Why Black communities are turning to social media to find missing loved ones

Angry. Frustrated. Heartbroken. These are the feelings reported by the Black communities witnessing friends, children and family members disappearing in alarming numbers.

New figures show that Black people are going missing disproportionately in the UK, and families say they are not getting the support they need in their most desperate moments.

Black people accounted for 14% of all missing person cases in England and Wales in the last financial year, despite representing only 3% of the population.

There were more than 31,700 reports of missing Black people between 2019 and 2020. That’s 86 people every day.

For the people directly impacted by a vanished loved one, these stories represent the worst pain they have ever felt, but the wider community feels those ripples too.

It is not only the tragedy of the missing people that hurts, but also the lack of adequate response from society, the authorities, the media.

For many, it sends a message that Black lives still do not matter.

‘It’s crushing, but it’s crushing because it’s not surprising,’ Brianna O’Reilly, founder of The Black Project Instagram account, tells Metro.co.uk.

Brianna, who lives in east Sussex, set up the account – which now has more than 19,000 followers – in August 2020, with the aim of amplifying Black British life.

On her page, the 24-year-old often engages with the families of missing people, and uses her platform to spread awareness and try to find them.

‘The constant understanding that we aren’t valued is a heavy weight to bear. It’s crushing because we expect it and it hurts that nothing seems to be changing,’ she adds.

Recently, Brianna was working with the father of a young person who had disappeared from home.

She did what she could to spread the word about the missing 16-year-old on her Instagram page, but when she tried to help by speaking to social services, she says she was dismissed.

‘They refused to do anything because I did not have the same surname as the missing person,’ Brianna explains.

‘The child’s father was angry when I told him this had happened. He was angry because his child could have been home safe by dinner time if the actual priority was child protection, and not paperwork.

From within the community, there is outrage, anger, frustration, heartbreak.

‘Instead, he was traipsing the streets at 2am trying to find his child. Not the police, not the social workers or child protection officers. Just him. He had filed a missing persons report, so all of those people had been informed.

‘A vulnerable young person was made even more vulnerable by the cover of night because the system that is meant to protect them is so tied up in red tape it forgets what the priority should be.’

Thankfully, this child was found safe in south London, but Brianna says experiencing such fear for a loved one without adequate support or assistance is ‘traumatic’.

Desperate families turning to social platforms for help

‘From within the community, there is outrage, anger, frustration, heartbreak,’ says Brianna.

‘There is also a huge distrust of police. I’ve had many people say to me – “we need to protect our own because they aren’t protecting us.”

‘I was contacted by a young person whose friend had run away, asking me if I could help because they didn’t want to contact the police.

‘As much as it’s incredibly powerful to know that The Black Project has become a safe space for the community, it’s equally worrying that an Instagram account is offering Black people the feelings of protection and trust that the police should be offering.’ 

She adds that people outside of Black communities don’t even seem to know that this crisis is happening.

‘I’m often met with shock,’ says Brianna. ‘White people who follow the account are most often shocked that another young Black person is missing.

‘“Why does this keep happening, I can’t believe it,” is often what the comments and DMs say. It just goes to show how little this reality is known about, how little attention this issue receives. Because none of us within the community are shocked.’ 

Brianna says there is a need for systemic change in how missing persons cases are dealt with and reported on, and more support needs to be provided for loved ones.

‘There is a fundamental lack of respect for Black life across the board in my opinion, and the opinion of many in the community,’ Brianna tells Metro.co.uk.

‘The police don’t respect us enough to support our families, to investigate without public pressure, to treat us with dignity, or even to search for us with any urgency. And that absolutely needs to change.

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‘The media don’t respect us enough to say our names. We all know the name Madeline McCann. We all know the name James Bulger. We all know the name Shannon Matthews. Suzy Lamplugh. Claudia Lawrence. Lee Boxell. Milly Dowler. Patrick Warren and David Spencer.

‘Other than a handful of prominent cases, I would wager most people would struggle to name a missing Black person in Britain, or a historic case of a missing Black person, and even fewer could think of a face to go with a name.

‘Our lives, our value as people, needs to be respected. And until that happens, I worry this will continue to be an issue that disproportionately impacts our community.’

A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police told Metro.co.uk: ‘For each [missing person] case, a bespoke and proportionate response is developed, and the MPS continue to produce ongoing preventative work.

‘Officers who handle cases of missing people are required to highly document each action and development in each case and account for their actions.

‘If there are concerns around the way an investigation is conducted, the Met will conduct a detailed internal investigation and remain open to investigation by external agencies such as the IOPC.’

The psychological impact of witnessing Black people disappear

The continual stream of news about Black disappearance can create fear and insecurity, and not just in those closest to the people who are missing.

While we often, rightly, think of the close relatives, the wider community can also experience a form of second-hand grief and anxiety. Lee says the news can create a feeling of being ‘under threat’ for people who live in similar areas, or have similar life experiences to missing people.

‘The sad reality is that disappearances that end with negative conclusions get considerably more and longer media attention and community action, and this only increases the perceived threat of what might happen to us,’ psychologist Lee Chambers tells Metro.co.uk.

‘The fact that they can also end with no closure and be left unexplained just increases the feeling of risk and lack of safety for Black communities.

‘There is also the issue of Black disappearances being minimised, with a lack of overall concern, coverage and action, despite the clear case it is a significant issue in wider society. This minimisation leads to feelings of being undervalued, worthless and increases stress.’

Lee says that losing a loved one has a significant impact on any family. From grief to loss, the effect is profound. However, this can be amplified for those from Black communities.

‘Not being heard, or taken seriously, creates a feeling of hopelessness and anger that only heightens emotions in a time that is already difficult, and makes it much harder to find closure and return to a place of emotional balance.

Lee says seeing the inequalities over which cases gain traction in the media has a negative impact, as we are more likely to see white victims given coverage despite the high representation of Black missing people.

‘This feeds into comparison and questioning about why one disappearance or life is more valuable than another,’ says Lee. ‘As things stand, if you are Black, you are not worthy of mainstream media and national news unless you have people fighting every corner for you.

‘This leads to one question. If you are not a worthy victim, will you be protected?’

Psychologist Dr Roberta Babb identifies a ‘pattern’ of discrimination and racial bias that exists when missing Black people are reported on the news. She says this manifests as a disproportionately low number of public appeals.

‘These biases, which also impact how Black people are portrayed in media reports, are rooted in structural, systemic, institutional and interpersonal racism,’ Dr Babb tells Metro.co.uk.

‘Consequently, the impact is far-reaching and affects Black people on a psychological, biological, relational, social, communal and transgenerational level.’

Dr Babb says that this inequality stems from an inherent imbalance around who gets to be a ‘victim’ in our society, and who garners public sympathy and concern.

‘These individuals tends of be white and female,’ says Dr Babb. ‘This is a recognised phenomenon and is known as “Missing White Women Syndrome” – a term first used by reporter Gene Demby in 2017.

‘All instances of a missing person is tragic and should be responded to with meaningful attention, empathy, curiosity, energy and help and support. However, the racial difference in the media reports and public appeals and actions means that it is not only a distressing and traumatic situation for Black people, it is also a situation which is more likely to have an adverse outcome – which is a tragedy in itself.’

Dr Babb continues that the experience of hearing about missing Black people is distressing and traumatic in ‘both acute and chronic ways’ for Black people.

‘The racial biases are a form of microinequity and this overtly and covertly communicates the message that they are “second-class citizens”,’ she says.

‘These experiences can also contribute to Black people feeling as if they do not belong, or are not accepted within society. This can leave people feeling invisible, criminalised, and as though they are not good enough or deserving of empathy and understanding – which are key factors when accessing support and help during times of distress and crisis.’

How to cope if news events are causing anxiety

‘The silence around instances of missing Black people is deafening for the Black community,’ says Dr Babb. ‘It loudly communicates a sense of complacency, which creates racially biased suggestions of expectation and inevitability, rather than shock, outrage and empathy.

‘This situation dehumanises Black people, and effectively enables the pain, distress and vulnerability associated with missing people to be dismissed and ignored.

‘It also enables the inequalities that contribute to Black people going missing to be individualised and ignored, rather than prompting meaningful interrogations of the racist structural, systemic, institutional and interpersonal forces that maintain this unequal racial status quo.’

Dr Babb adds that the impact for families and people in the wider communities is stress and distress, as well as anxiety, sadness, grief, anger, and sometimes shame.

She has provided some coping mechanisms to help tackle this kind of emotional turmoil:

Identify and develop your boundaries

Particularly around your relationship with the news and social media, and be mindful and intentional with your engagement. This may involve:

• Limiting your exposure to stress inducing, distressful and traumatising news stories.

• Limiting your passive engagement with news stories that focus on tragedies such as missing people and violet deaths.

• Being mindful in how you share and communicate story related information.

• Finding alternative news stories or sources of information which may report different angles of the situation such as the individual’s strengths and aspirations.

Be compassionate and kind to yourself

Whatever emotion you are feeling, it is a normal response to an abnormal and traumatic situation.

Be mindful and breath

Mindfully breathing and focusing on your out-breath can be helpful when you are feeling stressed, distressed or anxious, as it has a calming effect on both your mind and body.

When someone goes missing, you are aware that there is so much outside of your control that it can be upsetting and overwhelming.

Think about what you can control, and spend time focusing on these things.

Talk to someone about how you are feeling

This may be family members, friends, people who have experienced similar experiences, a religious or spiritual leader, your GP, or a psychological professional.

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