I’m not a first-timer when it comes to getting my hair checked by the TSA. At this point, I’ve got it down to a science: If I wear braids in a bun, which is the most travel-friendly style, because otherwise they can reach down to the end of my back, I know someone is going to put their fingers through my hair. If I wear faux locs or any kind of extensions that give my hair volume, all I have to do is look at the X-ray screen and see a sizable yellow rectangle over the size of my head and know that a Black TSA officer will soon emerge out of nowhere and begin to course through my hair. I’ve made Facebook statuses about this inconvenience, and white female friends will tell me they have their hair in buns all the time and never get checked, mentioning this not to discredit my experience but to highlight the inequality.
What gets me is that this extra inspection is not universal across U.S. airports. I may not get hair-checked at JFK, but I might at LAX. Philadelphia Airport might check me, but not Phoenix.
But by far the most revolting experience happened in Louisiana.
I was on way back to New York after a research trip spanning the Acadiana region, and I had to go through Lafayette Airport. As the white female TSA officer was putting her fingers through my hair, she asked me if I knew the kind of damage that braids do to your hair. She said one woman had hair loss because of it.
I’ve been traveling since I was a baby, and I’ve gotten used to the ways in which my body is surveilled both in and out of the airport.
First, I was not wearing braids. I had Marley twists, which use two strands (not three) of hair to complete each twist, hence the name. Second, I know the potential damage any kind of style that pulls at the root can do to the hair. But I’ve been wearing variations of these styles for the majority of my life, and my hair has gotten fuller and longer, not shorter and more frail.
The conversation aggravated me, but given that I did not want to cause a scene in a small airport, I just said, “Oh,” and quickly gathered my bags. A Black man saw what was happening and said, “I don’t like how she kept you longer than she should have.” I immediately vented. Not only did I feel like boundaries were crossed, I told him, but I also felt her admonition incinerated any potential of me being polite. It felt like this woman assumed she knew my body better than I did — or worse, that I was not equipped to protect my own body and she was just passing along information that might be useful for me and my well-being.