Body Scanners at Airports Single Out Black Women for Hairstyles: Report

It’s 2019, yet Black women who choose to wear natural hairstyles face an additional layer of discrimination at airports.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) uses $150,000 “active millimeter wave radio technology” body-scanning machines from L3 Technologies, which has no Black women on its executive leadership team. Apparently, the technology is prone to false alarms for hairstyles popular among Black women, such as locs and braids.   

According to a ProPublica report, TSA agents who were interviewed said it’s a flaw in the scanning technology that causes them to have to do hair pat-downs.  

“With Black females, the scanner alarms more because they have thicker hair; many times they have braids or dreadlocks,” a TSA officer, who works at an airport in Texas and asked not to be named, told ProPublica. “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.”   

So a fundamental flaw in a machine designed to keep passengers safe is causing Black women to be singled out for hair pat-downs? A spokesperson for L3 Technologies has declined to address the report. 

TSA asked vendors last summer for ideas “to improve screening of headwear and hair in compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.”    

The law states that it “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.”   

TSA is a federally-funded agency. For years women have placed complaints about their experience while traveling.   

Discriminatory Hair Search Complaints   

When Malaika Singleton, Ph.D., a neuroscientist employed by the California State Senate at the time, began a 2013 trip to London as a U.S. delegate to the G8 Dementia Summit, little did she know her locs would be an issue.   

TSA agents at both the Los Angeles International Airport and the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport grabbed and squeezed her natural hair from top to bottom. She contacted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California. In 2014 the ACLU filed an administrative complaint on her behalf to challenge TSA’s discriminatory hair searches.  

Ironically, in 2012, a similar complaint was also filed on behalf of Novella Coleman, a Black woman and staff attorney with the nonprofit organization; she represented Singleton.   

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced March 26, 2015, that an agreement was reached with the TSA. The agency agreed to conduct training for TSA agents throughout the country, with special emphasis on hair pat-downs of Black female travelers.    

TSA said it would monitor all the airports “for consistent implementation of TSA and DHS policies and to detect the existence of a racially discriminatory impact.”   

Four years later, little has changed.    

‘Am I being profiled for my race?’   

Dorian Wanzer received a hair pat-down recently when traveling from North Carolina, and said she felt singled out.    

“When you find yourself in that kind of situation, it makes you wonder,” Wanzer told ProPublica. “Is this for security, or am I being profiled for my race?”   

“It happens with my natural Afro when I have braids or two-strand twists.” said the Washington, D.C. resident. “At this point in my life I have come to expect it, but that doesn’t make it any less invasive and frustrating.”   

In a section on hair pat-downs on the TSA website, the agency responds to a tweet that states:   

“Is it still a custom of yours to pat and check Black women’s hair after they have been screened?”   

TSA answered“Yes, it is still TSA procedure to pat-down anyone’s hair when needed, no matter their race or gender. These approved methods may include visual inspection, swabbing for explosives or a pat-down.”   

ProPublica spoke with a senior TSA official who said that hair pat-downs are not discriminatory.    

“I get a hair pat-down every time I travel. I’m a white woman,” said the official. “Procedures require that if there is an alarm on the technology, the pat-down [must] be conducted.”   

However, in 2018, there were 105 complaints of hair pat-downs thought to be racially motivated, which is an increase from 73 complaints in 2017.    

Do you frequently have to undergo hair pat-downs when you travel? Please feel free to share your experience in our comments section. We will be posting a follow-up story.