Airport Body Scanners May be to Blame for Discrimination Against Black Women

For years, Black women have complained about being unfairly targeted for intrusive hair searches at the airport. These complaints originate from Black women with a variety of hair types and styles. Five years ago, a complaint prompted the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to promise improved training for its agents on hair pat-downs and to provide oversight over the practice, ProPublica reported. However, a bigger issue may lie with airport body scanners.

According to ProPublica, the scanners have a tendency to raise false alarms for hairstyles used by Black women. In 2018, the TSA requested vendors submit ideas “to improve screening of headwear and hair in compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.” The law prohibits federally funded agencies from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.

Erika Wilson, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, told The North Star that she is frequently stopped for hair pat-downs by the TSA. “I would say that on average I am stopped 8 out of 10 times that I travel,” she said. “The search is usually of the crown of my head all the way down.” Wilson said that the last time she had her hair searched was when she was traveling from Raleigh-Durham International Airport to Washington, DC, for an academic conference.

“The agent patted [and] ran her fingers through my hair, including making contact with my scalp,” she told The North Star. “I always ask why I’m being selected for extra screening. I was told that my hair set off the scanner and she showed me the picture on the screen.”

Wilson noted that she is less likely to be searched intrusively when she is at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA). She said that many of the TSA agents at the Washington, DC, airport are Black women who approach the search in a completely different way. Wilson said that when she is searched at DCA by a Black woman “the search is typically a lot less intrusive.” Simone Armour, a student at the University of Hartford, said that she has experienced intrusive hair searches in the US and in Europe. She noted that it does not matter how she wears her hair, she will likely get stopped.

“I have super curly hair but it doesn’t seem to matter if it’s out or in a bun,” the 22-year-old said. “I’ve had to take my hair down so they could run their fingers through my roots. It feels invasive even if it’s for safety because those with straight hair or even looser curls, like my sister’s, don’t get their hair looked at.” Wilson’s hair is in locs, and when she wears her hair pinned up, she said she “almost certainly” will be stopped for extra screening. She noted that she was more likely to be stopped when her locs were longer, reaching her waist. “The worst is when my locs are curled,” Wilson said. “Always, always, I get stopped for extra screening. And they usually mess up the curls.”

The law professor said she does not know how these hair searches improve safety. “I find them to be intrusive, embarrassing, and time-consuming,” she said. “It is especially infuriating because it represents yet another way in which Black women who reject European Centric notions of beauty by not artificially straightening our hair and . . . [wear] our hair naturally are punished [or] singled-out.”

In a statement to The North Star, the TSA said the agency was “committed to ensuring all travelers are treated with respect and courtesy. Screening is conducted without regard to a person’s race, color, sex, gender identity, national origin, religion or disability.” The TSA said it continually reviews procedures to improve security and was reviewing other options to screen hair. “Officers also receive training and briefings to ensure that they communicate, and are respectful, when screening an individual’s headwear and hair,” the statement continued.

Armour said she has never been told that a body scanner has issued a security alert because of her hair, but said that it might be a “better approach” to be told why she is being searched. Meanwhile, Wilson argued that the TSA needs to get better technology that does not give false alarms over Black women’s hair. “Something is wrong with technology that singles out Black women because of the texture of our hair,” she said. “It suggests that the technology is not trustworthy. If the technology gets it wrong about my natural hair, what else is it getting wrong?”

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.