Tuesday, August 16, 2011

With Hair Pat-Downs, Complaints of Racial Bias

TIMERY SHANTE NANCE is an African-American woman who has a thing about her hair. “I don’t use chemicals or straighteners,” she said. “It’s just my natural texture, and I wear it in a normal-looking puff.”

Chris Gash

Now she wonders, as some other black women evidently do, whether the Transportation Security Administration also has a thing about their hair. Ms. Nance is the second black woman I’m aware of within a month who says she was racially profiled when a T.S.A. officer insisted on publicly patting down her hair after she had already gone though a full-body scan without setting off any alarm.

Ms. Nance was departing from the airport in San Antonio in late July. After she passed through the body scanner, she said, a female T.S.A. screener told her to stand facing her possessions. “You’re good to go, but first I have to pat your hair,” the officer told her, she said.
“I’m like, pat my hair? O.K., I guess,” Ms. Nance said.
But it wasn’t O.K. Ms. Nance, who had been visiting her husband at the Air Force base where he is stationed, was deeply embarrassed as other passengers stared at her, “as if I’d done something wrong.”

She asked the screener why her hair was searched while others, including white women with ponytails or bushy hair, were simply waved through. “Is it just African-American women with natural hair who get the hair search?” she asked.

The screener said no, “but if you have certain kinds of ponytail or bun, you have to get your hair patted,” said Ms. Nance, who is 30.

Now, as I said, this is the second such recent incident. On June 30, a young African-American woman, Laura Adiele, said that a screener at the Seattle-Tacoma airport insisted on patting down her hair, which was also natural and curly, even though the body scan had not set off an alarm. Ms. Adiele said in various interviews that she thought the search had been racially motivated.

The T.S.A. denies that. “All passengers are thoroughly screened coming through the screening checkpoint,” said Kristin Lee, a spokeswoman. “Additional screening may be required for clothing, headgear or hair where prohibited items may be hidden,” she said.

The agency says it never uses racial or ethnic profiling — and I totally accept that assurance, as a matter of agency policy. But when I spoke to Ms. Nance, she seemed to see also a cultural issue, rather than a strictly racial one.

“More black women are wearing their hair in a natural state,” she said. “It’s becoming more of the norm in business cities, for example. On the other hand, for black women, it’s been 40 or 50 years of needing to relax and straighten your hair, wearing weaves, things like that.”

In other words, black women who choose to maintain their hair naturally can get some cultural pushback — including even from other African-American women who choose otherwise. In fact, Web sites like Nappturality.com, are popular among black women who share a sense of community, and some defensiveness, about wearing natural hair.

Also, it seems that some women of all races are fascinated by natural hairstyles worn by black women and like to touch it. “Sometimes you feel like a circus act when your hair is in its natural state and people always come up to you and say, ‘Can I touch it? Oh, it’s a lot softer than it looks!’ ” Ms. Nance said.

I asked around about this. Some young black women my wife and I know, including college students, readily agree that natural hair is a delicate issue. “Do not touch unless specifically requested!” one said firmly.

We also have a friend, a white woman in her 30s who is a frequent international business traveler. She has a noteworthy mane of bouncy, curly brunette hair tumbling to her shoulders.

“Do they ever ask to pat your hair down?” I asked her.

“Never!” she said.

So, have we now possibly isolated the problem?

The T.S.A. goes to lengths to be culturally and even politically aware. Those with medical needs, for example, can bring on extra liquids and gels. Military personnel in uniform can pass through security without having to remove their shoes.

Increasingly, the T.S.A. talks about a “multilevel” approach to security that adds better intelligence work, behavioral detection and more common sense to the checkpoint procedures, some of which have been derided as unnecessary “security theater.”

Ms. Nance says she filed an online complaint but has not heard back from the agency.
“They never want to take ownership of something if they were wrong,” she said.


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