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Are Black Women Singled Out by TSA Body Scanners?

black women targets by tsa
When being pulled aside by TSA, you may ask yourself, “Is this random, or am I being singled out”.  According to a recent article by ProPublica, many black women feel they are being singled out by TSA.  The center of the controversy has to do with the women’s hair.

ProPublica spoke with two TSA officers about the issue, and they confirmed that it may be the hair of women of color causing false alarms from the full-body scanners.

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ProPublica spoke with Dorian Wanzer, a women of color who travels often for work. According to Wanzer, TSA almost always pulls her aside to do a “hair pat-down” after she enters the full body scanners. “It happens with my natural Afro, when I have braids or two-strand twists. Regardless,” Wanzer told ProPublica. “At this point in my life I have come to expect it, but that doesn’t make it any less invasive and frustrating.”

In the last couple years, TSA has vowed to provide proper training for agents to perform hair-pat-downs. They have even reached out to vendors asking for ideas on how to safety procedures when it comes to hair and headwear.

However, many TSA agents stated that they’re not purposely racially-profiling black women, that it’s the TSA full-body machines that hold the blame.

A TSA agent who chose to not be named, told the publication, “With black females, the scanner alarms more because they have thicker hair; many times they have braids or dreadlocks. 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.”

While this may be true, it’s something to consider that the programmers themselves are biased in their opinion on what constitutes the thickness of hair. Facial recognition software used at airports are also reportedly less accurate when reading faces from people of color.

Complaints related to hair-pat-downs are on the rise as well. TSA received 73 complaints in 2017, and 105 complaints in 2018.

The TSA issued a statement in regards to the issue. “We are reviewing additional options for the screening of hair,” while the company who makes the scanners, L3 Technologies, declined to comment on if or why their machines seem to target African American women more often.

In addition, ProPublica conducted a survey to gather the experience of black travelers.  Out of 720 surveys, 90% identified as female, and most described the hair pat-downs as “intrusive and disrespectful”.

“I get TSA workers have a job to do, which is to keep us safe,” said Wanzer. “But there needs to be a level of sensitivity about how different people perceive these kinds of searches.”