A new report by ProPublica suggests Black women may be falsely targeted when they enter airport full-body scanners because of their hair.
According to the report, the scanners, which have basically become standard operating procedure at most airports, cannot discern the differences between thick hair and head coverings.
“With black females, the scanner alarms more because they have thicker hair; many times they have braids or dreadlocks,” an unidentified TSA officer told ProPublica. “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.”
The full-body scanners, which are also known as millimeter wave machines, have the ability to detect potentially dangerous, non-metallic, objects; however, the devices are not yet capable of identifying those objects.
Therefore, if a Black person with braids walked through the sensor, it may trigger an alarm because the scanner’s technology could not detect that the questionable object was only hair.
Then TSA agents must come in and perform a pat-down of the person’s hair, which many Black women have found to be extremely invasive and embarrassing.
“It doesn’t feel random when it happens three times in a row. It doesn’t feel random when you see that all the people around you, who don’t look like you, aren’t asked to step aside,” Jazzmen Knoderer, who wears her hair in an afro, told ProPublica. “I don’t want to change the way my hair grows out of my head.”
In a statement to ProPublica, TSA said it was “reviewing additional options for the screening of hair” but they emphasized that screenings are “conducted without regard to a person’s race, color, sex, gender identity, national origin, religion, or disability.”
Although the agency claims the issues with their screening process are not meant to be discriminatory or single people out, Black women and other people of color with religious head coverings can’t help feeling unfairly profiled.
“When that discretion comes into play, unless there is explicit- and implicit-bias training, that can play out in a way that harms people of color, Black people,” Abre’ Conner, a lawyer with the ACLU of Northern California, told ProPublica.
Although a quarter of TSA agents are Black, they are just as likely to conduct a search, said Connor. The only difference is an agent of color “doesn’t necessarily leave my hair as messed up,” she added.
(Photo: Delmaine Donson/Getty Images)
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