Been through this a few years ago when I was on several business trips to see some folk in Milwaukee. Dressed in business conservative high end suit, the first time for an overnight meet and greet, the second for 4 days to meet on a project. Stopped the first trip leaving the airport by local neo-nazi dressed cops in the car line, carrying nothing more than my briefcase and overnight bag and questioned about where I was going. On leaving, stopped again at the security line, and asked to go to a room, where the only other passengers were an Indonesian man, and another black person. Subjected to the hand wand scan, and a search of my bags. The second trip, same routine on leaving, only brown or black passengers in the exam room, and the guy started to bring the dog over. I asked to see his supervisor, which after some gruff a higher up came in. I explained to the higher up the situation, let slip who I had come to see, and explained if I was further harassed it was going to get damned expensive for his bosses, and I intended to bring it up with the next trip with the Mayor. At which point he conceded his officers had been overzealous. The project involved me moving to Milwaukee for a year. After that experience I looked into the social background of the city. I wound up killing my part of the deal.
I used to fly 4-8 flights a week, over 200,000 miles a year, have been to every major Airport in the US, and some places where I flew in on a 4 or 6 seat Cessna prop plane. You will, with those numbers occasionally get stopped by the “random” system by which passengers are selected at random for a wand swipe. A pat down should be extremely rare, unless you are travelling from certain countries overseas. Since they keep the names of the people searched, you should never get stopped in the same destination airport twice if you are a business person.
Being a black woman while flying has meant harassment: constant rummaging through my hair for nonexistent weapons
Following yet another awful terrorist attack, this one partially in an airport in Belgium, the topic of air-travel security and civil liberties is once again in the news. But my personal experience flying as a black woman shows we still have a long way to go in balancing security and the rights of individuals– especially when those individuals aren’t white.
I fly frequently. Between performances, workshops, retreats and conferences, I’m typically on a domestic flight at least once a month. So I am no stranger to TSA flight requirements. I take my laptop out of my bag and put it in a separate tray. Take off my shoes. Remove my belt. Empty my pockets. Throw out my water bottle. Pack liquids under 3.4 ounces. Then, I stand with my hands over my head for scanning. And while I do my best to comply with TSA rules and policies, I am always stopped. Always. Why? Because their scanning machine says my hair may be, or possess, a security threat. Sometimes they need to “just take a look” – so I stand still while they walk around me in a circle to get a closer look at my hair. Increasingly, a TSA agent will need to pat down my hair, rake their fingers through my tresses and squeeze my scalp. And, of course, the so-called “security threat” is never found.
My hair is a critical part of my self-expression, my artistic practice, a celebration of my heritage and my connection to spirit. So when TSA runs their dirty-ass latex gloves through my hair, it’s an insult. It’s racist. And it needs to stop.
A couple of months ago I headed to San Francisco from New York City for an annualEchoing Ida retreat. Unsurprisingly, but infuriatingly nonetheless, my hair needed to be inspected by a TSA agent at John F. Kennedy International (JFK) airport. I had had enough. Like many millennials, I took to social media to vent my frustration. When I landed on the West Coast, I opened my Facebook app to find that a bunch of my friends had commented, mostly black women. Many were outraged and others mentioned how they too go through this experience with TSA, wondering what we could do about it….
The TSA’s current practice does little to respond to an agreement it made with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLUNC) last year.
The agreement was reached after the ACLUNC filed an administrative complaint on behalf of Malaika Singleton, Ph.D. – a black woman with locs who experienced a hair pat-down after going through TSA scanning at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and again at Minneapolis International Airport (MSP) in December 2013. According to the agreement, TSA offered to ensure that “training related to nondiscrimination is clear and consistent for TSA’s workforce” as well as specifically track hair pat-down complaints “from African-American females throughout the country to assess whether a discriminatory impact may be occurring at a specific TSA secured location.”
Armed with this information, I vowed that the next time one of these TSA agents tried to touch my hair, I would remind them about the ACLU agreement, take names and file a complaint. I didn’t have to wait very long. I had my opportunity on Sunday, March 13, at the Raleigh Durham International Airport (RDA) in North Carolina.
I was on my way home after attending and providing healing services at the BYP100 National Membership Convening. As usual, TSA needed to check my hair after scanning. I respectfully said no. When the TSA agent told me it was required, I asked for her supervisor. (Ironically, while I’m waiting, another TSA agent compliments me on my hair.) When her supervisor arrived, she said I had two options: 1) get my hair patted down where I was standing or 2) get my hair patted down in a private room. My heart was pounding. My ears were hot. I was steaming mad. It took everything I had to keep my composure. Despite my anger, I calmly explained: “I don’t want my hair touched. Every time I go through TSA security I get stopped for my hair, and other black women experience this too.” The agent replied, “It’s not just black women; Latina and Asian women get this treatment as well.” She said that if I refused, I would not be able to board my plane. It was 20 minutes until boarding and I didn’t want to miss my flight. After taking her name and letting her know that I would be filing a complaint, I “allowed” (can I even call it that?) a TSA agent to pat my hair down, only after I instructed her to change her latex gloves. She squeezed my bun, raked through my scalp. And what did she find? Nothing. What a surprise.
Being a black woman while flying has meant harassment: consistent and constant rummaging through my hair searching for nonexistent threats and weapons. I understand that in a post-9/11 era there is a desire to be cautious — especially given the most recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. I too desire safety and security; however, I am not convinced that my hair is deserving of so much suspicion. While the rare instance of hair smuggling is not completely unheard of, there have to be solutions to this security query that don’t involve a breach of civil liberties, racial profiling and humiliating pat-downs.
There are no bombs in my bun. Ain’t no weapons of mass destruction tangled in my fro-hawk. I’m not smuggling drugs in my braids. No firearms are concealed in my pinned-up pompadour. No hidden weapons under my headwrap. I promise not to use my bobby pins to stab anyone. Nor will I use my head scarf to choke passengers. My twist-outs are harmless. My high ponytail will not kill you. My black kinky hair in all of its styles (trust, there are many) does not compromise homeland security.
My hair is my crown and glory. Raised by a single mother who had a hectic schedule, I became responsible for doing my hair at the tender age of 9. So you know I take my hair seriously. I’ve done every hairdo under the sun: from bobs to bangs, Aailyah swoops to the T-Boz “Crazy Sexy Cool” cut. Short and long. A full head of hair and a frohawk. Perms, weave and natural. The list goes on. My hair is a big part of who I am. That the TSA is ill-equipped to deal with it in a routine and non-invasive manner is symptomatic of systemic racism….More…