“Yo exijo justicia y exijo que me respeten a mi y que respeten a mi hija/I demand justice and demand that I be respected and that my daughter be respected,” is the heartbreaking plea that Private First Class Vanessa Guillén’s mother, Gloria Guillén, made at the press conference concerning her daughter’s disappearance over two months ago. On June 30th, remains believed to belong to Guillén were found.
Guillén went missing without a trace from Ft. Hood where she was based with the US Army. Before she disappeared, Guillén had shared with her mom and sister that a sergeant had sexually harassed her, including following her to the showers, according to this MSNBC Latino report. The case even motivated women in the military who have experienced sexual assault to share their stories with the hashtag #IamVanessaGuillen.
With increasing pressure from the public, celebrities, and congressional representatives, the Army finally began looking into the sexual harassment allegation on June 18 2020, nearly sixty days since Guillén vanished on April 22, 2020.
Guillén is not the only woman of color whose family is demanding justice. Breonna Taylor was murdered by Louisville police on March 13 and as of the publishing of this article, there have been no arrests. Vox’s reporting of the case notes the delay in justice in Taylor’s case when compared to recent cases involving male victims: “Taylor’s death took place just three weeks after Ahmaud Arbery’s killing and about 10 weeks before the fatal arrest of George Floyd. The suspects involved in Arbery’s case were arrested and charged two weeks after video of the incident went viral. The four officers involved in the killing of George Floyd were fired four days after Floyd’s death, with the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck charged with murder.”
Adding to the disturbing pattern of justice delayed is the crisis of murders of Black trans women, most recently the death of Riah Milton in Ohio and Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells in Pennsylvania. As the high rates of murder among Black trans women is finally being elevated in this moment, celebrities like Mj Rodriguez are raising the issue of transphobia. “Transgender women of color are living in crisis, especially Black transgender women,” said Human Rights Council (HRC) President Alphonso David in a report calling the murder of trans women an epidemic.
In all of these cases, race influences how the media and public have responded to their deaths, and likely why they have been slow to take notice. In contrast, when violence is perpetrated against white women, a study finds that there is more media coverage, a phenomenon known as Missing White Woman Syndrome. Zach Sommers, a sociologist at Northwestern University and the author of the report, notes in this NPR article that “coverage decisions are informed, consciously and less so, by a newsroom’s racial makeup, and most major American newsrooms remain disproportionately white.” The media’s focus on white women versus women of color, Sommers suggests, informs notions of who can or cannot be a victim, and which victims are worthy of our outrage and attention.
In addition to how racism influences the disregard for violence against women of color, misogyny is also a factor. Violence against women is a global phenomenon, reflected In the 2019 Chilean movement that garnered international attention and participation from women across the globe, including the U. S., organizing civic actions by dancing to the song “El Violador eres Tu.”
These activists shone a light on femicide, which is distinct from female homicide. “Dying as a woman is different than dying because you are a woman,” said Dabney Evans, Associate Professor of Global Health at Emory University, in this Ms. Magazine article highlighting the role of data in preventing misogynist violence. Evans also notes that the United States does not specifically count femicides. Dawn Wilcox, an activist with Women Count, believes that collecting data about femicide in the U.S. would create public urgency around the issue.
The element of misogyny is evident in how the public is more familiar with the names of Black men who were murdered by police than the Black women as law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw argues in this 2016 Ted Talk. Crenshaw is a champion of the #SayHerName campaign, an initiative started in 2014 to raise awareness about the double standard when it comes to public outcry about Black women and girls being killed by police. The lack of accountability for the death of Breonna Taylor is a reminder of how salient the #SayHerName campaign is six years later.
As the country continues to raise issues of racism, police brutality, and racially motivated violence, it is important to also raise how women of color are victimized. As noted in this Luz Collective article, police brutality is up by over 350% against women since 2015. The same piece notes the overrepresentation of Black and Brown people when it comes to police brutality, so it is likely that the women that are subjects of police violence are disproportionately women of color.
It is time for the media to treat the violence against women of color with as much urgency and attention as it does the coverage of violence against white women. Failing to do so will continue to devalue the lives of women like Breonna Taylor, Vanessa Guillén, Riah Milton and Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells.
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