The TSA Is Changing Its Stance On Natural Hair Searches

Photographed by Winnie Au.
Going through TSA security at the airport isn't exactly what we'd call a pleasant experience. But, being asked to remove our shoes and walk through a metal detector is nothing compared to what women (and some men) with natural hair have been going through. Until just a few days ago, the TSA had been singling out African-American women and giving them "random" hair searches. That practice, though, is on its way out — thanks in large part to Novella Coleman, a staff lawyer at the ACLU.  Coleman herself has been the subject of profiling by the TSA. "The first time it happened, I didn't know that the TSA was in the business of searching women's hair," she explains. After she stepped through the full-body scanner at security while traveling with ACLU coworkers, a TSA agent approached her even though nothing on her body triggered any alarms. "The agent said 'I have to check your hair,' and before I could question it, she pulled me aside and started squeezing it from top to bottom." Coleman wears her hair in locs, which she had at the time of the incident.    
After having her hair searched, Coleman watched her coworkers — two white women and one Latina — go through security. "The Latina had her hair styled in a high bun, which, to me, seemed like something that could have been searched if mine was," she says. "So, there was something about my hair as a Black woman that was a threat to airport security." When they returned from their trip, Coleman and her coworkers began researching what had happened to her, and realized that plenty of women with natural hair had gone through similar experiences. One of her coworkers filed a complaint on her behalf. But, Coleman's experiences with the TSA weren't over. Over the course of the year of her first run-in, Coleman traveled four different times — and three of those times her hair was searched. "The second time I was subjected to the search, I was more prepared," she explains. "I stopped the agent before she grabbed my hair, and asked what the policy was for hair searches. She said that they searched if the person was wearing extensions." When Coleman explained that she wasn't wearing extensions, the agent backtracked and said that they searched if there were extensions or "abnormalities." 
Photographed by Lani Trock.
Coleman allowed the agent to search her hair, but continued to press until the agent called over her supervisor — who gave her a completely different excuse. At this point, Coleman realized that there was no specific reason for the search. "It's intrusive to have some stranger search your hair, especially when the reasons they were giving me were not tailored to test for airport security," she says.  One of the craziest parts of this entire situation is that a good portion of society is blithely unaware that this even goes down. Before hearing Coleman's story, I'd never heard of or seen an instance in which an African-American woman's hair was searched by airport security. Once I found out about this, I couldn't get over how ridiculous the entire thing was. And, calling natural hair an "abnormality" is beyond offensive. After her own complaint floundered, Coleman's fight against the TSA was reinvigorated when she was contacted by Malaika Singleton, a woman who had received similar treatment at LAX. Working for Singleton, Coleman and the ACLU reached an agreement with the TSA, and the administration will begin anti-discrimination training in Los Angeles with a special emphasis on the Black female traveler. In a statement to BuzzFeed News, the TSA said it had "reached an informal agreement with the ACLU to enhance officer training. Racial profiling is not tolerated by the TSA. Not only is racial profiling prohibited under [Department of Homeland Security] and agency policy, but it is also an ineffective security tactic." [Ed note: Duh.] Coleman will attend the training sessions and provide feedback. "What I'm going to be looking for are the guidelines that they're providing their agents," she says. "I'm looking for clear and objective guidelines. They need to be giving clear instruction and training, because even though there may not be an overt racial bias, there could be implied racial bias." Once the ACLU and TSA find a program that appeases both parties, the training will spread to other airports in the country.
Coleman is very optimistic. "I'm hopeful that the TSA will work with us, and collaborate with us to enable their agents to treat all of their customers with dignity and respect," she says. At the end of the day, that's what everyone deserves. 

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