Why do women of colour have to create our own urgency when one of us is killed?

Written by Leah Sinclair

There’s a sense of urgency when white women go missing – and for women of colour, we’re forced to create that urgency ourselves.

I’ve found myself repeatedly staring at that image of Sabina Nessa. The one circulating on social media showing the 28-year-old teacher captured in a moment of happiness and no doubt immense pride.

Dressed in a cap and gown and clutching onto her degree, this image has remained etched in my memory. And as I get lost in the photo, I’m starkly brought back to the reality that this promising young woman is no longer with us.

Like many others, her life has been robbed at the hands of male violence and her story was initially largely underreported compared to the mass outcry that poured from Black and brown communities and made their way across our social media feeds.

Sabina was walking to a pub 5 minutes from her home on Friday 15 September in Cator Park, south-east London, when she was attacked, according to police.

Her body, hidden beneath a pile of leaves, was discovered the next day near the OneSpace community centre in Cator Park, Kidbrooke. 

In a moment, the life of the young teacher had been viciously taken away – a story that pulled at my heartstrings and that of many women across the UK.

But what followed was a familiar feeling that I’ve felt all too often when women of colour are victims of gendered violence. A feeling that seeking justice for Sabina would once again be carried largely by Black and brown women bringing her story to the forefront while it would go largely unnoticed by national media and the wider public.

And upon news of her murder, that it was happened.

For Black and brown victims, their stories are rarely acknowledged in the same way as their white counterparts.

It’s a sad reality that many of us know, but it’s been further amplified this year when we take into consideration the deaths we’ve witnessed over the last 18 months.

The murder of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry – two sisters who were brutally stabbed in a London park on 7 June 2020 – received little coverage initially and two Metropolitan Police officers were arrested and suspended from their duties for allegedly taking selfies with the sisters’ bodies and sharing the images via WhatsApp.

In an interview with the BBC, mother Mina Smallman was even asked whether she believed if Nicole and Bibaa’s race meant “there was no urgency” in searching for them after the family reported them missing, to which she said: “Oh absolutely, I’m convinced. I think the notion of ‘all people matter’ is absolutely right, but it’s not true.”

It’s hard for me to hear about the death of any woman, but when it’s commonplace for Black and brown women’s stories to rarely be heard at all, it stings even more and cuts even deeper when white victims receive the complete opposite treatment.

From the moment of Sarah Everard’s disappearance on 3 March 2021, the media and the public were captivated by her story and yearned to ensure her safety. People frantically shared posts, raised awareness and her image was splashed across newspapers and televised news reports, following it step-by-step.

When Sarah’s body was found on 12 March, the desire to get to the bottom of her murder was fuelled even more by the press and the public and understandably so –but as a woman of colour, I couldn’t help but notice the stark difference in treatment.

The unexplained case of the missing 21-year-old Blessing Olusegun who was found dead on a Sussex beach in September 2020, initially received little coverage by the press and saw many take to social media in March 2021 to question why this was following the murder of Sarah Everard.

Earlier this year, one woman tweeted: “ I’m acc mentally and emotionally exhausted, where was the national outrage for blessingOlusegun” while another wrote: “Where was all this media attention/ police investigations when Blessing Olusegun died???” 

Meanwhile, the case of missing social media star Gabby Petito is a further example of how missing white women captivate the media and the world.

Gabby went missing while on a cross-country trip with her boyfriend earlier this month, and her body was later found over the weekend near Grand Teton National Parks.

Like Sarah, Gabby’s story made news headlines, went viral online soon after she went missing, and while it frustrates me to draw comparisons, I know as women of colour we would not be afforded this same level of attention.

The phenomenon has been coined as Missing White Woman Syndrome by New York University professor of media, culture, and communication Charlton Mcllwain, who said: “White women occupy a privileged role as violent crime victims in news media reporting. Our victims are colour-coded… Our national ideal of who is vulnerable – and who holds victim status – are those who are white and female.”

Mcllwain is saying something I quite frankly already know.

When white women go missing – it’s everywhere. When it’s women of colour that sense of urgency disappears and we’re forced to create it ourselves in order to get a smidgen of attention – and it’s exhausting.

We consistently have to mobilise, tweet, fight, email and claw our way to get the awareness that we deserve. This is a collective trauma that we share and we are working tirelessly to break a cycle that it feels we have no control over.

The fact that this has happened yet again with Sabina Nessa’s murder is even more disheartening in a situation that is hard enough – but we are seeing more efforts being made to keep her story in the public’s mind.

Online organisations like Sisters Uncut and Reclaim the Streets have always been doing the work – as have Black and brown women within their communities. But there seems to be a renewed sense of urgency following Sabina Nessa’s murder to ensure her story doesn’t fly under the radar like others unfortunately have.

People are sharing her images, saying her name, urging people to share any information they have with the police and holding the media to account to make sure that women’s stories, our stories, are amplified and heard.

We’ve seen this happen for far too long, and I’m hopeful that as more people join in this fight we as people can collectively inflict change.

We may often hold the mantle and create the urgency ourselves but I’m seeing people from all walks of life give us the boost we need. Let’s hope the rest of the world can get on board – I, for one, am tired.

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Photo: Met Police

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