My Hair: Threat to National Security

October 18, 2012
By

By Ashanté Reese

The first time a TSA agent probed my hair I was flying from Atlanta to Washington, D.C. sometime in November 2011. My sister-friend-stylist Shana had hooked me up with a fresh “do” and I was heading back to my regular life in D.C. I stepped through the body scanner, and an agent stopped me and said something like, “I’m going to pat down your hair, ok?”  I sort of looked at her, because I thought I had either misunderstood or I was completely unaware of a new process. The agent—a black woman—poked my hair and sent me off with a “have a good day.” I was dumbfounded.  First, I didn’t understand why my hair needed to be probed, particularly after I had just gone through the “I can see everything on, in, and through you” scanner, and second, I wondered how this sista felt while she was patting my hair down, knowing that we just don’t do that!

My second pat down occurred when my hair was in twists.  To say that I was visibly annoyed is an understatement. “Why do you need to pat down my hair? There is nothing for me to hide in these twists,” I stated. No response.  I became angry. I felt like one of those kids at school who has to be probed for lice because someone in her class has it—the only difference is I was the only person being patted down!  Clearly, there was something threatening about my mane.

My third pat down was in the Austin airport in September 2012. My hair was in a curly twist out. I stepped in and through the crazy body scanner as I have been socialized to do, and when I stepped out, the agent said, “I’m going to pat your hair down now.” I wasn’t asked. I wasn’t given an alternative. I was told this was the next thing that had to happen in order for me to get on the plane. I complied, but I was beyond disturbed.

In between these incidences, I began to pay attention to these probing processes, and every time I’ve seen it, it has been performed on a woman of color. Actually, every time I’ve seen it, it has been performed on a black woman with hair of the curly/kinky variety or with braids or locs. After the last incident, I posted a status on my facebook page asking others about their experiences. Within two hours, I received responses from sixteen women: 15 self-identified black women and 1 whose self-identified racial identity I do no know. 13 of those black women wear their hair in some type of natural style. Of the sixteen women who responded, eleven of them have had their hair patted down.

In a nation in which there have been constant negotiations and tensions about who is defining and controlling the black female body, I read this as another example of the ways in which our personal space, our physical bodies (and personal style!) are disregarded and disrespected. Two of the women discussed the ways in which they planned out their hairstyles to fly in order to avoid the pat down. Is it not enough that we are placed under TSA 360 degrees surveillance or that we are physically tampered with every time we attempt to board a plane? Am I to believe that I also need to strategize how I manipulate my hair in order to avoid being encroached on (which, by the way, in my experience, has not mattered…I’ve had three different styles, and three separate pat downs)?

I write this because I am disturbed.  What type of push back is appropriate and/or necessary to avoid this sort of discrimination in the future?  U.S. airport security measures seemingly disproportionately devalue black women’s bodies, and our crowns of glory.  Something should and must be done about this.  For those reading this and thinking, “well it’s just hair,” “they’re not harming me,” “we have no alternative,” or “I’d rather this than get blown up a plane,” I just want you to consider this: it is never just about hair and it is never just about security.  Racial, ethnic, sexual, etc., profiling happens for a reason.  It is not innocuous. If it was, the people who responded to my facebook status would not have been overwhelmingly black women. And, if it was “just hair, ” I wouldn’t be disturbed.

____________________________________

Ashanté Reese is a fourth year doctoral student in anthropology at American University in Washington, D.C. Her dissertation research explores the intersections of race, food consumption, and health by  examining the diversity in African Americans’  diets and their subjective notions of what it means to be healthy.

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20 Responses to My Hair: Threat to National Security

  1. Linda Rosenblatt on October 18, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    I’ve had my hair patdown too – and had a very similar confused reaction as I had also just stepped through the already intrusive body scanner. The security woman with straight hair then made a joke at my expense, something I have forgotten since but definitely a jab at my hair. I wear it natural and I have curly hair – since when did hair become an issue of security?

  2. Linda Rosenblatt on October 18, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    I’ve had my hair patdown too – and had a very similar confused reaction as I had also just stepped through the already intrusive body scanner. The security woman with straight hair then made a joke at my expense, something I have forgotten since but definitely a jab at my hair. I wear it natural and I have curly hair – since when did hair become an issue of security?

  3. Linda Rosenblatt on October 18, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    I’ve had my hair patdown too – and had a very similar confused reaction as I had also just stepped through the already intrusive body scanner. The security woman with straight hair then made a joke at my expense, something I have forgotten since but definitely a jab at my hair. I wear it natural and I have curly hair – since when did hair become an issue of security?

  4. Linda Rosenblatt on October 18, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    I’ve had my hair patdown too – and had a very similar confused reaction as I had also just stepped through the already intrusive body scanner. The security woman with straight hair then made a joke at my expense, something I have forgotten since but definitely a jab at my hair. I wear it natural and I have curly hair – since when did hair become an issue of security?

  5. Bill Fisher on October 18, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    many of us are fighting back through organizations like Freedom to Travel USA and via websites like travelunderground and TSA News Blog.

    The biggest problem with TSA is stupid rules formulated by abusive bureaucrats and performed by inept and often criminal workers who have no regard for passengers. TSA is a bloated organization that is more about circus than real security. They repeatedly lie to both Congress and the public and have lost credibility with everyone.

    After two years and they still refuse to tell passengers that they have a right to opt out of the scanners. Instead they harass and grope anyone who refuses the scanners for medical or privacy reasons. This isn’t a training issue; it is deliberate institutional policy to force compliance with dangerous and untested scanners.

    Does anyone really feel safer having people who will rub stranger’s genitals in public and pick through their hair for $15 an hour in charge of security?

    In 2008 no one would have believed that people would allow a stranger to view a naked image of their child or permit the equivalent of a mall cop to rub their child’s privates in the middle of an airport. There were no hijackings between 2002 and 2009 without these punitive measures and they aren’t necessary now.

    Their spokesmen always repeat that the “TSA screener acted appropriately” and ridicule those who report mistreatment, even when screeners strip search grandmothers in a back room.

    TSA cannot be salvaged, it must be replaced. There is far too much public animosity and history of abuses, failures and crimes to ever make this agency anywhere near respectable.

  6. Bill Fisher on October 18, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    many of us are fighting back through organizations like Freedom to Travel USA and via websites like travelunderground and TSA News Blog.

    The biggest problem with TSA is stupid rules formulated by abusive bureaucrats and performed by inept and often criminal workers who have no regard for passengers. TSA is a bloated organization that is more about circus than real security. They repeatedly lie to both Congress and the public and have lost credibility with everyone.

    After two years and they still refuse to tell passengers that they have a right to opt out of the scanners. Instead they harass and grope anyone who refuses the scanners for medical or privacy reasons. This isn’t a training issue; it is deliberate institutional policy to force compliance with dangerous and untested scanners.

    Does anyone really feel safer having people who will rub stranger’s genitals in public and pick through their hair for $15 an hour in charge of security?

    In 2008 no one would have believed that people would allow a stranger to view a naked image of their child or permit the equivalent of a mall cop to rub their child’s privates in the middle of an airport. There were no hijackings between 2002 and 2009 without these punitive measures and they aren’t necessary now.

    Their spokesmen always repeat that the “TSA screener acted appropriately” and ridicule those who report mistreatment, even when screeners strip search grandmothers in a back room.

    TSA cannot be salvaged, it must be replaced. There is far too much public animosity and history of abuses, failures and crimes to ever make this agency anywhere near respectable.

  7. Bill Fisher on October 18, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    many of us are fighting back through organizations like Freedom to Travel USA and via websites like travelunderground and TSA News Blog.

    The biggest problem with TSA is stupid rules formulated by abusive bureaucrats and performed by inept and often criminal workers who have no regard for passengers. TSA is a bloated organization that is more about circus than real security. They repeatedly lie to both Congress and the public and have lost credibility with everyone.

    After two years and they still refuse to tell passengers that they have a right to opt out of the scanners. Instead they harass and grope anyone who refuses the scanners for medical or privacy reasons. This isn’t a training issue; it is deliberate institutional policy to force compliance with dangerous and untested scanners.

    Does anyone really feel safer having people who will rub stranger’s genitals in public and pick through their hair for $15 an hour in charge of security?

    In 2008 no one would have believed that people would allow a stranger to view a naked image of their child or permit the equivalent of a mall cop to rub their child’s privates in the middle of an airport. There were no hijackings between 2002 and 2009 without these punitive measures and they aren’t necessary now.

    Their spokesmen always repeat that the “TSA screener acted appropriately” and ridicule those who report mistreatment, even when screeners strip search grandmothers in a back room.

    TSA cannot be salvaged, it must be replaced. There is far too much public animosity and history of abuses, failures and crimes to ever make this agency anywhere near respectable.

  8. Bill Fisher on October 18, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    many of us are fighting back through organizations like Freedom to Travel USA and via websites like travelunderground and TSA News Blog.

    The biggest problem with TSA is stupid rules formulated by abusive bureaucrats and performed by inept and often criminal workers who have no regard for passengers. TSA is a bloated organization that is more about circus than real security. They repeatedly lie to both Congress and the public and have lost credibility with everyone.

    After two years and they still refuse to tell passengers that they have a right to opt out of the scanners. Instead they harass and grope anyone who refuses the scanners for medical or privacy reasons. This isn’t a training issue; it is deliberate institutional policy to force compliance with dangerous and untested scanners.

    Does anyone really feel safer having people who will rub stranger’s genitals in public and pick through their hair for $15 an hour in charge of security?

    In 2008 no one would have believed that people would allow a stranger to view a naked image of their child or permit the equivalent of a mall cop to rub their child’s privates in the middle of an airport. There were no hijackings between 2002 and 2009 without these punitive measures and they aren’t necessary now.

    Their spokesmen always repeat that the “TSA screener acted appropriately” and ridicule those who report mistreatment, even when screeners strip search grandmothers in a back room.

    TSA cannot be salvaged, it must be replaced. There is far too much public animosity and history of abuses, failures and crimes to ever make this agency anywhere near respectable.

  9. Kelly Macias on October 18, 2012 at 10:56 pm

    As a frequent traveler overseas (5-6 times a year) and domestically (at least 3 times a year), I am also a victim of the “naptural pat down.” Interestingly, it seems as if its only when my hair is pulled into a kinky ponytail… it never happens when my hair is flat ironed straight or in a bun. And it only seems to happen in the US- never overseas! Honestly, I’ve never felt like I had the power to say anything until now but certainly acknowledge that this is about more than hair and more than security. As I read what you wrote about devaluing us, I found myself shouting out “Amen” because this, as we know, is persistent and pervasive in our culture and around the world. Black women are constantly devalued, objectified and exoticised and the hair is the tip of the iceberg. FYI- Before I went natural three years ago, I was never subject to a hair pat down!

  10. Kelly Macias on October 18, 2012 at 10:56 pm

    As a frequent traveler overseas (5-6 times a year) and domestically (at least 3 times a year), I am also a victim of the “naptural pat down.” Interestingly, it seems as if its only when my hair is pulled into a kinky ponytail… it never happens when my hair is flat ironed straight or in a bun. And it only seems to happen in the US- never overseas! Honestly, I’ve never felt like I had the power to say anything until now but certainly acknowledge that this is about more than hair and more than security. As I read what you wrote about devaluing us, I found myself shouting out “Amen” because this, as we know, is persistent and pervasive in our culture and around the world. Black women are constantly devalued, objectified and exoticised and the hair is the tip of the iceberg. FYI- Before I went natural three years ago, I was never subject to a hair pat down!

  11. Kelly Macias on October 18, 2012 at 10:56 pm

    As a frequent traveler overseas (5-6 times a year) and domestically (at least 3 times a year), I am also a victim of the “naptural pat down.” Interestingly, it seems as if its only when my hair is pulled into a kinky ponytail… it never happens when my hair is flat ironed straight or in a bun. And it only seems to happen in the US- never overseas! Honestly, I’ve never felt like I had the power to say anything until now but certainly acknowledge that this is about more than hair and more than security. As I read what you wrote about devaluing us, I found myself shouting out “Amen” because this, as we know, is persistent and pervasive in our culture and around the world. Black women are constantly devalued, objectified and exoticised and the hair is the tip of the iceberg. FYI- Before I went natural three years ago, I was never subject to a hair pat down!

  12. Kelly Macias on October 18, 2012 at 10:56 pm

    As a frequent traveler overseas (5-6 times a year) and domestically (at least 3 times a year), I am also a victim of the “naptural pat down.” Interestingly, it seems as if its only when my hair is pulled into a kinky ponytail… it never happens when my hair is flat ironed straight or in a bun. And it only seems to happen in the US- never overseas! Honestly, I’ve never felt like I had the power to say anything until now but certainly acknowledge that this is about more than hair and more than security. As I read what you wrote about devaluing us, I found myself shouting out “Amen” because this, as we know, is persistent and pervasive in our culture and around the world. Black women are constantly devalued, objectified and exoticised and the hair is the tip of the iceberg. FYI- Before I went natural three years ago, I was never subject to a hair pat down!

  13. plumpdn on October 20, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    They pat down big hair. My TWA was never subject to pat down. I live in Latin America and they know not to touch your hair. But on the return home from the US, the women with big curly hair get patted…white, black, whatever. i also have recetly had my twists patted…and as I have a kidney txplt, I have also had my groin patten by someone I clearly told that I had a transplant. This must be a TSA policy.

  14. plumpdn on October 20, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    They pat down big hair. My TWA was never subject to pat down. I live in Latin America and they know not to touch your hair. But on the return home from the US, the women with big curly hair get patted…white, black, whatever. i also have recetly had my twists patted…and as I have a kidney txplt, I have also had my groin patten by someone I clearly told that I had a transplant. This must be a TSA policy.

  15. plumpdn on October 20, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    They pat down big hair. My TWA was never subject to pat down. I live in Latin America and they know not to touch your hair. But on the return home from the US, the women with big curly hair get patted…white, black, whatever. i also have recetly had my twists patted…and as I have a kidney txplt, I have also had my groin patten by someone I clearly told that I had a transplant. This must be a TSA policy.

  16. plumpdn on October 20, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    They pat down big hair. My TWA was never subject to pat down. I live in Latin America and they know not to touch your hair. But on the return home from the US, the women with big curly hair get patted…white, black, whatever. i also have recetly had my twists patted…and as I have a kidney txplt, I have also had my groin patten by someone I clearly told that I had a transplant. This must be a TSA policy.

  17. Erin on October 20, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    While I have no desire to diminish what is clearly a disturbing experience, I will mention that I have my hair patted down by TSA at the scanners anytime it’s in a ponytail or bun. I’m a white woman and I travel frequently, so this has happened many a time. It still irks me every time it happens.

  18. Erin on October 20, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    While I have no desire to diminish what is clearly a disturbing experience, I will mention that I have my hair patted down by TSA at the scanners anytime it’s in a ponytail or bun. I’m a white woman and I travel frequently, so this has happened many a time. It still irks me every time it happens.

  19. Erin on October 20, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    While I have no desire to diminish what is clearly a disturbing experience, I will mention that I have my hair patted down by TSA at the scanners anytime it’s in a ponytail or bun. I’m a white woman and I travel frequently, so this has happened many a time. It still irks me every time it happens.

  20. Erin on October 20, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    While I have no desire to diminish what is clearly a disturbing experience, I will mention that I have my hair patted down by TSA at the scanners anytime it’s in a ponytail or bun. I’m a white woman and I travel frequently, so this has happened many a time. It still irks me every time it happens.

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