POLITICS

TSA Says It Will Stop Touching So Many Black Women's Hair

04/03/2015 03:13 pm ET | Updated Apr 03, 2015

No, you cannot touch my hair -- but it isn’t as if the woman had asked for my permission.

An agent of the Transportation Security Administration is running her fingers across my scalp. Again. It feels dehumanizing as she pats my head. She needed to check my hair for weapons, she said. It feels gross. I feel like "the other."

But all I can do is stand there, endure the stares and pray her latex gloves don’t cause my ends to break off.

As I wait for the unwanted scalp massage to end, I look at the women who have gone through the checkpoint before me. The agent hadn’t checked their hair. Some wear ponytails or buns. Some have hair much thicker than my curly afro. Plenty of room to stash a knife or a grenade or whatever.

But none of them are natural-haired black women.

This uninvited hair fondling apparently occurs across the nation, and the TSA has finally promised to do something about it. Earlier this year, the agency agreed to clarify its policy on patting down people’s hair following an April 2014 complaint from the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California that black women were being targeted. Later this month, an ACLU staff attorney told HuffPost, the TSA begins its new improved training at Los Angeles International Airport, one of the airports named in the complaint.

“Racial profiling is not tolerated by TSA,” said an agency statement provided to The Hill. “Not only is racial profiling prohibited under [Department of Homeland Security] and agency policy, but it is also an ineffective security tactic.”

Well, they got that right. It’s doubtful that the sisterlocks sported by Malaika Singleton -- the woman at the center of the ACLU complaint -- constituted one of those worrisome “anomalies” on the scanner that TSA agents must investigate further. It’s doubtful that a TSA agent squeezing her locks did anything to make the plane safer.

“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,” Novella Coleman, the staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, said in a statement last week.

Targeting black women's hair for extra scrutiny isn’t new for the TSA. The New York Times noted the problem as far back as 2011, and the ACLU of Northern California pointed out in its complaint about Singleton's treatment that it had raised the issue before.

When singer Solange Knowles had her afro searched in 2012, a TSA spokeswoman said the agency didn’t have a policy that targeted afros for searches.

"If someone is passing through the advanced imaging technology machine, it shows an outline of an individual, the same for every single person," the spokeswoman told CNN. "If the hair area is highlighted, the machine may have picked up an anomaly or a possible threat in the head area."

Anomalies may be such things as bobby pins, hair clips, extensions, ponytail holders and headscarves, CNN wrote at the time.

But as the ACLU statement said this month, the Constitution prohibits both "unreasonable searches and selective enforcement of the law based on race." Moreover, the group wrote, a search must be “tailored to detect threats to security.”

"We have not received clear guidelines from TSA about what their policies up to this point have been for searching passengers' hair," Coleman told HuffPost. She said the ACLU has received different explanations for what sparks a hair pat-down, including the so-called abnormalities, hair extensions and an agent's inability to see the passenger's scalp.

"We have identified these as problematic because they're all subjective criteria that allow racial bias to operate," Coleman said. "When we attend the training [at LAX], we will be looking for more clear and objective guidelines going forward."

I wasn’t wearing anything in my hair when I was searched, and the agent never explained to me why she thought I might be hiding weapons even though my full body scan was clean.

So I wondered: Why is thick, kinky, puffy black hair such a perceived threat?

No one has a definite answer here -- especially not the TSA. A good place to start, however, could be with historical perceptions of kinky hair.

Lots of black people rocked afros in the 1960s in order to “actively define their newly politicized racial identity,” to quote an essay in Women & Therapy. The following decade, afros were donned by black folks who wanted to proclaim their blackness and upset the status quo. Or, as Steven Thrasher put it for BuzzFeed, the 'fro was “a cultural symbol of black ass-kicking.”

Black people choosing to wear their hair natural is an unmistakable challenge to Eurocentric beauty standards and culture. So it isn’t shocking that black hair is seen as something scary, distracting or militant. Just look at the controversial cover of The New Yorker from 2008 portraying Michelle Obama as an afro’d revolutionary.

Nonetheless, the TSA’s agreement to improve its employee training and to specifically track future complaints about hair pat-downs for discriminatory impact is a step in the right direction.

"I hope that this agreement and the proposed trainings will lead to a more equitable treatment of all travelers throughout the U.S., regardless of their ethnic or cultural background and or how they wear their hair," Singleton said in the ACLU statement.

Me too, girl. Me too.

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