Black women have long complained that they get flagged for secondary screening at TSA checkpoints after passing through a full-body scanner; after years of complaints, the TSA has admitted that its scanners struggle to with curled hair, and are prone to flagging anyone wearing an afro, twists, locks, braids, or other hairstyles predominantly found among Black travelers (though white travelers with long curly hair have also reported being flagged for secondary screening).
Black women complain that the TSA's secondary screening of their hair is invasive and humiliating, and also leaves carefully maintained hairstyles in disarray.
The TSA has officially asked the scanner manufacturers to suggest ways to modify their products "to improve screening of headwear and hair in compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act."
Propublica's excellent story on the problems with the machines quotes an anonymous TSA screener who admits that the body scanners also struggle with turbans and wigs, singling out people who wear them for additional screening.
The TSA will not say whether it has ever found a dangerous object in a traveler's hair.
The TSA is one of the US government's most diverse agencies; many TSA screeners are people of color. Nevertheless, the number of complaints alleging racial profiling in hair searches has increased sharply in recent years, rising from 73 in 2017 to 105 in 2018. The TSA also maintains the right to search travelers' hair even if nothing suspicious appears on scans, leaving who to search and how to search them up to screeners' discretion.
Black hair — particularly Black women's hair — has long been a locus of discrimination, profiling, and racist shibboleths about "hygiene" and "professionalism."
When Jazzmen Knoderer traveled by plane for the second time in her life, in 2012, TSA officers at Dayton International Airport in Ohio asked her to step aside for a full-body pat-down. It happened again the next time she took an airplane and went through security, at an airport on the Hawaiian island of Maui in 2013. And again, for her fourth plane trip in 2014, at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
The first time Knoderer's hair was searched, it was short and styled in two-strand twists. The second time, she had an Afro. The third time, her Afro was no more than 3 inches long, she said.
Knoderer said she didn't go through a body scanner or metal detector before she was searched.
"It doesn't feel random when it happens three times in a row. It doesn't feel random when you see that all the people around you, who don't look like you, aren't asked to step aside," Knoderer said. "I don't want to change the way my hair grows out of my head."
TSA Agents Say They're Not Discriminating Against Black Women, But Their Body Scanners Might Be [Brenda Medina and Thomas Frank/Propublica]
(Image: Paul M Walsh CC-BY-SA)