I'm a Black Natural-Haired Woman, I Travel and I'm Tired of Microagressions

by K.E. Garland

Post-9/11 flights have been the same for me. Take my laptop out. Keep my tablet packed. Remove my shoes and squeeze plastic boxes together, just enough to keep pace and not annoy the hurried passenger behind me.

But November 18th was different.

Paris had just been attacked and threats of terrorism lingered. I stood hip-width apart with my hands outstretched like a suspected criminal. Other passengers did the same. Security for those who stood before me ended there.

My curly, medium-sized, poofy fro meant more scanning.

The more included standing in my socks, vulnerable and a bit exposed as a TSA security officer checked my hair. I wasn’t hiding a bomb or other weapon of mass destruction among my locks, so the officer granted me permission to re-dress and head to the gate.

Afterwards, I sat at the Jacksonville International Airport conflicted. Can someone really check my hair? Am I overreacting?

The answer is yes and no.

The American Civil Liberties Union has a role in protecting citizens’ civil rights. This includes racial profiling, which is illegal, even at the airport. The ACLU of Northern California further explains that “Both the United States and California Constitutions prohibit unreasonable searches and selective enforcement of the law based on race.” This is becoming common knowledge due to one woman’s recent airport experience. After two separate hair pat downs, Dr. Malaika Singleton, an African American neurosurgeon filed an ACLU Civil Rights complaint. As a result, Northern California’s TSA resolved to retrain its officers. Consequently, TSA had promised to “stop searching black women’s hair for drugs and weapons.”

Even though the ACLU’s statement is clear and TSA’s response is noble, rules about hair pat downs are ambiguous. It seems that hair can be searched if the scalp cannot be seen with a body scan or if security officers detect an object. Additionally, the TSA response I received indicates “travelers processed through TSA checkpoints may undergo additional screening of their clothing, hair, or headwear—where dangerous items are able to be hidden.” However, they assured me that profiling isn’t tolerated. Basically, TSA can conduct a hair pat down if they want to, but discrimination is illegal. The thing is if your hair is thick and curly like mine, then a hair pat down can become as routine as removing shoes. Furthermore, many natural styles lend themselves to these searches. So where does one draw the line between protecting all American passengers and treating one group as perpetual suspects?

Here is where national participation is crucial.

We have to speak up. As I sat there posting to social media and re-packing my belongings, I noticed that other passengers’ hair were not searched. Of course, I could’ve just laughed off the incident or ignored it. But what good would that do? How is change effected if I remain silent? Using our voice is one way TSA will continue to be aware of the unusual amount of black women that undergo hair searches, ultimately helping them to live up to their own declaration to “stop searching black women’s hair.”

If a TSA officer says she needs to check your hair, comply then complain. Formal complaints can be filed through TSA’s website. Be sure to select “civil rights” as your option. A separate grievance should be filed with your state’s ACLU. Look for an email confirmation shortly thereafter. Expect a follow up within weeks. Life as an African American female is challenging enough without adding microagressions to an already stressful airport experience. There’s strength in numbers and speaking out about your own encounter is the first step to ensuring that our collective civil rights are protected.

Photo: Shutterstock

Dr. K.E. Garland holds a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction, with an emphasis in English and media literacy. She is currently assistant professor of education at a community college, freelance writer, blogger, and author.

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