Invisible Women [pt 3]: The Plight of Missing Black Women and the Media

The first time I saw anything about the name Stepha Henry was when several friends of mine began joining a group dedicated to her on the social networking site Facebook, and this popped up in my mini feed regularly. If you are unfamiliar with Facebook, I simply refer to a tool on the site that notifies you when your friends do things like join new groups, add new pics and update profiles. Stepha’s cousin, a student in school in Florida, started a group called “My cousin Stepha is missing” and reached out to all of her friends in her school network and beyond and soon the word spread.

Her cousin took it upon herself to start the group in order to help publicize the details surrounding Stepha’s disappearance in the hopes that she would be found. The group’s facebook description inscribed on the front page at its inception, specifically references the media snub on the story with the observation that “unfortunately the news about her missing status is not important enough as Paris Hilton’s jail time escapades.” From early on, it was the internet that helped get the word out about Stepha and not the mainstream media. Unfortunately with the hotel heiress’ arrest dominating the airwaves at this time, it was an especially bad time for any black female to turn up missing. Not that any time is really a good time in America.

Prominent popular Trinidadian soca music artistes on my friends list were in turn, blasting the internet via myspace, sending out bulletins about her with the details about her disappearance, rewards for information, and many placed Stepha’s picture prominently in their default profile pics. Stepha was a US citizen with roots in Trinidad and Tobago and the Trinidadian community in the state of New York. Even before all this happened, my own father (himself an avid purveyor of the US media fear mongering, from his vantage point in the Caribbean) woke me up early one Sunday morning, warning me of the perils of being female and living alone in America, by urging me to be especially careful because of what he had recently read about the “missing Trinidadian college student.”

It would be several weeks before I realized that my dad was in fact, talking about Stepha Henry and several more before I had even heard any whisper of her name through my Facebook mini feed or anywhere. This was largely because it took a while for some of the American news outlets to connect her to her Trinidadian heritage. At least one of the Trinidadian newspapers had reported on the story, posted it in their online edition and followed it from early because she had connections to the island.

Sometime after all this happened, the story took off on the web with media outlets scrambling with PR sound bites explaining why it took them so long to give this story some serious attention and even then, it nowhere nearly matched the coverage of any featured missing white female in the mainstream press. Grassroots mobilization with friends, family and other concerned individuals through the internet did much more for the Stepha Henry story (as far as I can see) than any media affiliation. This kind of mobilization had been taking place before I ever saw any snippet on a major network about her story. Many major news networks were quick to do damage control as soon as bloggers and other observers critiqued the coverage of the Stepha Henry case.

Exploding beyond the person[al]—Stepha became a symbol, prompting frank discussions on race and missing black women and creating a powerful reminder about the perceived value of young black women. We go missing in the night and there is no matching furor, no outpouring of indignation far and wide, except by those concerned and within the community most likely. This creates a kind of universal currency and value for missing white women that women of color do not get. This is why we can all rally around the missing Holloway girl and others like her. We can all connect to the stories of missing white women and girls (which we should) but women of color are never afforded the same coverage, the same universality of human experience, when their stories are even told.

I know nothing more about Stepha Henry other than what I have just written. Yet I know that Natalee was a dancer. I have seen her prom pics on CNN. I have heard testimonials from the mouths of her friends. Coverage time aside, even the way the stories are told when reported are different. Do not think it does not matter. It does. It all matters because it seeps into our consciousness as viewers. In this way, Natalee becomes a full person, more than any statistic and we are all rooting for the Aruban authorities to eventually get to the bottom of this. This can only happen because she is a young white, attractive, blond female and this affords her a particular kind a privilege even in the midst of a missing person mystery and unknown circumstances.

Many in the media went on the defensive with statements online and in print, denying any blatant bias. They tried to rectify a resounding silence that sent an already resounding message loud and clear: black women, we do not care about you. When major media coverage could not be bothered to jump on the case from day one, in fact, yawned in the face of a missing young black college grad and turned to Paris Hilton updates first: a message was sent. As a black female myself, it hurts me to think that I am not as highly valued. Heaven forbid I should go missing one day. Yet still, I trod on and I hold my head high. As we strive from day to day, contemporary black women in a growing changing world, hearing echoes of the past all around us, we have to stay strong and keep going forward. Creating our own currency of self  because we know we are worth it. Even when other people do not.

[an update to this piece: in January 2008, major news outlets were able to report an arrest in the Stepha Henry case.]

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