When it comes to their hair, Black women take huge pride in it. Solange’s 2016 hit song “Don’t Touch My Hair” is a sentiment shared among Black women across the world. And that’s regardless of whether she is #TeamNatural, wears her hair relaxed or likes to rock weaves or wigs. When it comes to hair, Black women look at their hair as their crowning glory, and quite simply, it’s not to be messed with.
Earlier this year, Kirsten Holtz of Washington, DC was flying out of Washington Dulles International Airport, and like usual, she had to go through security before arriving at her gate to board her flight. However on this particular day, Kirsten’s luggage wasn’t the only thing that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) decided to inspect. A TSA officer asked Kirsten to step aside so her hair could be inspected. Kirsten had crocheted extensions and her hair was styled in a natural Afro style. “It was definitely the first time I’ve ever had my hair patted down for security reasons,” Kirsten told Hello Beautiful.
“The TSA woman was wearing a hijab. There was significant irony in this. As I walked up she was actually one of two women wearing a hijab working that day. I thought, especially after participating in the anti Muslim ban march the previous week, that the TSA was stepping it up and making an effort to show that they too were against the ban, showing an act of solidarity. As someone who is married and has a child with a Muslim man who comes from a family of immigrants from Afghanistan, many who wear hijabs, this was very important to me. But my delight quickly took a turn toward disappointment. When the incident happened, I thought, but wait ‘We’re on the same side! I’m trying to protect your freedoms, but I feel like you’re violating mine.’”
To make matters worse, a white male TSA officer made a joke during Holtz’s experience. “He was next to the female officer cracking a joke saying ‘Now doesn’t that feel good? It’s like you’re getting your hair washed,’” said Holtz.
As violating and outrageous as this experience sounds, it happens to numerous women across the country when they fly out of airports in various cities. It’s happened to me as well as several other women I know. So why are these hair pat-downs happening in security lines in airports across America? And why do they appear to be targeted to Black women? We decided to investigate.
Lindsay Gay of Brooklyn, NY, who travels often for work, has actually had her hair patted down six or seven times in the past four years. “I’ve had so many different emotions, I’ve felt amused, violated and embarrassed at times,” says Lindsay. “I have had this done to a long straight weave, a curly ‘afrolike’ weave and my real hair. I’ve had my wig patted, and thank goodness they did not ask to remove it! One time I had to remove every single hair pin and mess up my whole style. I most recently had a pat down to my crochet braids. Four years ago, I was traveling with my manager who’s also Black and they patted down her hair but gave her a full scalp massage and search. Every hair pin was removed from her very proper ‘bun.’ I could not help laughing hysterically at the look on her face: disbelief.”
Gabrielle Powell, who hails from Charlotte, North Carolina and wears her hair natural, travels extensively both domestically and internationally and has only experienced hair pat-downs in the United States. “There were three distinct occasions that I remember having my hair patted down,” says Gabrielle. “Each time, I felt embarrassed and annoyed. I don’t like having my hair touched by strangers. I say that I felt embarrassed because on one occasion, I was on business travel with co-workers. I was the only one who had my hair checked, and it became a topic of conversation once we were all through security and waiting at our gate. They asked me what happened and why I had to have my hair patted down. Of course, I didn’t have a great reason to give them, and I hated being the topic of discussion in that moment.”
Like Gabrielle, Amina Edmond of Maryland has also had her hair patted down by the TSA three times. “The first time, I was so caught off guard. I was mostly confused by what had just happened. The second time I was a little frustrated that they felt the need to do it, and the third time I felt humiliated,” says Amina. “I had this image in my mind of immigration pictures they showed us of Ellis Island when you’re a child, and they talk about how they checked beards and hair for lice and whatever else. I felt like that’s what the people around me were seeing. The first time was at Atlanta airport, the second and third time were at Jacksonville, Florida and Orlando airports.”
Amina was wearing her hair in Senegalese twists the first time, box braids during the second time, and her natural hair for the third time. When she was wearing the box braids, Edmond refused when the TSA officer asked to check her braids, which were pulled into a bun. “She asked me to take my hair down, I said no, and gave some bullshit excuse about it being to difficult to restyle. She then proceeded to use her fingers to probe the bun and my scalp for a few seconds until she felt satisfied that my hair was not infested with razors and/or drugs,” said Edmond.
Personally, I have had my hair inspected countless times by TSA officers in airports all across the country and it’s happened when I’ve had a weave, braids, and even my real hair especially whenever I’ve had bobby pins in my hair. It has become such a common occurrence that I’m shocked when they don’t ask to inspect my hair. However, everyone I interviewed including myself has never seen this procedure happen to women of any other race. Additionally, I couldn’t find one non-Black woman who had experienced a hair pat-down at the airport to interview for this article. This begs us to question if the hair pat-downs by the TSA are just another form of racial profiling? I reached out to the TSA and they responded via email with the following statement:
If an alarm is detected by a Transportation Security Officer (TSO) operating the Advanced Imagining Technology (AIT) machine, TSA procedures require the officer to use additional inspection methods to determine whether the alarm is a threat. These methods may include visual inspection, swabbing for explosives, or a pat-down to resolve the alarm.
TSA encourages passengers to use non-metallic hair pins or accessories to reduce the likelihood of additional screening.
Travelers processed through TSA checkpoints may undergo additional screening of their clothing, hair, or headwear—where prohibited items are able to be hidden—but TSA neither uses nor condones unlawful profiling in our security screening activities.
We want to hear from passengers who feel they have been discriminated against, and we encourage them to contact us via the online complaint form: https://www.tsa.gov/contact-center/form/civil_rights_liberties.
Although the additional inspection methods make sense based on this statement, we want to see this rule being enforced equally across all races, ethnicities and nationalities. Additionally, we’d love to see the TSA be more considerate of the embarrassment and humiliation the woman whose hair they’re inspecting may be experiencing. Edmond suggests pulling travelers into a privacy area for checking hair. “It’s bad enough that you have to pick through their hair like you’re checking for fleas. And if it’s ‘procedure,’ don’t just stop black women with big hair. Stop everyone with big hair, because we’re not the only ones,” says Amina.
Lindsay also suggests that the TSA “equally check women of color and Caucasian women but also that they not touch the hair themselves. I would much rather someone tell me, ‘I have some unusual activity showing up in your hair. Would you mind showing me your pins/hair/running your hands through for me?’”
We can only hope that TSA will take heed and be more respectful toward Black female travelers. Additionally, we hope to see less profiling of Black women specifically in regards to hair inspections. If you do experience disrespect or discrimination when you hair is inspected by the TSA, we suggest making a complaint here. If more Black women speak up, perhaps the TSA will make the necessary revisions to its current policy.
Amina summed it up in the best possible way. “As a general rule to everyone including TSA agents, don’t ask to touch our hair. Just don’t. You wouldn’t ask the Queen to touch her crown, would you?”
Have you experienced a hair pat-down by TSA at the airport? Please share your personal experience in the comments or feel free to reach out to us at ContactHelloBeautiful@gmail.com.
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