Bias shortchanges white women

December 4, 2011


Let the first word be one of compassion.

For anyone who has a loved one missing, Godspeed the day of that person’s safe return. Or failing that, Godspeed the bitter satisfaction of knowing his or her fate. To have someone you love vanish is, one imagines, a special kind of hell.

That said, let the second word be one of exasperation.

Another white woman has turned up missing. And, as predictably happens in such cases, television news has gone into overdrive, CNN, ABC, NBC providing breathless updates of Michelle Parker’s disappearance, how she was last seen the day she appeared on “The People’s Court,” suing her former fiance, who is now the prime suspect in her kidnapping.

This story unfolds in the wake of similar media fixations on Laci Peterson, Elizabeth Smart, JonBenet Ramsey, Jennifer “Runaway Bride” Wilbanks, Chandra Levy, Lori Hacking, Robyn Gardner, Natalee Holloway, all of them young, female, white, pretty — and imperiled. There is, should it need saying, a naked bias in the media’s obsession with white women in danger to the exclusion of pretty much every other cohort of the American demographic.

If all you had to go by was NBC or CNN, you’d never know that more than 335,000 men and boys went missing last year or about 230,000 African-Americans. You will see no coverage of them on national news. Nor, for that matter, of older people or less attractive ones.

While the effect of this bias is to deny the worth of anyone who is not a pretty young white woman, a case can be made that it does pretty young white women no favors, either. The driving force of that bias, after all, is a narrative that depicts them as damsels in perpetual distress, helpless little things under constant threat from the harsh vicissitudes of a big, mean world. With apologies to a certain Oscar-winning song, it’s hard out here for a white woman.

Or so TV news routinely suggests.

To imply it is somehow more important, more heart-rending, when a young white woman is in danger is, at best, a backhanded compliment. The implication is laced with a certain condescending paternalism that finds echoes throughout history, from assurances that women ought not trouble their pretty little heads with voting to debates over whether they belong in the workplace.

When we recall how white men once routinely lynched black ones who were thought to have cast so much as a stray glance at white women, our attention rivets, rightly, on the victims of the violence. But no one ever notes the corollary injustice: the fact that those white men felt they had an absolute, unquestioned right to police the sexuality of “their” women.

This idea of white women as communal property, hothouse flowers in need of constant, vigilant protection, has taken different forms, then, throughout the years. In 2011, it takes the form of breathless reports on missing white women to the exclusion of everyone else.

We should all decry this, but no one should do so more loudly than white women. It is, after all, their competence, independence and self-sufficiency that are being tacitly demeaned.

Somebody should tell them: a backhanded compliment is just an insult by another name.

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CST on www.MiamiHerald.com.


beatrice 6 years, 4 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

cato_the_elder 6 years, 4 months ago

Doubtful. Contrary to what Pitts does for a living, people actually need what I do for a living and pay me well for it. Every time I take any time off, some of them invariably object.

tomatogrower 6 years, 4 months ago

And you are always saying that people should get an education and do what people will pay you for, instead of doing menial jobs that pay nothing. That is exactly what Pitts has done, but because he is black and doesn't toe the Libertarian line, you criticize him. If he wasn't worth his pay, he wouldn't have so much syndication. But I'll bet you believe that he is a token black writer. Only I'm sure you wouldn't use black or African American. Jealous because he is more successful than you?

cato_the_elder 6 years, 4 months ago

Your question presupposes that he is more "successful" than I am, which happens to be false.

femmefatale 6 years, 4 months ago

I know that its uncomfortable to hear, but so true. Thank you Pitts for having the courage to put it out there

Abdu Omar 6 years, 4 months ago

I guess the above have, again, missed the point.

P Allen Macfarlane 6 years, 4 months ago

Most women are smart enough to avoid the generators of tripe that abound responding to this column.

tomatogrower 6 years, 4 months ago

I'm a woman and Pitt's is right. Many people go missing, but only the pretty white women get all the attention. How about explaining this? How about explaining to the family of a missing 200lb woman that she just isn't photogenic enough, so we can't put her picture on the major news program. Does her family care less about her than the pretty girls family?

I know all you conservatives live in a world where only beautiful white women count. And where women who don't fill this role are just worthless, but in reality, everyone is not as shallow as you are.

tomatogrower 6 years, 4 months ago

I guess you probably shouldn't have any kids then, FalseHope.

parrothead8 6 years, 4 months ago

Only if you can say it as well as Pitts, which you're repeatedly proven that you can't.

seriouscat 6 years, 4 months ago

This is brilliant. Thanks Leonard for bringing the phenomenon to light.

Mixolydian 6 years, 4 months ago

Stewie on Family Guy made this exact point a couple years ago, but a lot more succinct.

tomatogrower 6 years, 4 months ago

Pitts is happily married. How about you? Are you worried he wants your woman? What a racist creep.

Oldsoul 6 years, 4 months ago

Don't think anyone from Lawrence would understand Pitts' great point that backhanded compliments are insults by another name. Using public space in this insular town is just obnoxious and insufferable because complete strangers act like they have the right to manhandle you in the name of being helpful. Obviously, no one is helping by offensively singling out strangers for discriminatory reasons. If someone feels hassled and frightened by your aggressive actions it's hateful to claim you're getting up in their face for kind reasons. Let demeaning chivalry die a welcome death like it has elsewhere in the civilized world and just treat everyone equally. Equal rights are what creates a livable society, not patronizing others to feed one's own ego. Ignorant attitudes brighten no one's day!

deec 6 years, 4 months ago

Yes God forbid we encourage free expression of political opinion and democracy in other countries, and then they pay us back by picking leaders we don't like.

jayhawkinsf 6 years, 4 months ago

The problem is they won't be paying us back, they will be denying basic human rights to women, minorities, etc. within their own countries. Hitler was elected once. That's when democracy ended.

deec 6 years, 4 months ago

So, same as when our puppet was running things.

beatrice 6 years, 4 months ago

I once saw an art installation -- can't remember the artist -- which included reproduced images from art history of white women in peril and clips from movies. Part of the exhibit was a sign, repeating the line, one on top of the other, "You know what they do to white women." Each line took a turn capitalizing one of the eight words in the sentence: "YOU know what they do to white women. You KNOW what they do to white women. You know WHAT they do to white women. You know what THEY do to white women. ..." and on

For some reason, that display really stuck with me. It made me laugh, too. Sorry I can't remember the artist. Pitts's column here made me think of it.

matahari 6 years, 4 months ago

the title of this commentary is misleading and contradictable to its content

voevoda 6 years, 4 months ago

Feminists pointed out decades ago that the pedestal upon which women--stereotypically pretty young white women--are placed is really a cage to restrict their activities. Astonishing that Pitts needs to make this point anew. Even more astonishing that some many of the respondents on this forum still don't get the point.

bearded_gnome 6 years, 4 months ago

TG stereotypically blathered: I know all you conservatives live in a world where only beautiful white women count. And where women who don't fill this role are just worthless, but in reality, everyone is not as shallow as you are.

---poor Tomatohead, should realize who her neighbors really are. for example, my wife and I are not of the same race, and she is even more radically prolife than I am. TG probably actually thinks tea partiers are racist when it is the occunuts who display open antisemitism.

if the tea party is racist, I'll just have to warn my black and female friends in it, along with my friends the Hasidim couple who have spoken at Tea Party events. I think they'd wanna know. after all, us conservatives are so derned racist.

and, RE TV coverage of missing people: please note that the much maligned [by above posters] Fox News in the past month covered: the disappearance of a black AZ teen girl; a missing black young man; and an elderly couple I think from the northeast.

again, shattering the liberal stereotypes/blinders.

bearded_gnome 6 years, 4 months ago

Pittsie is a terrible writer.

it is not racist to ask: would he have a job if he were white and had the equivalent poor levels of thought, creativity, or perspicacity?

Betty Bartholomew 6 years, 4 months ago

I was also taken aback by the inclusion of JonBenet. Not really sure where he was going with that part of his thought, unless it's that white female children get more press than minority and/or male children? But he didn't go there, so it does strike an off chord.

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