‘I’m A Black Woman From London, Would Anyone Care If I Went Missing?’

The data shows I’m not newsworthy, writes Grazia's Renee Washington.

by Renee Washington |
Updated on

Earlier this month, the Metropolitan Police confirmed that a body recovered from the River Thames in London last month is believed to be that of missing 19-year-old Samaria Ayanle. According to the Met, the circumstances surrounding her death are being treated as unexplained, pending further inquiries, and formal identification is still pending.

Ayanle was last seen on CCTV at her university accommodation near Marble Arch in the early hours of February 22nd. Later that morning, a body was discovered near Putney Pier. But the art history and language student wasn’t reported missing to the police by university staff until March 8th.

SOAS University of London said it was ‘deeply saddened’ by the news, adding: ‘We also want to provide reassurance that when students raised concerns about Samaria Ayanle with the university, we immediately began taking steps to attempt to contact Samaria, including attempting to contact her next-of-kin, contacting Samaria directly, and asking for checks to be made in her halls of residence.'

Now, backlash is mounting online about the length of time it took for Ayanle’s disappearance to be reported, and her body identified. The Met say no personal property or identification was found on her, and fingerprint tests taken at the time couldn’t match to a reported missing person.

The tragedy adds to a concerning number of young Black individuals who have gone missing and been found near bodies of water in the UK since 2020 including Blessing Olusegun, Richard Okorogheye, Olisa Odukwe, Kayon Williams, and Taiwo Balogun.

Many are asking questions about whether there is a pattern in these disappearances, and notably, why media coverage is minimal. It's noteworthy that in cases where white women go missing, there is often intense public outcry. According to social scientists, this can be described best as missing white woman syndrome. The level of reporting are considerably higher, and the cases seem to progress significantly quicker with authorities. Sarah Everard was missing for nine days before her body was discovered, and Gabby Petito, 10 days. And despite Petito’s case occurring in the US, it hit the UK news cycle too.

However, Blessing Olusegun, 21, didn't receive the same level of media coverage when she went missing. Her body was discovered on a beach in Bexhill-On-Sea on the East Sussex coast shortly after her disappearance. After a one-day inquest, her cause of death was determined to be drowning and deemed non-suspicious. Despite this, her case received minimal attention, prompting friends and family to launch a petition calling for the case to be reopened. To date, the petition has garnered over 50,000 signatures.

Like Sarah Everard, Olusegun was also walking home.

Joy Morgan, Hertfordshire midwifery student, 20 wasn’t found till 10 months after she was reported missing in 2019. Joy Morgan’s mother told the BBC her case received little attention: ‘Because my daughter was Black and because I was Black I was not newsworthy.’

I can’t help but agree. According to National Crime Agency data, Black people accounted for 14% of missing people in England and Wales between 2019 and 2020, more than four times their relative population. Despite this, publicity appeals for missing white individuals outnumbered those for missing black individuals by nearly three to one.

Analysis by the BBC also showed that Black people are much more likely to be reported missing than people from any other ethnic background, but again the news coverage doesn’t reflect this. At the peak of attention from the media, theNicola Bulley investigation generated 6,500 news articles globally in a single day and the same cannot be said for Blessing or Joy.

But while discussions about the disproportionate number of missing Black individuals, how cases are reported, and the media’s response are crucial, they have seemingly been overshadowed by conspiracy theories spreading online. Recently, one haunting rumour spread on TIkTok claimed there is a serial killer in the UK targeting Black women. Given the statistics released by the National Crime Agency, it’s understandable people are nervous, but there’s no evidence to suggest this is the case and these theories, however well-intentioned, only serve to spread fear among Black women. We should be focusing on the disproportionate rate of missing Black people, and the response from authorities, not detracting with scaremongering theories online.

For me, it’s hard not to wonder if Blessing Olusegun, Richard Okorogheye, Olisa Odukwe, Kayon Williams, Taiwo Balogun, and Joy Morgan were white, would things have unfolded differently? The Met Police told Grazia, ‘We are also supporting national work with the NPCC and academics to better understand and respond to disproportionality in black communities, including missing black children.’

And in a recent BBC report on this issue, the Home Office said: ‘We are committed to taking steps to improve police responses to these investigations. That is why we are funding the National Police Chiefs' Council to research issues of disproportionality and discrimination in the police response to missing persons investigations. The final report will be completed later this year.’

For minorities, social media now plays a larger role than ever before in spreading awareness for missing persons. I remember nights when I would go out and my mum would stay up until the early hours of the morning waiting for me to get back. I didn’t understand the worry, anger and fear in her eyes back then, I certainly do now. Because if I were to go missing, would people care in the same way they do when a white woman goes missing? I’d be reduced to a social media post, dependent on the prayers, reshares, and reposts of my friends and family across social media platforms because the majority of news  agencies most likely wouldn’t cover it. I’d be a nameless statistic, and any attempts to find me would suffer for it.

And if I feel this way, I can only imagine that so many others do too. Latoya Dennis, founder of For Black Women UK, said: ‘Efforts to address this issue must be intensified. Primarily, there is a pressing need for police reform and comprehensive training on handling missing persons cases involving Black individuals, ensuring swift and effective action is taken. Furthermore, a government-led awareness campaign is essential to shed light on this pressing and prevalent issue.

‘Given the sparse coverage from mainstream news outlets, it is imperative that these discussions take place across social media platforms,’ she added. ‘Through collective action on social media, we can amplify these voices and demand the attention and action necessary to address this systemic injustice.’

While conspiracies and misinformation run rampant on social media, until institutions take Black deaths seriously, social media will remain our microphone, for better or worse and truthfully, that terrifies me.

Main image credit: @haveyouseensamaria

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