After reaching an agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), officials at the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) have agreed to stop racially profiling black women with natural hair and subjecting them to extra security screenings.
The agency will also provide conduct trainings for TSA employees emphasizing “race neutrality” and specifically focusing on how to approach black women’s hair during security pat-downs, according to an announcement from the ACLU.
Novella Coleman, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California who has personally experienced this type of profiling, is celebrating the recent agreement. “The humiliating experience of countless black women who are routinely targeted for hair pat-downs because their hair is ‘different’ is not only wrong, but also a great misuse of TSA agents’ time and resources,” she said in a statement.
The resolution follows several complaints from black women who alleged they have been singled out for extra airport screening because of their hair. Coleman first brought the issue to the attention of the Department of Homeland Security in 2012, after she started noticing that her hair was always subjected to extra searches when she traveled with her white and Latina colleagues. Coleman, who wears dreadlocks, says she was told her hair needed to be searched because it had “abnormalities.”
Coleman went on to represent another woman, Malaika Singleton, who experienced the same thing on her own business trips. Singleton says that she felt “shocked” and “violated” when she was stopped twice during a trip to London to have her hair searched.
The ACLU concluded that, since airport officials have been unable to explain why these searches are necessary from a security perspective, they may violate the Constitution — which prohibits the selective enforcement of searches based on race.
Allegations of the TSA’s racial bias against black women who wear natural hair stretch back for years. In 2011, a hairdresser in Dallas said she was “humiliated” after TSA officials demanded to search her afro. In 2012, singer Solange Knowles complained after the TSA searched her afro, tweeting in protest that “My hair is not a storage drawer.”
MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry has also spoken openly about her own experience getting her hair searched in airports. In 2013, she recounted an instance when TSA officials pulled her aside and ran their fingers through her braids. “I was sent on my way feeling a little violated and unclear about why, exactly, that intrusion was necessary,” Harris-Perry wrote at the time. “Because if your $170,000 machine can see under my clothes, but can’t figure out I’m not hiding a bomb in my braids, maybe it’s time to recalibrate the machine.”
Singling out black women for their hair is a microaggression that ultimately speaks to larger cultural assumptions about how “proper” women are supposed to look. Other arms of the U.S. government have also sparked controversy because of their approach to natural hairstyles like afros and sisterlocks. Last year, the Army was accused of racial bias after releasing new grooming guidelines that specifically ban several hairstyles popular among black women who keep their hair natural. African American service members pushed back, saying that the Army was unfairly targeting them.
When it comes to airport security, Coleman told BuzzFeed News she’s optimistic about finding a way forward with the TSA, now that the agency has agreed to hold anti-discrimination trainings for its employees. “I think right now we’re in a hopeful place,” she said.