The TSA and the Invasion of Our Space

May 10, 2019
May 10, 2019
Why are Black women still subject to hair pat-downs at disproportionate rates?

The first time it happened to me, I didn’t think much of it. Lots of people walk through airport security and get flagged for additional screening. The second time it happened, I took notice because while other people may receive additional screening, not everyone is subjected to a “hair pat-down.”

A hair pat-down typically involves pressure being applied to your hairstyle. Squeezing. Mashing. Compressing. It can even go as far as separating or dismantling a style to see what’s inside. Or if you’re wearing a headwrap, it may be removed.

As an avid traveler, I’m no stranger to the TSA. But that 90 second experience can differ, depending on how my hair is styled that day. I love to switch things up: blow-outs, twist-outs, puffs, braids, etc. But the bigger my hair, the bigger the issue when passing through a security checkpoint.

I’m not alone. This issue first gained major media attention in 2014, when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California first filed a complaint on behalf of Malaika Singleton, Ph.D. for an incident in 2013. But the issue certainly predates that filing and recently made its way back into the news again. Despite the TSA implementing new training nationwide, the number of incidents is still extraordinarily high.

What’s the real issue?
Initially, it appeared that human behavior was to blame. When suspicious scans occurred, TSA agents were trained to conduct further searches at their discretion. In many instances, Black women and those wearing religious headwear were often flagged for a hair pat-down.

Recently, evidence is pointing to the machines being at fault. Full body-scanners are designed to detect non-metal objects, but can’t see through dense objects, like a head full of natural kinks, coils, braids or locs.

What’s at stake?
Relying on human judgement to determine who is subject to a manual search is where it gets tricky. In cases where the scanner fails to identify a threat, is it still justified for agents to conduct a manual search or is unconscious bias or profiling playing a role? Given the number of Black women still receiving hair pat-downs, it’s hard to say.

While I still get flagged when wearing a natural style, the agents I encounter have handled my hair with more care recently. The search is much more deliberate. There’s more squeezing and pressing and less parting and separating, which has ruined my hairstyle in the past. And often, the women performing the search happen to be women of color or they’re kind enough to do their job without messing up my hair. I suppose empathy is a form of progress, but more work needs to be done to keep the TSA out of our crowns

Have you ever experienced a hair pat-down at the hands of the TSA? Talk to us by tagging @MBIB on IG, Facebook, or Twitter.

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