Saturday, March 31, 2012
I debated about writing this post. The topic has been covered many times by my travel blogging peeps, most eloquently by Fly Brother and Lola at Geotraveler's Niche .It's an issue that always comes with being a person of color in a society filled with stereotypes and narrow expectations. But two days ago, I was moved to speak out about this reality because I was stopped and searched by TSA along with my daughter. Were we smuggling explosives in our socks or trying to sneak bottles of mercury? Hardly. We were apparently guilty of something much more sinister. We dared to walk through airport security with long hair.
Now I must explain that we are of African descent so our long hair is very curly and sectioned into pieces often called dreadlocks but we prefer to just call them locs. I'm well aware of the negative connotations associated with wearing your hair this way. Lots of ill-informed people think that wearing locs is a sign that you are involved with drugs. But this ignorant stereotype has nothing to do with the truth that millions of black people wear their hair in these naturally formed curls as a source of cultural pride. So I don't acknowledge any of the stupidity and have generally only experienced positive reactions to my hair. In all my years of traveling in and out of airports all over the world, I have never been stopped and questioned about my hair until this year. I had an inkling that things were getting ugly when I heard about the iconic Dallas hair stylist Isis Brantley being stopped and searched by TSA because of her afro. Maybe the Atlanta TSA watched too many Pam Grier movies but they actually rooted through her hair for weapons. Of course, she felt humiliated and filed a discrimination complaint. Why was her natural hair a target and not any other kind of hair? You can hide things in any head of thick, long hair but a body scan will surely detect that. Other accounts of African American woman being searched by TSA because of their "poofy" hair started to pop up. Women with afros, afro puffs and just curly hair, were being targeted more and more.
Months later, I was politely stopped in Charlotte and a TSA agent asked to pat my hair. As if I could be hiding something in it after going through a full body scan. She patted my hair a few times and I left but I questioned the criteria used for checking someone's hair. There were lots of other women in line with long, thick hair who were not stopped. There were even women with hats, which are supposed to be prohibited. They weren't stopped but I was. According to TSA's website, pat downs are typically triggered by metal detectors and "the vast majority of passengers will not receive a pat down at the checkpoint." I did not set off any metal detectors and clearly, I am not a part of the majority. I had no doubt that racial stereotypes played into this situation but I refused to dwell on it.
Until they stopped my daughter. The agent, who was an older black woman, looked apologetic as she patted down my child's head. This did not stop the look of panic on my daughters face. Why did they search our hair? Why didn't they do that to anybody else? She asked. I didn't say that it was because we were black and we had natural hair, which is deemed questionable by many in this society. I didn't say that if we wore weaves or a wig or straight, processed hair or anything other than how our hair grew naturally out of our scalps, that we would not have been stopped. I didn't have to. We were the only African Americans in line. We were the only ones pulled aside for a pat down. We live in Chicago. She knows. Racism is part of the fabric of the city and there is no way for me to shield her from it. But she wanted me to make some sense of the situation and I couldn't. Had they stopped the woman with cascades of flaxen hair skimming her waist, had they searched the woman with a complicated updo that could have harbored a small bomb, then I could have said to my daughter, "they are just checking everybody to make sure that we'll all be safe." But they weren't checking everybody and we're not safe, especially from the vicious grip of racism and discrimination.
So I filed a civil liberties complaint with TSA. Not because I think it will change the way that people of color are singled out and stereotyped in this society but because I believe that awareness and accountability is the only way we can move forward. In the wake of Trayvon Martin and the outcry over The Hunger Games movie characters being black, there is too much denial going on. This is a racist society founded upon violent and racist actions that ripped land from one people of color and forced another to work it for free. The pain, anger and fear of these facts are still very present today. But that doesn't mean that it has to remain that way.