As a child, I watched family members laid to rest with nothing but a sheet of white cloth around their bodies. We go to the earth as we come from it — naked and equal. Only, the imposed hierarchy from ones birth may impact greatly on the manner in which we receive a persons’ passing. We may return to the land as we started, but those who show their compassion may not always measure by the same equality.
Summer 2013, Ohio, the bodies of three African American women were found. Would the revelation of a serial killer and the tragedy of his victims have garnered wider coverage, many asked, had his victims been white? It’s not a scandalous question. Nor is the answer likely to be a surprise. The faces of white, middle-class men and women have been plastered all across our screens and magazines for so long, ahead of any other aesthetic, that even in death or when missing, it is a blonde, light-eyed face that we expect to see.
To truly understand why, you would first have to see that news and fiction are born of the same setting, certainly in terms of the systematic racism that feeds into characterisation. Think of the black characters you have watched in films and television shows over the decades — heavy-chained, low-slung-trousered shooters and criminals. Think of the Arabs — baying for Western blood, with their suspicious packages and guns firing into the air. Then bring to mind love stories, tales of humour, of ambitious success, and friendship. Remember that the actors and their characters are well spoken and white. It is a narrative we have become accustomed to, one from which even the news won’t stray. Black males will feature in gangs, Arabs for anti-Western terror, and the universal tale of the value of life revolves in its entirety around the fair and youthful faces of relatable whiteness. Tragedy is auditioned here. Only those women who share the same attributes as the actresses we are used to forming on-screen connections with, will be allowed into our news and offered to us for the same such empathy.
The multi-year coverage of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance was often cinematic in its reporting, told to us in every step as though an enthralling and gripping thriller. Such fascination and importance has never been given to the Trang Nguyens or Hafsa Tarambis of this world. How can a public empathise with children like these when they have been faceless all their lives?
This phenomenon was ably described in Joy Goh-Mah’s 2013 article ‘Why are black female victims seemingly invisible?‘. ‘In the UK, if asked about cases of missing children, most will be aware only of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in 2007, despite a child being reported missing every 3 minutes. While her disappearance is no doubt a huge tragedy, we have to wonder why it is Madeleine McCann, a pretty white girl, who has captured the sympathy of the public, and not girls with names like Aamina Khan, Elizabeth Ogungbayibi, or Folawiyo Oladejo, all of whom are listed on Missing Kids UK.’
The simple fact is that one single white child’s story can dominate news coverage for years while few in the public domain are aware of how many children of colour are victimised, missing or murdered.
When I worked in the press office of a North London hospital, we braced ourselves for the national chaos that would transpire from the case of a toddler who had been brutally abused during his short life and first flagged to social services by the Trust with whom I was employed. The boy was eventually murdered, and his abuser was his mother’s boyfriend. Of course this was the case of Peter Connelly, better known as Baby P — his almost white hair and bright blue eyes would look up into the camera and at our accumulative horror in a photograph that was magnified across national papers for many months. The furore was entirely justified. This child was failed by a system that stretched further beyond Haringey social services and understaffed local hospitals. But at the same time children such as Hylene Essilfi, Deraye Lewis, and Amaraye Bryan were all taken by the same unspeakable male violence that had cut short Baby P’s life. Where was the outrage, public concern, and grief for their deaths?
In America, 64,000 black women still remain missing. It is an alarming number with little to no public concern or coverage. This is not simply a matter of not having enough hours in the day to report, but the very same erasure of humanity that allowed Daniel Holtzclaw to target and rape 36 black women with the knowledge that no one would care. It is a system that abusers have worked out how to use to their advantage, mirrored again in the lives of black women taken by the police who still struggle for the same posthumous recognition and fight as their male counterparts.
Currently in London, Fatima Olodo is missing. So are Ella Paton, Francisca Simmonds, and Fardowsa Hassan. Remember the aforementioned website for all UK based missing children at missingkids.co.uk. You can circulate the information and photographs of missing women, children, and men of colour on your social networks and contact your local and national media directly with any information you may have.
As of today Laura Elli, 14 is missing:
How many more women and children of colour will be victimised before the mindset that only white lives are worthy of comment is overcome? We have fallen into a system that pays attention to a whiteness — and a particular whiteness at that — which ignores the lives of the vulnerable, to the detriment of us all.
Chimene Suleyman is a writer from London of Turkish / Middle Eastern heritage. She writes opinion pieces, contributing to The Independent as well as regularly featured writing for online blog and events organiser Poejazzi. She has represented the UK at the International Biennale, Rome 2011 with spoken word. Her poetry collection “Outside Looking On” published by Influx Press is out now. She collects photos of Canary Wharf. Find her on Twitter: @chimenesuleyman
If you enjoyed reading this article, help us continue to provide more! Media Diversified is 100% reader-funded – you can subscribe for as little as £5 per month here
MORE BY CHIMENE SULEYMAN
- Trump has succeeded in an America that is already pre-disposed to racial suspicion
- ‘Integration’ or ‘Assimilation’ is a Two-sided Negotiation
- Why was Aylan Kurdi’s life worth kindness from the press in death, but not in life?
- The Sinister Abuse of Refugees at Yarl’s Wood
- It’s Time To Talk About Why Our Young People Turn Against Their Country
- ‘Defining’ Terror, and Why ISIS Suits the West