Most Black women who have gone through airport security will have at least one story about a time their hair was patted down. It doesn’t matter what you were wearing — twists, an afro, braids, or even a scarf — everything seems to be a cause for a search.
If you’ve ever felt paranoid for thinking Black women were singled out, here’s some validation. A ProPublica report recently found that even if TSA agents say they’re not discriminating against Black women, their machines might be.
The scanners in question are full body scanners made by L3 Technologies. They’re located in just about every major airport.
Last year, ProPublica reported that TSA asked for ideas “to improve screening of headwear and hair in compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.” This is a law prohibiting federally funded agencies and programs from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.
ProPublica received information about the machines being biased from two TSA agents. One TSA officer from a Texas airport told the outlet, “With Black females, the scanner alarms more because they have thicker hair; many times they have braids or dreadlocks. Maybe, down the line, they will be redesigning the technology, so it can tell apart what’s a real threat and what is not. But, for now, we officers have to do what the machine can’t.”
Even if the machines don’t actually go off, TSA agents are still able to pat down people’s hair.
Black women have been raising their concerns around TSA and hair pat downs. In fact, TSA reportedly pledged to stop patting down Black women’s hair in 2015. This was covered by outlets like Essence, Buzzfeed News, and Business Insider.
Despite that, the pat downs continued. In April 2018, Tatiana Walk-Morris shared her own experiences in an article for Cosmopolitan. Walk-Morris noted a complaint filed on the behalf of Malaika Singleton by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in April 2014.
Novella Coleman, Staff Attorney with the ACLU of Northern California said, in a 2015 blog post, “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.”
Many Black women who spoke to ProPublica about their experiences shared that the hair pat downs were “intrusive” and “disrespectful.” It highlights just how machines can be taught to replicate biases, even if it’s unconsciously.
Machines that are unable to read Black hair are anti-Black by design. The failure of machines to read Black people continues to come up again and again. Studies have found that Amazon’s facial recognition technology struggles to read darker-skinned women and self-driving cars may have a similar issue.
The policing of Black hair is nothing new, but it is still disconcerting to see it take on modern expressions.