attention was drawn to the number of missing girls in Washington D.C. The hashtag #FindOurGirls trended on Twitter for weeks. But, that was the extent of it. The discussion of these black and brown girls reached all corners of social media, yet got lost as a quick segment on the local news. It slowly became yesterday’s tragedy. As quickly as people began talking about it, they just as quickly stopped caring.

The idea that many of these girls could have possibly run away does not make them any less deserving of empathy. Instead, it should encourage investigators to work to see why they are doing so. Many people have implied that runaways “choose to leave.” But girls of color who experience a disproportionate amount of violence at home and in the welfare or juvenile system may not have many places where they can feel safe and free. They are often treated unfairly and pushed out of schools through disciplinary practices that are often racist and sexist. Rather than understanding these children and their behavior, they are often criminalized for reacting to the violence they are subjected to. For this reason, it is impossible to talk about the missing girls without an in-depth conversation about their conditions.

Running away has become a method of escape from the stresses and trauma of their everyday lives. Ultimately, there is no distinction between girls who run away and those who are kidnapped. Until people acknowledge that, it will be harder to effectively address the fact that girls — especially brown and black girls — are not safe in places they are supposed to be.

However, the idea that the missing girls are missing because they voluntarily leave increases a black girl’s vulnerability to violence. It is not likely people will look for girls who they believe willingly decided to leave. So, while the epidemic of running away is an issue, we must make it an equal concern to address the large number of girls of color who are taken away by criminal enterprises such as trafficking and kidnapping.

It is not hard to realize why any parent of a black or brown girl would be especially wary of their daughter’s whereabouts. The lack of coverage in the media for girls of color has made them an easy target for sex traffickers. Studies show that the press is four times more likely to report if a white person goes missing than a black or brown person. That means if these missing girls in D.C. were white, there would constantly be search teams in the area. But clearly, being a black or brown girl automatically deems one’s life as less valuable.

It is time for authorities and lawmakers to listen to the concerns of women of color and for individuals to stop dismissing our feelings as invalid or as a result of being “fast” or “troubled.” Instead, it is important to give missing girls of color the same treatment and benefit of the doubt as we did Natalee Holloway.