Is Woman's TSA Hair Pat-Down Discrimination?

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on August 18, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Despite a clean body scanner image, Timery Shante Nance, an African-American woman with natural, unstraightened hair, was subject to a TSA hair pat-down last month while departing from San Antonio International Airport.

Laura Adiele, another young African-American sporting a "normal-looking puff," was also subject to a hair pat-down in June at the Seattle-Tacoma airport.

Again, she did not set off any alarms.

Is the TSA discriminating against black women with natural hair?

This is the question raised by a recent New York Times article detailing the stories of these two women, both of whom were a bit alarmed and embarrassed by the bizarre request to pat down their voluminous hair.

Nance told the Times that she asked the screener about the TSA's policy, and was told that "certain kinds of ponytail[s] or bun[s]" require hair pat-downs.

The TSA, when questioned, reiterated that its policy prohibits screenings conducted on the basis of ethnic or racial bias.

This response is correct in terms of the law, as government employees and agencies are not permitted to base search criteria on race and ethnicity, as it amounts to impermissible racial profiling.

The hair pat-down also seems to be in line with previously announced TSA policy.

If a person cannot remove a hat or head covering prior to being screened, the agency has reserved the right to conduct a head pat-down to determine if the item is obscuring contraband.

However, this isn't to say that these incidents weren't motivated by racial bias.

With TSA agents across the country and a wide spectrum of training techniques, there is always a chance of individual bias seeping into a screener's conduct, leading to uneven application of policies, such as those governing TSA hair pat-downs.

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