Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Travails of Flying While Black



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.




14 comments:

A Cuban In London said...

I'm ever so sorry for your ordeal. But more than sorry, I'm angry. Angry at the stereotypes that we still have in our society. Angry that these stereotypes at best make airport staff stop you and your daughter, and at worst cause the life of a young black man on account of him wearing a hoodie.

Sorry for the rant, but you were mistreated, simple as that. And you writing about it was courageous because after this is a medium that is as cold and impersonal as it gets. So, any deviation from online social etiquette and you might be labelled "black angry woman". Well, what do people expect? To keep your gob shut?

I loved your post even if the reasons for you to write should be a thing of the past. Give my regards to your little one. That must have been a scare.

Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Fly Girl said...

Cubano, thanks so much for your support. You know exactly why this is upsetting and I hope that enough awareness will shame TSA into stopping this practice.

Ekua said...

Ugh. As a black woman with natural hair, you already face enough cultural BS for wearing your hair the way it grows naturally, but to hear more and more stories about people being singled out while traveling because of it has me even more frustrated. The only thing good I see about this is that the racism is explicit. In this day and age, it's not often overt which makes it harder to tackle. When it is, you can call it out. Good luck with your civil liberties complaint and thanks for taking a stand.

Fly Girl said...

Ekua, the racism is explicit to us but many would still deny it. I'm hoping that calling it out directly will make people curb this. We'll see.

Amanda said...

I'm at a loss for words but wanted to thank you for sharing this post. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been to be unable to protect your daughter from that nightmare, but I think that filing that complaint sets an excellent example for her... to show that your treatment was unacceptable and you won't stand for it. Blessings to you and your family.

Fly Girl said...

Amanda, thanks so much. I think that it is an example to my daughter that you don't just complain but you have to take action.

Heather Dugan Creative (Footsteps Travel) said...

Horrible. I have no real context for your experience, Rosalind. I'm your typical caucasian American, but I know how I'd feel if any of my children were treated this way. So many things aren't "fair", but this goes beyond that. I am sure the TSA agent was doing her job as she was trained to do it, but I shudder to think how this stereotype might have been presented in training. And I share your concern about the message this sends to your daughter.

I am a fan of natural beauty. Women should not have to conform in compromising ways. Our authentic selves are more than enough. I am glad your daughter has a mother like you. Your commitment to something "better" will impact her like nothing else, and I absolutely share that commitment.

Fly Girl said...

Heather, thanks for the support. I really don't think the TSA has any uniform training with this kind of discrimination, I think it varies from airport to airport, from agent to agent, which is why this has only happened once. We both travel frequently and I refuse to let it stop us but it is very upsetting.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

A good post. The real guilty ones are those that deliberately do not look like a 'typical drug carrier'

Fly Girl said...

Jean-Luc, what does a typical drug carrier look like?

Rachel Cotterill said...

That's awful :( I had no idea that anyone could get away with that kind of blatant racism in this day and age. I hope they respond to your complaint.

Fly Girl said...

Rachel, unfortunately, that's the reality of the U.S.

Andrew Graeme Gould said...

I'm so sorry to hear that your and your daughter were subjected to this arbitrary treatment, Rosalind, but I am glad to know that you are taking action by filing that complaint. Some good may come out of this yet...

Fly Girl said...

Andrew, I'm still waiting for a response but I'm hopeful.