A TSA Agent Inspected My Afro

I've got my airport security routine down to a science. But on my last flight out of Chicago the female TSA agent gave me a somewhat apologetic look, reached for a pair of blue plastic gloves and said she'd have to "examine" my hair.

Oct 20, 2011 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

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I’ve got a flight to Los Angeles booked on Friday, and I’m not so quietly freaking out about it.

Normally I wouldn’t be nervous. Normally I wouldn’t think twice. I’m something of a frequent flyer and I’m used to the regular routine of airports. I’ve even got one of my own.

I type up an itemized list, print it out and pack my purse and suitcase carefully the night before. The next day, I don’t wear crazy jewelry or difficult-to-remove shoes. I always check in the day ahead and get to the airport early to hand over luggage (as a beauty blogger I need over 3 oz. of cosmetics).

Then I whiz through security. I get into the expert line and everything. I remove my shoes, jacket and my laptop from my bag. I retrieve all my stuff on the safe side of X-ray machine and chill at the gate before boarding. I’ve got it down to a science. Or so I thought.

On my last trip out of Chicago’s Midway, something different happened. I was all ready for security. Took out my laptop, took off my shoes. Went through the metal detectors with nary a beep. But then before waving me through, the female TSA agent gave me a somewhat apologetic look and reached for a pair of blue plastic gloves.

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Because of what I’d been reading in the news and on natural hair blogs, I already kinda knew what was about to go down.

“I need to examine your hair, ma’am.”

It’s the kind of thing you don’t think will happen to you, until it does. Now you’re standing there while other soon-to-be-passengers are staring at you (because everyone stares when someone is getting an unusual pat down).

The examination itself took maybe a minute, minute and a half tops. But it felt like five.

While wearing the aforementioned blue plastic gloves, the officer touched, patted and slightly parted my hair. She was slightly shorter than me, so I crouched a bit while she peered at it closely.

I wanted to ask questions, to say, "Hey, if I didn’t set off the metal detector then why do we need to do this?" I wanted to make some kind of joke to deflect how embarrassing the whole thing felt in general. But Lord knows airport security is no place for jokes.

So I just stood there and endured it all. When she was finished, the TSA agent gave me the all clear. She may have even said, “All clear!” I don't know. I just remember wanting to get my shoes, my laptop, my dignity and a big chai latte from Starbucks (not necessarily in that order) and thinking to myself, “I can’t wait to tweet about this.” 

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I laughed at the situation right away. I could tell the TSA lady didn’t want to feel up my hair any more than I wanted her to. The whole thing had a taste of let’s-get-this-indignity-over-with-shall-we about it. The fact that I blog about natural hair (among other things) for a living made it all feel wry and ironic. Maybe I could just laugh it away. La la la. But the outraged Twitter responses I got started to resonate.

Similar stories from other women who don’t write about it, they just wear their natural hair with pride, stuck in my craw. 

On the flight to New York I sat next to a blonde, white woman with a big, fluffy, fabulous cropped head of curls. She told me she was going to see her father who was in the hospital so I didn’t want to go on and on about what had just happened to me in light of what she was going through. But she did admit that her curly hair wasn’t examined, and that she thought it was weird that the TSA singled me out, seeing as we had almost equally voluminous hair.

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Since my run in with the TSA, I’ve read quite a few articles and watched several news clips of fellow natural-haired women who have experienced the effects of this apparent new policy.  Renowned Dallas hairstylist Isis Brantley, whose client list includes Erykah Badu and established the Natural Hair Parade there recently suffered a similar indignity at the Atlanta airport, in September.

A recent funny-but-not-funny CNN article warned that natural hair and snow globes are now liable to search at airports. Usually stories about airport security hair checks take a humorous tone: LOL the TSA strikes again, what will those crazy kids do next? Most articles end with a similar conclusion. As humiliated as you may feel when the pat down is happening, we’re all better safe than sorry.

And I get it. I get that things won’t ever be the same when it comes to air travel. I get that the Transportation Security Administration is here to keep us safe from terrorist attacks. In a world where explosives have been smuggled on flights using shoes and underwear, it makes sense that airport security would want to do the most thorough checks possible. I appreciate their efforts. But to be really real with you, the more I contemplate what happened to me and my hair at the airport and what’s happening to other women and men like me, the less cool I feel about it.

On Friday afternoon, I head back to Midway en route to Los Angeles and I’m concerned. Will my ‘fro freak out the TSA again? Have I been added to some kind of natural hair watch list? Should I just expect the blue rubber glove treatment every time I go on a trip from here on out?

So many questions! I guess the best I can do is get to the airport early, hope for hair shrinkage and try my best not to make any jokes when I go through security.

What say you, xoJane-sters? Should I just get used to getting my head felt up and my hair patted down or is this new TSA practice just not OK?