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Keep It Under Your Hat: The Perceived Threat of Black Hair

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TSA airport security | Photo: dkwonsh/Flickr/Creative Commons

Just when you think racial profiling can't get any more surreal in this country, it does. Recently, after years of traveler complaints and pressure from the ACLU, The Transportation Security Administration agreed to stop targeting "unusual" hairstyles like afros, dreads, and full-out curls for pat-downs in security lines. In other words, it'll stop profiling black hair.

At least we're on the winning end of surreal this time -- authorities have actually agreed to a reform, and nobody had to die under highly questionable circumstances to make it happen. Black women just got fed up. One of those women, neuroscientist Malaika Singleton, had an offending experience right here at LAX, which led to her team up with the ACLU; it didn't hurt that that the Northern California ACLU attorney who took the case is herself a black woman with dreadlocks who'd experienced the humiliation of her hair being searched. I've never had my hair searched, but I -- and I think every woman -- can imagine the sense of violation of law enforcement pulling you aside in public and rummaging through your hair like a suitcase. Hair is intimate, something that requires a certain kind of permission to be touched. Randomly searching it taps into a bad historical memory of black women at a slave auction, potential buyers checking their mouths, heads, and body cavities for disease and lice as if they were cattle or horses (which, practically speaking, they were). It's possible that the TSA also improperly searched non-black women with voluminous hair, like Jewish women with major curl, or Texas matrons with neo-'80s bouffants. If that's been the case, I haven't heard anything about it. It's clear that the brunt of the profiling has been borne by black women.

As I said, I haven't been hair-profiled, not by the TSA. I'm black but my hair isn't what you'd call "black" -- it's curly, but not curly enough to be kinky, which means that in its natural state it lies down more than it stands up. Unless I do something drastic to it, I can't wear an afro or dreads or twists. I can braid it, but it isn't going to arouse anybody's suspicion. The question of suspicion is what fascinates me here -- I get that black people are generally viewed as suspicious, but why single out their hair? Why assume that hair suggests to authorities potential for criminal behavior, subversion, even terrorism?

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It's both curious, and not. I always saw black women who wear their hair natural as confident, politically savvy, enlightened. Women that I aspire to be. The rest of the world likely sees a radical, i.e. a black person bucking conformity, which since slave times has been seen as a potential threat. Bucking conformity means that you aren't satisfied with the status quo. Challenging the status quo is a classic American tradition, unless you're black, in which case you're not a normal dissenter, but a potential criminal. And criminality starts on the outside, with how you look. Over time that look has changed, but it's always something: earrings, tattoos, hoodies, sagging pants, Angela Davis-style afros, and other styles associated with the motherland. I naively thought these styles had become sort of mainstream in the 21st century -- look at Oprah, Tracee Ellis-Ross, and her mother Diana Ross. Of course, celebrities occupy a different planet. Nobody would dare profile Oprah's hair, unless of course they didn't know it was Oprah. Then I suppose it would be all right. I wonder what people would say if Michelle Obama ever decided to relinquish her super-straightened hair and go natural. I can hear the applause on one side, and the heightened alarm on the other, already.

Racially offensive as hair searching is, I hate the idea mostly for reasons of vanity. Any woman who wears any degree of curl knows that once somebody touches those curls, roughs them up or pulls them apart, your whole look is ruined (Pam Grier, who played the iconic "Foxy Brown" in the '70s, said that her giant afro could withstand anything--except a stiff wind). You have to start all over, rearrange. You can't just brush your hair and go. The closest I came to feeling like my hair had been disrespected and my humanity -- well, my vanity -- denied was when some TSA officials in a Vegas airport confiscated some hair products that broke the three-ounce liquid rule for carry-on luggage. I almost flew into a panic. Do you know what my hair looks like without that stuff? I wanted to shout at them, several of whom were black women. Plus it was expensive.

I kept my cool, barely. I didn't want to be seen as too black. There are lots more things than hair that give that away.

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