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Mercer Island High School cheerleaders at the school's Winter Assembly in 2005.
What if they looked like these teenaged cheerleaders?

Instead they look like this.

Photo from Bring Back our Girls facebook page
Bring Back Our Girls
African.

Black.

They aren't from North America or Europe.

Lots of people have thought this but not said it directly. Some have blogged about it and raised the question:

So is this an issue of race?

What if the girls were white? The nation would not rest with the story of Alabama cheerleader, Natalee Holloway, whose disappearance caused a media sensation for almost half a decade. Child pageant star, JonBenét Ramsey’s abduction and murder was met with extensive media coverage that transformed her into a household name. Out of the 234 Nigerian girls gone missing, how many can you name?


Others have tweeted it, like these from Black Kos Editor Justice Putnam:
Damn!

If just one pretty blonde girl was kidnapped w/ the other 234 black girls taking a physics test, the trad media would be all over it.
@justiceputnam

234 girls kidnapped taking a physics exam & no one is yelling to high heaven?

What? They're black?

Ok, move along. Nothing to see here.
@justiceputnam

Follow me below the fold for more thoughts on this and what we can do about it.

Yes, the story is now finally being covered by the traditional media here. Oh—not with the intensity of CNN's wall-to-wall coverage of the missing Malaysian airliner—but it is being covered. Only because people who give a damn— parents and neighbors of the girls, activists, bloggers and social media people have been screaming to high heaven.

Yes, after demonstrations and protests in Nigeria, Europe and here in the United States, it looks like Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan now has some U.S. help with his hapless search efforts—but these girls were kidnapped on April 14-15 and it is now the second week in May, and more girls, younger ones between the ages of 8 and 15, have been seized to be "sold off" as "slaves" and attacks against villagers continue.

On Sunday, Boko Haram members killed at least 52 after spraying a market with rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire in the village of Gamborou, also in Bono state, residents told the Guardian.

Now that the furor and outrage about the the still-missing girls is growing louder and louder, we need to think about why this is just another example of some people being relegated to invisibility and why others are so visible it's cloying overkill.

I'd like to address the race and media coverage question first.

There is already a term for it. Makes some people uncomfortable. It makes me wanna scream. It's called the Missing white woman syndrome.

Missing white woman syndrome is a phrase coined by social scientists to describe the extensive media coverage, especially in television, of missing person cases that involve young, white, upper-middle class women or girls. Sociologists define the media phenomenon as the undue focus on upper-middle class white women who disappear, with the disproportionate degree of coverage they receive being compared to cases concerning missing women of other ethnicities and social classes, or with missing males of all social classes and ethnicities.
The list of white women and girls who became household names in the country is a long one. Natalee Holloway, Laci Peterson, JonBenét Ramsey, Elizabeth Smart are examples. You get the picture. The "blonde angel" story had an embarrassing finale for those involved:
News flash: Maria is Roma. DNA tests and investigative efforts located the girl's mother, a Bulgarian Roma woman who confirmed she gave birth to Maria while working in Greece and gave the baby up for adoption due to poverty  

This is certainly not news here at Daily Kos. In 2005 Kossak Richard Cranium, and other Philly bloggers took up the case of Latoyia Figueroa. Missing and pregnant at the same time as Natalee Holloway. UPDATE: Missing Pregnant Mother Alert (Non-White Division). His piece was addressed to "TO: Ms. Nancy Grace, Headline News / CNN Host" and he closed sarcastically with:

Lastly, I note that "Natalee Holloway" rates "about 5600" Google News hits, while "Latoyia Figueroa" rates two. Here's hoping your show and CNN's website can contribute another hit for Latoyia.

I look forward to watching the show!

Sincerely,

Richard

Here's a video perspective on Missing White Woman Syndrome, linking cases and coverage in the UK to those in the US, showing similar patterns.

Race, ethnicity, gender, social class and sexual orientation/identification play key roles in what the traditional media dubs headline and news-loop worthy. Look at the disparities in reporting the rape of women of color, most notably of Native Americans. "Our house" right here at home in the U.S. is not in order. Hence when we then move beyond our borders, unless it's a blond Roma or coverage of the trial of Oscar Pistorius for his alleged murder of his blond girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp (last time I checked it got over 210 million google hits), we see diminishing and virtually non-existent returns.

Which brings me to my second point.

Africa.

Textbook  cover photo for Mistaking Africa: Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind, by Curtis Kelm Westview Press; Third Edition, Third Edition edition
Still referred to by some as "The Dark Continent", due to the history of European exploration, colonialism and no-colonialism. A useful textbook for exploring the mythology and stereotypes we have been raised to believe is Curtis Keim's Mistaking Africa: Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind. You can read sample chapters here.
For many Americans the mention of Africa immediately conjures up images of safaris, ferocious animals, strangely dressed “tribesmen,” and impenetrable jungles. Although the occasional newspaper headline mentions genocide, AIDS, malaria, or civil war in Africa, the collective American consciousness still carries strong mental images of Africa that are reflected in advertising, movies, amusement parks, cartoons, and many other corners of society. Few think to question these perceptions or how they came to be so deeply lodged in American minds. Curtis Keim’s Mistaking Africa looks at the historical evolution of this mind-set and examines the role that popular media plays in its creation. Keim addresses the most prevalent myths and preconceptions and demonstrates how these prevent a true understanding of the enormously diverse peoples and cultures of Africa.
Africa. The continent that is not a country, but gets treated as if it is one by most major white media outlets—with the exception of a few agencies like the BBC which actually do have correspondents based in more than one nation.

Binyavanga Wainaina, founding editor of the literary journal Kwani?, and the director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College, wrote this acerbic and cut-to-the-bone critique of much of what gets written about Africa and Africans in How to Write About Africa.

Djimon Hounsou reads from Wainaina's essay in this short film.

Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.

Please go read the whole thing.

Wainaina speaks here about his piece and the responses (Part 2 and Part 3).

Wainaina also wrote caustically How not to write about Africa in 2012—a beginner's guide:

In the 80s, your newspaper probably had correspondents in many African countries. Now there are two: west Africa, and east Africa (Horn). Or one: Africa, based in Johannesburg. In the 80s, the world's future was not secure. Some African countries were on one side of power, some on the other side of power. They could not be ignored. As nobody had won, the big powers had to fight for the hearts, minds and minerals of all. All an African president needed to do was suggest that he was crossing over and have love and Smarties dropped over his house by Nato planes. Margaret Thatcher visited Zimbabwe. Robert loved her.

In 1991, Africa ceased to exist. The world was safe, and the winners could now concentrate on being caring, speaking in aid language bullet points.

If there was a new map, Africa would be divided into three: 1) Tiny flares of horribleness – Mugabe, undemocratic, war, Somalia, Congo; 2) Tiny flares of wonderfulness – Mandela, World Cup, safari. Baby4Africa! A little NGO that does amazing things with black babies who squirm happily in white saviours' hands because they were saved from an African war. My favourites are clitoraid.com and Knickers 4 Africa – which collects used panties for African women; 3) The rest. Let's call this the "vast grassroots". This part of Africa is run by nameless warlords. When the warlords fall, these places are run by grassroots organisations that are funded by the EU and provide a good place to send gap year kids to help and see giraffes at the same time. Grassroots Africa is good for backpacking because it is the real Africa (no AK47s to bother you, no German package tourists). The vast grassroots exists to sit and wait for agents of sustainability (Europeans) to come and empower them.

Other writer/academics like Laura Seay, who teaches African politics, conflict and conflict resolution, have similar perspectives. She wrote How Not to Write About Africa. The media shamefully neglects Africa—until it decides to swarm a story with terrible coverage.
Western reporting on Africa is often fraught with factual errors, incomplete analysis, and stereotyping that would not pass editorial muster in coverage of China, Pakistan, France, or Mexico. A journalist who printed blatantly offensive stereotypes about German politicians or violated ethical norms regarding protection of child-abuse victims in Ohio would at the least be sanctioned and might even lose his or her job. When it comes to Africa, however, these problems are tolerated and, in some cases, celebrated. A quick search of the Google News archives for "Congo" and "heart of darkness" yields nearly 4,000 hits, the vast majority of which are not works of literary criticism, but are instead used to exoticize the Democratic Republic of the Congo while conjuring up stereotypes of race and savagery. Could we imagine a serious publication ever using similar terminology to describe the south side of Chicago, Baltimore, or another predominately African-American city?

~~~

Why is there so much bad reporting on Africa? Part of the problem has to do with the limited number of journalists assigned to cover the continent. Many major Western media outlets assign one correspondent for the entire continent -- more than 11 million square miles. He or she will be based in Johannesburg or Nairobi, but be expected to parachute into Niger, Somalia, or wherever the next crisis is unfolding, on a moment's notice. At best, larger publications will have two or three regional Africa correspondents who are each responsible for covering 10 to 15 countries. The wire services tend to have broader reach, but even they cannot station a correspondent in every country.

The question is raised yet again by Nanjala Nyabola in Why do Western media get Africa wrong?
Yesterday I witnessed yet another twitter storm erupt over Western coverage of an African situation. A Guardian correspondent offered an analysis of the on-going crisis in South Sudan that, judging from the comments on the website, was well received outside South Sudan. Yet, the reaction from the South Sudanese online community was the opposite. Relatively well-known twitterati roundly criticised the article as a complete misread of the situation on the ground. As someone who has both criticised Western media for their coverage of Africa, but has also relied on Western media for information about places that I have never been to, I found it fascinating. Who should you believe in a situation like this? And why do Western media keep getting coverage of African issues wrong?

My inclination is to believe that the South Sudanese bloggers, if for no other reason than they are relatively immune to the vagaries of the news cycle, remember the same journalist was touted as "the first Western journalist on the scene" - a descriptor that the South Sudanese community rejected. Does it matter if he's a Western journalist? What does that say about the premium that Western news outlets place on information given by Western (read white) reporters versus non-Western reporters? This casual descriptor inadvertently disregarded the lived experiences of the thousands of literate, experienced South Sudanese writers, journalists and informants, and created a hierarchy of knowledge that appears to be largely based on race. So, given the choice between a person whose truth seems conditioned by race, and another whose truth is based on experience on the ground, I'm inclined to believe the latter.

Writer and political cartoonist Patrick Gathara lives in Nairobi, writes for The Guardian, Al Jazeera and other news operations, and has his own blog—Gathara's World. He answered Nyabola in If western journalists get Africa wrong, who gets it right? and concludes:
Remember that African news outlets are dependent on western-based international wires to tell Africa's story. Also recall that they take their cue on what their audiences need to hear from Western news outlets. That means they are in no position to pick up the slack. In fact they are part of the problem, perpetuating and disseminating as they do western perspectives, biases and stereotypes. (Let me hasten to add that by no means are all western journalists or all journalists working for western-based outlets guilty of this.)

Perhaps the answer lies in an approach that does away with the idea of covering Africa. Since, like Chimamanda, most people on the continent do not primarily identify themselves as Africans except in opposition to those that aren't. As the late Mwalimu Julius Nyerere once observed, "Africans all over the continent, without a word being spoken either from one individual to another, or from one country to another, looked at the European, looked at one another, and knew that in relation to the European they were one." To cover Africa is necessarily to step outside of it, to see it in relation to "the European." Such a perspective is hardly going to reflect how Africans see themselves. It is not an invalid perspective though. Just, again to borrow from Chimamanda, an incomplete one.

Maybe media, whether western or African, should just cover stories in Africa, as opposed to seeking African stories.

We who blog need to spend just a little more time searching out other sources than rehashes of sometimes execrable stories. It's a big internet, and yes—Africans blog too. A visit to the African Blogger Awards website, garnered some new links for me. There are African newspapers online. In the case of the kidnapped girls, it took me only a minute of searching to find a link to papers in Nigeria.

Going back to the topic of coverage of the kidnappings, understanding the context requires that one has a basic understanding of the nation carved out by colonial land grabs that is now Nigeria.

One in four Africans is a Nigerian. Nigeria has the worlds largest black population. (Brazil is #2) Nigeria is the seventh most populated country in the world and has about an even split in religious beliefs (on the surface) between Muslims and Christians. From my own experience, many Christians and Muslims also adhere to some practices of African traditional religion, though they may not state that on an official census. It is important to note that "Nigeria has the largest Muslim population in sub-Saharan Africa", though it is not a monolithic group.

The problem from a western perspective is understanding Islam in its African context. I found that Ali Mazrui's video documentary series, "The Africans: A Triple Heritage," though made in 1986 to be an excellent beginning in understanding."This nine part series presents Africans facing a triple heritage of traditional African, Islamic, and Western cultures." These days you can no longer find the DVDs for sale but the book is still available. One part of the series has been posted online.

 


Central to his discussion is the concept of the "Triple Heritage" of Africa - Influences of Traditional Africa, Islam, and the West. He embodied this triple heritage when, as a child, he used three languages: Swahili at home, English at school, and Arabic in the mosque.
Press reports here often tie Boko Haram to Al Qaeda. Read Jeremy Weate's Boko Haram’s roots in Nigeria long predate the Al-Qaeda era:
The bomb blast near Abuja, Nigeria, on April 14 that killed at least 75 people, and the kidnapping the following day of what appeared to be more than 100 schoolgirls in the northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok, have placed Boko Haram firmly at the top of local news. Security was tight in Abuja’s churches and cathedrals over the Easter weekend, and in a video released to Agence France-Presse on Sunday, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claimed responsibility for the bomb, warning, “We are in your city, but you don’t know where we are.”

But northeastern Nigeria had been bandit country long before the emergence of Boko Haram. And while it may coincide with the growth over the past two decades of Salafist armed groups elsewhere in the region and beyond, the real context for Boko Haram's emergence is the long political and economic decline of Nigeria's northeast and enduring Kanuri opposition to northern power structures.

Weate blogs at Africa is a Country, founded by Sean Jacobs. About the blog's name, they explain:
Of course we don’t literally believe Africa is a Country (unlike say rapper Rick Ross). The title of the blog is ironic and is a reaction to old and tired images of “Africa”. We deliberately challenge and destabilize received wisdom about the African continent and its people in Western media — that definition includes “old (nationally oriented) media,” new social media as well as “global news media”.
What can we do?

I thank terrypinder and other Daily Kos diarists for their efforts in bringing the kidnappings to the attention of Daily Kos readers. I'd like to also point out that twice each week Black Kos covers news from around the diaspora.

The point I'm attempting to make is that though in the short run, we may have succeeded in forcing the world to pay attention to the plight of these young girls (and my prayer is that they may be rescued and Boko Haram's activities stymied), we also owe it to ourselves and Africans on the continent and here in the U.S. to cover the news, politics and cultures of the continent in a more informed and nuanced way, not just leaping from crisis to crisis—though when there is a crisis, we must use the tools we have at our disposal—blogs, facebook, twitter, word of mouth and demonstrations.  

We can educate ourselves.

I give my anthropology college students a blank outline map of the continent, and ask them to fill in the names of the countries they recognize. Ashamed to tell you that most can't even locate and name correctly more than one or two. Some hand me back a blank.

Try it yourself, and on your friends. Give yourself an assignment to "look up the blanks."

Let me be clear I'm no expert on African cultures or politics, nor was the continent my primary geographical focus in school. I am an avid student however, and try to learn as much as I can. The resources are readily available with a keystroke and a mouse click.

We can support efforts to educate.

African Students at Ithaca College wrapped in their nations flags. Taken by: Thiri Mariah Boucher — with Natasha Kirabo, Makda Getachew, Steven Kobby Lartey, Rita Bunatal, Fiyinfoluwa Adeyemo and Arit Ntekim.
Students from the Ithaca College African Students Association
As often as I level criticism of CNN, it was through CNN's story 'Africa is not a country': Students' photo campaign breaks down stereotypes in its Africa Voices section (though since this is taking place at Ithaca College in New York it might have merited being in another category) that I learned about this group of students efforts to educate.
They say there are no stupid questions—or are there?

How about, "Do you speak African?" Or, "What is Africa's flag?"

Yes, these are quite ludicrous. Tired of regularly having to answer questions like these, a group of U.S.-based African students has launched a photo campaign in a bid to dispel misconceptions about their continent.

Called "The Real Africa: Fight the Stereotype," the social media initiative aims to educate and raise awareness about the common stereotypes surrounding Africa and its people -- misunderstandings like Africa being a homogenous entity rather than a diverse continent of more than 50 countries.

The campaign features striking images of the members of the African Students Association of New York's Ithaca College wrapped in different African flags or holding them proudly.

You can see the rest of the photos from "The Real Africa: Fight the Stereotype" here.

I don't think what I am asking is too difficult for those of us who like to think we are pretty well-informed, or want to be well-informed and who are interested in a global perspective on events.  

We all have differing areas of primary interests, or key issues and a differing sense of priorities. Ask yourself if those priorities are shaped by privilege? I know that mine are affected by my assigned and cultural race, gender and social class, which has driven me to expand my perceptions as an African-American feminist to the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia and Africa.

Use your social networks to pass on what you learn. Continue to discover and write about African stories that are not being covered adequately or accurately by traditional media sources.

Push-back against overt and subtle racism and stereotypes. It is not a coincidence that much of the racist imagery and rhetoric used to denigrate and foster the acceptance of the systemic oppression of blacks here is linked inextricably to ideas about Africa and Africans—whether it's portraying our President as a gorilla or with a bone in his nose, or the recent tweet by a New York State Republican politician calling MSNBC's Melissa Harris Perry "a damned dirty ape:"

Information, education and action will bridge the continental divide and tear down the barriers of racism.  

And keep fighting to Bring Back Our Girls!

Action poster from Bring Back Our Girls camaign

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun May 11, 2014 at 06:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Black Kos community, Barriers and Bridges, White Privilege Working Group, Sexism and Patriarchy, Protest Music, Team DFH, Street Prophets , DKOMA, Support the Dream Defenders, Inherent Human Rights, and Bring Home our Girls.

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