TSA is finally changing their discriminatory policy of searching natural hair on black people. I unfortunately have had my hair searched multiple times.
When I fly, I have a routine that involves wearing certain clothes, makeup, and hairstyles. It is my “get through TSA by touching the fewest number of germy items” routine. You know that person who takes forever and forgets to empty their pockets or take off their shoes? That is not me. I have a system, and I get through fast. I will not be the one holding up the line
Knowing this about me, you can imagine my confusion when I was told to step to the side and wait for additional non-random screening. I wanted to know what had triggered this search and was told that my hair needed to be checked.
(Dear TSA: I want to take this moment to point out that “Your hair needs to be checked” sounds like an insult. It sounds like I didn’t do my hair correctly or I let wild things roam in my hair, and someone needs to set me straight. It sounds embarrassing and feels embarrassing. Perhaps the next time you implement a discriminatory policy that profiles people based on race and hair type you could be a little nicer about the whole process, so check yourself. Thank you.)
I stood off to the side while my blonde-haired, blue-eyed husband had to stand on the other side of the roped area, both of us confused. As I was waiting, a woman came up behind me and started pressing my ponytail and hair with her gloved hands. (Dear TSA: Warn People before you touch them!) I kept asking why she had to check my hair and no one else’s. She just shrugged and walked away. I walked away feeling as if I had done something wrong, and I did not fully understand why my hair needed an extra pat down.
After two more incidents, someone told me it was my ponytail. Finally, something I could fix. I adjusted my pre-travel preparation to include wearing my hair down instead of up and assumed I would have no problems. I was stopped again. This time there was even more patting. I gave up. I just started stepping to the side automatically. The rough patting and pushing on my head and hair became a new part of the routine along with the weird stares. On my last flight to California, I was flagged for the speedy lane. I stepped to the side with my backside facing the TSA agent ready for the hair pat down when she told me I could go. I asked, “Don’t you need to check my hair?” She laughed and told me no.
It may seem unsettling how quickly I acquiesced to the TSA’s microaggressions, but I was put in a very familiar, although uncomfortable, situation.
- As a black woman, my hair has never been my own. It is an expectation of those around me that they will be able to touch, feel, comment on, and ask rude questions about my hair. “Is that your real hair?” “I always wanted to feel black hair.” “I didn’t know black people could grow their hair this long.” “Your hair is so long; are you Indian?”
- TSA is and was my only option. I can’t opt out of TSA. I did look into the TSA pre-screening, but at the time, the financial burden did not seem like the most economical decision given the number of times I fly per year.
- I’m used to *special circumstances* that entail my having to do something other people who don’t look like me never have to do. I’m used to being routinely randomly selected for additional screening when I walk through metal detectors. I’m used to being followed in stores or having my bags checked. Sometimes I can fight this. Sometimes I can complain and protest. In some situations, the cost of my protest is not affordable.
I’m sure many other PoC have also experienced the variations of the above listed situations. TSA was able to practice this discrimination for so long because it is such familiar territory for PoC, and after all, it was supposed to be for the safety of our nation. We are routinely made examples of or told that we have to act or be treated differently than others depending on the circumstance. Whether it is our hairstyle or choosing to wear a hoodie, society has told us that our person will be policed and monitored more heavily than others.
I’m not proud that I gave up, but in those moments I felt inferior and not like I had the voice necessary to give myself a different choice. And quite honestly, after a while you forget the outrage and injustice that you once felt, and the familiarity is sometimes sufficient to dull the pain long enough to allow you to falsely walk away with your head held high.