Commentary: A white man killed his pregnant wife and kids, but still being described as family man and good dad
The small town of Frederick, Colorado, was recently rocked by a series of events that are both tragic and incomprehensible. On Aug. 13, Shannan Watts and her two young daughters, ages 3 and 4, went missing. The next day Chris Watts, the grief-stricken husband and father, went on television to tell the world how much his family meant to him. Then, just a day later, he was arrested for their murders when the bodies of the children and Shannan, who was also 15 weeks pregnant, were discovered on the property of the company where Chris worked.
On social media, the family seemed to have a picture-perfect life. This has been confirmed by those who knew them, who are now left searching for answers. It took no time at all for the national media to hop on the story of a white suburban family that seemed to have it all—a beautiful wife, two precious little girls, and a seemingly loving husband and doting father all living in a big house. But, as we know all too well, things are never what they seem on the surface. As investigators dug deeper, they learned that the family filed for bankruptcy in 2015, were saddled with a $400,000 mortgage, and had about $70,000 of student loan and credit card debt. There has also been an admission of infidelity by Chris and an “emotional conversation” between the two before Shannan disappeared.
Though Chris Watts has now reportedly confessed, his motive remains a mystery. While appearing standoffish and even suspicious in his TV interview, former friends and acquaintances are still describing him as a "hands-on dad," and a “punctual” person who “did everything right.” And while Watts’s mugshot is making the rounds in the coverage of this case, most of the photos where he is shown depict him as a good, wholesome, and loving family man. Of course, we understand why this is. In an era where nothing is news unless it’s bizarre, salacious, and sensational, it makes sense to portray Watts to the public as an all-American, clean-cut husband and father of two who snapped for unknown reasons.
This appeals to our sense of outrage and fascination. We are drawn in by photo after photo of a couple seemingly in love and their sweet children and, just like those who knew them, we can’t imagine what might have happened to cause Watts to do such a horrible thing. It is reminiscent of the murder of Laci Peterson in 2002—another beautiful pregnant white woman also murdered by her husband, Scott. That case was also highly publicized and captured the attention of the nation for months, as Laci’s family also initially defended Peterson until he began acting suspicious and it was revealed that he’d had a mistress whom he’d told he was a widower. As Rolling Stonereminds us, this was all taking place at the same time as the Iraq War. And while America was becoming fixated on the reality of global terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, Laci’s “disappearance dominated the TV news right alongside the hunt for Saddam Hussein.”
It is important and significant that these cases get national attention. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), more than one-half of female murder victims (55 percent) are killed by intimate partners. Most of those are committed by male partners. Those are shocking statistics that aren’t talked about nearly enough. And while this is occurring across all ethnic groups, black and indigenous women are more likely to be victims. And Latina women who are killed, in general, are more often than not killed at the hands of their partners.
Black women are killed at a rate of 4.4 per 100,000 people, and indigenous women at a rate of 4.3 per 100,000; every other race has a homicide rate of between 1 and 2 per 100,000.
Hispanic women who were killed, meanwhile, were the most likely to be killed in connection to partner violence (61 percent of all homicides of Hispanic women).
All of this means that women who are murdered are most likely to be killed by their romantic partners, who are mostly men. This is a problem in itself. Though we have made significant strides in society around gender equality, we have so far to go. We have elevated conversations about pay inequality and advancing women’s career opportunities into our national discourse. But we have yet to confront the ways that patriarchy and toxic masculinity are literally killing thousands of women each year. And though the media has conveniently ignored this fact, women of color are killed by men at significantly higher rates than white women. Yet it is not the deaths of women of color that we are hearing about, nor that are capturing our nation’s attention. And we can certainly bet that when women of color are killed by their partners who are men of color, these men are not being portrayed as doting fathers and family men. This is where we can look more closely at both how the news is told and who is doing the telling.
Watts confessed to killing his wife and unborn child. Not only did he murder them—he did so in a most gruesome fashion. He has already told police that he strangled Shannan, after claiming that it was she strangled their two daughters. He admits to dumping his daughters’ bodies into oil tanks and burying his wife nearby. And yet he still is being written up as a “suspect” who “allegedly” killed his wife, a “family man” who is accused, rather than the admitted killer that he is. While it is true that he has not yet been convicted and that our legal system affords suspects the presumption of innocence, suspects of color are never afforded such benefit of the doubt. Here’s one such example:
To be clear, these two cases are not the same so it’s difficult to compare them. The black man whose mugshot is being shown, Melvin Harris, is a suspect in a case where he has admitted to beating a man who allegedly tried to force his way into a bathroom stall at a gas station that his daughter was using. After notifying a security guard that "he [the guard] needed to take care of the situation or he'd do it himself,” Harris spotted his daughter’s alleged attacker and punched him repeatedly. The man died in the hospital from his injuries several days later. Harris is being charged with second-degree murder.
Again, two different cases with differing circumstances. But both resulted in deaths caused by men who are fathers—one in defense of his child, and another where the father took his own children’s lives (and the life of his spouse). Where are the pictures of Melvin Harris as a doting and loving father? Why is there no humanizing language to describe him? His mugshot and photos of him in an orange jumpsuit are everywhere this story is being reported. The headline descriptions about him include: “Phoenix father beats man to death,” “Dad killed man who tried to enter bathroom stall,” and “Father accused of killing man in bathroom incident.”
While there is sensationalism in these titles and the acknowledgment that Harris is a parent, the words and images don’t evoke a sense of compassion and curiosity in the same ways the coverage does for Watts. Somehow writers and journalists want us to believe that it’s unfathomable that this clean-cut white man with such a beautiful family would kill them. Meanwhile, what we are left with after reading headlines about Harris is that he’s a killer—not a fiancee or father protecting his daughter’s safety.
However, at the end of the day, this is not only about Watts or Harris. We can hope the criminal justice system metes out their sentences accordingly—though we know that due to institutional racism, black men fare far worse than white men, even when those white men kill their entire families. Instead, this is another reminder of the media’s complicity in upholding racist narratives about people of color. When the majority of the country’s news outlets and newsrooms are full of white people (mostly men), this is the end result: stories that afford all kinds of humanity and compassionate depictions of white killers while ignoring altogether the humanity of black people and people of color, whether they be the accused or actual victims.
We all possess some kind of bias. It’s what happens when we are socialized into a society and world that conditions us into certain beliefs about other human beings. And unless that bias is challenged, it likely goes unchecked. In 2018, white newsrooms could easily move beyond these kinds of stereotypical and negative representations of people of color. Because even if they don’t know better (and they should by now), they could certainly be hiring more diverse people, voices, and perspectives that do know better. Not only is this impacting the quality and effectiveness of the information the public consumes, it is doing nothing more than reinforcing the same old harmful tropes. And these tropes do not exist in a vacuum. They are recreated in how white people engage with and think about people of color—interpersonally and at a structural level. This is part of why men like Melvin Harris often see more jail time than men like Chris Watts. To the vast majority, one of the them is seen as human and relatable and worthy of our pity (Watts), while the other one (Harris) is not.
Above all, not only does this represent a problem for how we tell and hear stories about people of color, but also how we understand violence directed at women—especially women of color. While the country is watching and mourning over stories about Shannan and Laci, we are not being told the stories of women like Tiffany Phan, Karen Smith, or Martine Bernard. Of course, the media isn’t concerned with bringing attention and awareness to how many women are killed by intimate partners each year. That’s why not a single story about any of these women, white or of color, mentions how common it is. We can hope for an opportunity that cases like this bring the issue to the forefront, but we’d need more diverse newsrooms with more women and people of color in order to that. If not, we’ll only get more of the same: A mass media that reserves victimhood and empathy for white folks (even when they kill), while explicitly tying violence, murder, and judgement to black people and other people of color.
Editor's note:This article was originally published at the Daily Kos, which states that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified."