Airport Security Finally Admits There’s No Reason to Search a Black Woman’s Afro

The Transportation Security Administration has agreed to stop sticking its hands where they don’t belong.
(Photo: Hero Images)
Mar 28, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Take off your shoes, remove your belt, empty your pockets, and step through the scanner. Most of us are used to the Transportation Security Administration’s rules for modern day air travel. But for black women who wear their hair in its natural state, there has been an extra step involved: the Afro pat-down.

The first time it happened to me I was shocked. I’d been pulled aside to be wanded, and then, without warning, the TSA agent stuck her gloved hands into my curly locks and felt around. “Just checking your hair, ma’am,” she replied after I asked what she was doing. Over the years I’ve joked with friends that when the pat-down happens, the security agents are merely hunting inside my Afro for the weapons of mass destruction that were supposed to be in Iraq. Meanwhile, I’ve watched my white female peers stroll through security without getting the same invasive treatment.

However, all that may be about to change. This week the TSA informed two women who had filed a complaint through the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California that the agency would take steps to stop the examination of black women’s hair at the nation’s airports.

“I was going through the screening procedures like we all do, and after I stepped out of the full body scanner, the agent said, ‘OK, now I’m going to check your hair,’ ” Malaika Singleton, a neuroscientist from California who wears her hair in “sisterlocks,” told Business Insider, describing her experience going through the security line at Los Angeles International Airport in December 2013. After the same thing happened in the Minneapolis airport, Singleton decided to take action.

She contacted the ACLU and found out that Novella Coleman, the staff attorney for the Northern California chapter, had filed a complaint in 2012 about her own experiences with hair pat-downs. Colement decided to file on behalf of Singleton, and it seems that her efforts have been successful. Coleman told Business Insider that the TSA sent a letter to her and Singleton saying it would be retraining officers in order to avoid the racially insensitive profiling.

“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,” Coleman said in a statement.

According to the ACLU, the legal requirement for searches to be relevant to a threat to security can’t be satisfied, because TSA agents have been “unable to provide a uniform reason to justify these searches when asked to articulate such a policy.”

What the antidiscrimination retraining of TSA officers will specifically entail remains to be seen. In the meantime, the agency plans to track hair pat-down complaints from black women to “assess whether a discriminatory impact may be occurring at a specific TSA secured location.”