T.S.A. and the politics of kinky hair

Did they really think I could hide a grenade in there?

The Transportation Security Administration is reexamining its policies after an elderly woman complained she was strip-searched at the airport.

Compared to the experience she and others have described (and the TSA has denied), what happened to me might seem more amusing than anything else. Still, though I expect screeners to rifle through my carry-on, it came as a shock when one raked her fingers through my hair recently.


Now, I’m a black woman who can look in a mirror. I know my curls sprout -- unstraightened, untamed and unruly -- from the top of my head. However, they do not approach Marge Simpson-like heights. And I saw women with teased coifs and men with gelled dos waltz through the same line.

So, yes, I was surprised when – for the first time in many trips through airport security – and quite without warning (I guess that might be considered a tip-off) the TSA employee rummaged around up there. After the shock wore off, as I hurried to my plane, I wanted to run back and ask if everybody gets the same treatment or if the TSA has an Afro exception. If there is and my son ever grows and blows his out, the TSA best have an entire crew on standby.

What did she think I was hiding in there? Was it hair she didn’t understand and had to feel for herself? (Yes, it’s soft.) Was she stroking my head for good luck?

When I spoke with the TSA, a representative told me screening might have shown an “anomaly” (a few hairpins, perhaps) and a screener was checking for potential threats. I looked up the TSA list of “prohibited” list, to glance over the litany of sharp objects, martial arts and self-defense items and tools. Cattle prod? No, that wouldn’t fit. Throwing stars? Perhaps, but wouldn’t I be afraid a point might sink into my skull?

In a follow-up e-mail, the spokesperson explained: “Advanced imaging technology safely screens passengers for both metallic and non-metallic threats to keep the traveling public safe. Anomalies detected during the screening process must be resolved and additional screening may be required for clothing, headwear or hair where prohibited items could be hidden. All passengers are thoroughly screened coming through the screening checkpoint and we in no way profile based on race or religion.”

I can’t imagine the woe of an elderly woman being made to expose a back brace, defibrillator or colostomy bag. That’s more than an inconvenience; it’s an assault on dignity. Still, my rearranged hair style and inadvertent scalp massage were close enough, thank you. It’s the bargain – if you want to call it that -- the country has made in the name of security. Now that everyone is a suspect, you feel safe, right?

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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