She was just walking home
Sarah Everard’s story resonated with us because she played it by the book. As a woman, you undergo an initiation into the fold, as early as in your pre-teen years, that transforms the carefree nature you share with your male peers into a reserved vigilance. The more you head out and are subject to sexual assault, both verbally and physically inflicted, the greater the expectation to escape the embarrassment by transforming aspects of yourself.
A lasting gaze here, a horn beep there, and bits of us chip off until we no longer remember a time when we could confidently present our real, unreserved selves to the world.
Leaving your home, even in broad daylight to pop to the corner shop, is a ritual in the event of war: wear a bra, or tightly fold your arms across your chest. Don’t make eye contact. Definitely don’t smile, you’ll look inviting. Cover up entirely, else cars will cruise alongside you while their owners ask you what you’re up to tonight. Hold your keys between your fingers. Inspect the pavement surrounding you for shadows that don’t belong to you. Call your boyfriend, or your dad, or your brother. Have you set up Emergency SOS on your phone? Are you ready to run at a moment’s notice?
Rinse and repeat.
As a woman, you make peace with the knowledge that anything could happen to you in the outside world – especially as the sun sets. But you place hope in the decades of preparation you’ve done in order to, hopefully, travel undetected.
It was pitch black when I walked down a quiet alleyway on my way to Clapham High Street last summer, close to where Sarah was last seen. I’d just left a friend’s house too, around midnight, adamant I’d be ok. My phone was fully charged, I’d worn trainers, I didn’t look provocative, my Spotify music was the lowest it could have been, and I was texting the group chat. This wasn’t my first rodeo, and I was confident I’d taken all the precautions to respond to any impending threat.
Now I look back and think about how foolish I was. And I can understand why women are so infuriated by this one incident, because it proves our safety rituals to be obsolete. Everything we’ve learned to do to protect ourselves from men means absolutely nothing, because we are vulnerable no matter what – our very identity lets us down in the end. There’s nothing we can do – so what do we do? When will we be at peace? Who do we trust, when even seemingly trustworthy men can abuse their positions of power?
But male violence against women neither begins nor ends with Sarah Everard – the 33 year old is in fact just one of thousands of women who go missing every year in the UK. The Femicide Census calculates that in the 10 years to 2018, a woman in the UK was killed every three days. 97% of young women say they have been sexually harassed in a YouGov poll, though I’m confident the figure’s higher than that. An estimated 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales every year.
What happened to Sarah is sad. What happened to Sarah is devastating, even. But what’s also devastating is that it took her death for our collective rage to be amplified, when there have been other female victims – who are perhaps less palatable, perhaps less believably innocent – who may not have attracted public interest because of the value judgments imposed onto them.
Yes, I’m referring to race politics.
Because the truth is that while a white woman’s tragic death can remain in the media for quite some time, enough for her to be symbolic of the beginning of a revolution, women of colour who may have faced similar circumstances often slip away before their stories are given the justice they deserve. Less of the public are aware of how many women belonging to minority communities are murdered, assaulted or reported missing, and it’d be ignorant to dismiss skin colour as one of the culprits.
In Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins writes that ‘race and gender may be analytically distinct, but in Black women’s everyday lives, they work together.’ White women are victims of a patriarchal society because they are women. But women of colour are subject to both racism and sexism, making them far more vulnerable within society. The identities of minority women function as double-loaded missiles, significantly more unstable, significantly more self-destructive, significantly more hated.
Which is why, when it comes down to it, white women will always be the first choice.
We’ve seen it before: ‘English Rose’ Kate is praised and ‘outspoken’ Meghan was crucified. Madeleine McCann’s disappearance has dominated headlines for decades and granted her a Netflix series, despite a child being reported missing every 3 minutes. ‘Sarah’ has been the name on everyone’s lips, but Blessing Olusegun’s death – the 21 year old black woman who drowned in Surrey under ‘mysterious circumstances’ – was virtually unheard of until Everard’s case shone a light onto hers.
It’s so likely in the west that a white woman’s case will dominate coverage over a person of colour, that academics even have a term for it: ‘Missing White Girl’ syndrome.
The most immanent stereotype is that of the woman of colour being ‘fierce’, able to fend for themselves. With the symbol of the streetwise black woman reaching our newspapers and our TikTok timelines, it’s no wonder their cases are brushed away by the police in preference of those they might deem more vulnerable. With the accepted exotification and hypersexualisation of women of colour, the way their curves are presented as being ‘flaunted’ rather than merely existing (I’m looking at you, Daily Mail), it’s no wonder predatory men manage to convince themselves they were doing nothing wrong by cat-calling, or groping, or raping us – or even, like Oklahoma’s Officer Daniel Holtzclaw, specifically rape black women knowing their testimonies are far less likely to stick.
Last summer, we marched together all around the world in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Since then, statues have been toppled and discourses challenging oppressive structures have grown in volume.
But we aren’t done yet. Racism’s microaggressions still operate below ground, seep their way into our daily vernacular and shape the way our society is run from the bottom-up.
They still dehumanise women of colour, still make us less believable, more invisible.
She was just walking home.
But so was Blessing Olusegun. Joy Morgan had just been to church. Londoner Karen Cleary was building a home in Jamaica. Na Dang went missing from her foster home and was never found. These women do not have the privilege to be believed, nor the ‘poster girl’ identity that our media feeds off to grant them a permanent place on their front pages.
And until the British press stop dehumanising minority women, stop promoting them as fair game, they will continue to be neglected.
Author: Maansi Kalyan