For black women throughout the world, “Don’t Touch My Hair” is much more than the pinnacle of Solange’s discography, it’s dogma—or an ominous warning that both life and limb can be lost should you cross that line.
But TSA agents play by a different set of rules. And while they claim they aren’t discriminating against black women or their hair, Vox reports that their body scanners might be.
A new report by ProPublica suggests that the full-body scanners that have become commonplace at airports across the country are at least partly to blame. These scanners have trouble identifying thick hair and certain head coverings, according to the report. In other words, the very machines that are supposed to determine whether a passenger poses a potential security threat to an airport weren’t designed with people of color in mind.
Full-body scanners, also known as millimeter wave machines, are capable of detecting non-metallic objects, according to the ProPublica report, but aren’t quite advanced enough to detect what those objects are. That’s where TSA agent pat-downs come in. The result: Scanners reading thick hair as an unidentifiable, potentially dangerous object, forcing passengers to endure inconvenient, often embarrassing hair pat-downs.
Which means that black women are left to bear the brunt of inadequate security measures that meant to protect us all.
Dorian Wanzer travels frequently for work. And almost every time she steps out of an airport body scanner, security screeners pull her aside and run their fingers through her hair. It’s called a hair pat-down.
“It happens with my natural Afro, when I have braids or two-strand twists. Regardless,” said Wanzer, who lives in Washington, D.C. “At this point in my life I have come to expect it, but that doesn’t make it any less invasive and frustrating.”
Wanzer, who had her hair patted down by Transportation Security Administration officers two weeks ago while she flew home from Raleigh, North Carolina, said she feels singled out when she is asked to step aside.
“When you find yourself in that kind of situation, it makes you wonder,” Wanzer said. “Is this for security, or am I being profiled for my race?”
Last summer, the TSA asked for ideas “to improve screening of headwear and hair in compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act”—a law that bars federally funded agencies and programs from discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin—even unintentionally.
But in an interview with ProPublica, a TSA officer confirmed what we already know—that certain hairstyles are more susceptible to triggering alarms.
“With black females, the scanner alarms more because they have thicker hair; many times they have braids or dreadlocks,” said a TSA officer who requested their name be withheld. “Maybe, down the line, they will be redesigning the technology, so it can tell apart what’s a real threat and what is not. But, for now, we officers have to do what the machine can’t.”
Turbans suffer a similar fate, as evidenced by the “higher false alarm rate” acknowledged in a 2014 government report.
But when asked about the false alarms, while the TSA maintains hair pat-downs aren’t discriminatory, they confirm that they’re “reviewing additional options for the screening of hair.”
The TSA advises passengers to remove all items from their hair before going through airport security and warns on its website that “wearing a hairpiece, extensions or a wig as well as a ponytail, a hair bun or braids” may trigger an alarm.
But for black women, it’s not just a matter of security, it’s a matter of respect for human dignity.
“I get TSA workers have a job to do, which is to keep us safe,” said Wanzer, a frequent target of intrusive hair searches. “But there needs to be a level of sensitivity about how different people perceive these kinds of searches.”