I stood in shock as a TSA agent at the Raleigh airport squeezed and parted my faux locs.
I wanted to ask her why she checked my hair while she let the others go ahead of me through the scanners without an issue. Did she honestly think I had something hidden in my hair? But,I didn’t want to cause a scene, so I just let her do what she had to.
When she let me go, I took my time getting my shoes and carry-on, just to see if she would run her hands through anyone else’s hair. Some women had their hair tied up in a bun or in a French braid, both hairstyles that could easily conceal something. Yet she let them pass after the scanner did its job. A few other women received the same treatment that I did, and they just so happened to be black. She picked through their afros and protective styles, each time finding nothing.
This was supposed to be the start of my trip back home to NYC. But instead of feeling excited to see my friends and family, I felt violated. If she felt that people were hiding unauthorized objects in their hair, why didn’t she check everyone? Why did she seem to only single out black women?
After a quick Google search, I found that what happened to me has been happening to other black women for years.
One of the first publicized instances of the TSA hair pat-down came in 2011 when passenger Laura Adiele had her curly hair searched after going through the full-body scanner. When she asked why the TSA was doing this to her, and no one else, the TSA agent, “told her to comply or risk having the police called over.” Laura did not fight any further and let the hair search continue.
Then, on April 3, 2014, the ACLU of Northern California filed a Civil Rights Complaint against the TSA on behalf of their client Malaika Singleton, a neuroscientist working for the California State Senate, who experienced hair discrimination by the TSA.
While traveling to London for the G8 Dementia Summit in December 2013, Malaika was stopped twice after going through TSA’s full-body scanner. The TSA agents then began to touch and squeeze her hair. Nothing was found.
Novella Coleman, Malaika’s lawyer and the ACLU attorney who filed a complaint in 2012 stated,
“The humiliating experience of countless black women who are routinely targeted for hair pat-downs because their hair is ‘different’ is not only wrong but also a great misuse of TSA agents’ time and resources.”
The TSA finally addressed the issue on January 12, 2015. In a statement written to the ACLU, they said they would conduct training for TSA employees.
“MSP and LAX will both provide retraining to their respective TSA workforce to stress TSA’s commitment to race neutrality in its security screening activities with special emphasis on hair patdowns of African-American female travelers.”
The TSA seems to be well aware of this issue, and while they still stand by their policies, their agents continue to single out black women. The administration’s blog specifically states that anyone can be subject to the pat-down if, “the hair area alarms for a potential explosive,” and if “an individual’s hair looks like it could contain a prohibited item or is styled in a way an officer cannot visually clear it.”
If the TSA promised to stop conducting hair checks on black women, why did the agency’s Multicultural Branch receive 98 complaints from black women between 2015 and 2017 alone?
Black hair has been overly politicized in this country, so much so that a law needed to passed making it illegal for employers to discriminate against black people who wear their hair naturally or in protective styles. For years, black hairstyles have held a stigma of being unprofessional and ghetto.
Unfortunately, for people who believe in racial stereotypes, “ghetto” automatically means “criminal” and that black people can’t be trusted. Whether the TSA realizes it or not, by pulling black women out of line and inspecting our hair, they’re feeding into this stereotype that black people are up to no good. And it could reinforce racist ideas that some passengers hold towards black people.
Seeing all these complaints from other black women does not make me feel confident that my own complaint will be heard. If the TSA feels that hair can cause such an issue, they need to make a point to check every person that has a “suspicious” hairstyle. Until they get it together, they need to stop putting black women through this embarrassing practice. There’s nothing criminal about existing while being black.
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Alysia Stevenson is a twenty-seven New York City transplant currently living in Florida with her boyfriend and three furbabies. When she’s not writing, you can find her watching beauty tutorials on Youtube or Parks and Rec for the millionth time.