Shuffling along the cold airport floor with no shoes on, I stepped into the scanner and raised my arms. I was nervous. Growing up in a low-income, single-parent household, I had always viewed travel as an unattainable luxury, and now here I was, taking my second flight ever at age 24. My first, just two days earlier, had been fine, but this time, as I exited the scanner, a TSA agent stopped me. She needed to search my hair. Not a full-body pat-down, just my hair.
I’m black and have naturally curly hair — that day I wore it straightened, pulled back into a low ponytail. I’m sure hundreds of white women passed her by with the exact same hairstyle that day. I wondered if she’d stopped them, too. The agent put on a pair of blue gloves and patted three times across the top of my head. Then she waved me through.
Unsettled, I gathered my belongings and scurried to my gate, trying to collect my thoughts. Weren’t they supposed to have stopped searching black women’s hair?I thought, remembering articles about the TSA’s response to black women’s hair-search complaints filling my newsfeed a few years ago. There, on a hard plastic airport chair awaiting my second flight ever, I started Googling.
“TSA Will Stop Searching Black Women’s Natural Hair,” Essence, 2015; “TSA Says It Will Stop Touching So Many Black Women’s Hair,” HuffPost, 2015; “The TSA Agrees to Stop Searching Women’s Hair During Airport Screenings,” Business Insider, 2015; “The TSA Will Stop Singling Out Black Women For Hair Searches,” BuzzFeed News, 2015.
And yet I, a black woman, had just had my hair searched by the TSA in 2017.
When I got home and looked into it further, I learned that, in April 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California had filed a complaint on behalf of Malaika Singleton, a black female neuroscientist employed by the California State Senate at the time, who felt she was unfairly targeted for TSA hair searches on the basis of her race. Nearly a year later, the ACLU reached an agreement with the TSA and issued a press release in March 2015.
“Both the United States and California Constitutions prohibit unreasonable searches and selective enforcement of the law based on race,” read part of the release. “In this case, TSA agents were unable to provide a uniform reason to justify these searches when asked to articulate such a policy.” Novella Coleman, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, who had also complained about having her hair searched by the TSA 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.”
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