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When the TSA wants to check your afro for security reasons

Stephanie Dowell/Post-Tribune  In honor Wacky Hair Day AnitMurrell an 8th-grader Aquinas Catholic Community School went with an expansive '70s-erafro

Stephanie Dowell/Post-Tribune In honor of Wacky Hair Day, Anita Murrell, an 8th-grader at Aquinas Catholic Community School, went with an expansive, '70s-era afro look as she takes part in Catholic Schools Week at the Merrillville school January 31, 2005.

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Updated: November 22, 2012 6:42AM

Jessica Estelle Huggins, 22, is an independent filmmaker who wears her hair in a natural style.

Young women like her are popping up everywhere, including in business offices.

Last year, some of Huggins’ natural sisters started running into problems at airports because of the hairstyle.

“TSAs wanted to check their hair,” Huggins said.

When Huggins flew back to Chicago from Boston’s Logan International Airport last January, it happened to her.

“I went through security and one TSA, he wouldn’t move out of the way so I could get my belongings,” Huggins told me. “An Asian TSA was on her radio and waved for me to come back. She had this posture like she thought I was dangerous. I walked to her and she told me she needed to check my hair.”

Apparently, the extra scrutiny of black women’s hair has been going on for a while.

In August 2011, the New York Times reported black women were complaining about the hair pat-downs.

So far, the Transportation Security Administration hasn’t taken those complaints to heart.

Huggins got a full head search.

“So she started to lightly fluff my hair on the top, then she went to my roots,” Huggins said.

“I asked her if she found anything and she just looked at me. I was going to respond by saying she should check the next person’s hair, but that person was a bald white guy.”

Luis M. Casanova, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, said it is not “standing operating procedure” for the TSA person to touch someone’s hair.

If the traveler has “very large, big hair like an Afro” the official may ask the person to touch the hair,” he said.

“We ask you to pat your hair then we swab your hand,” he said. “Our primary concern is explosives and incendiary devices. We may ask you to pat your hair and then check it with the trace explosive detection.”

But if an alarm goes out during the regular screening, the traveler may be subjected to additional screening.

“In that case, the pat-down may include touching the person’s hair,” he said.

Cameran Battley, 22, said she was coming home from Louisiana when she had to go through a hair pat-down.

“I had my hair in a ponytail and the lady was like, man, I’m going to have to check your hair. I felt like she kind of used her authority to get a feel for my hair. I waited for some other people to go through the line, and of course, they didn’t check anybody else’s hair.”

Ironically, in an age of “phony-ponies,” a black woman could very well be just curious about the authenticity of another black woman’s hair.

But that would be an abuse of the screening process, and if travelers suspect they are being wrongfully singled out, they should complain.

“It is not [standard] operating procedure for the TSA person to touch the hair. I don’t know of any instances about somebody sticking their hand in someone’s hair like that,” Casanova said.

Given all the other inconveniences associated with air travel, the hair pat-down may not seem like a big deal.

But put yourself in a black woman’s heels.

No one wants strangers digging through their hair.

Frankly, Huggins has thick hair, but it certainly isn’t thick enough to hide an explosive.

What about all those wigs and weaves that sail past TSA every day?

Huggins is trying to figure out just how prevalent the hair searches have become.

“I heard stories about this Colombian woman who was hiding coke in her hair and that’s why anyone with really voluminous hair has to be searched,” she said.

“But I don’t think my hair is big enough to have someone look into it.”

She is “still on the fence” about whether or not the hair pat-downs policy is another example of racial profiling. Her grandmother, however, got upset when she heard about the hair search.

“The policy of checking black women’s hair . . . it doesn’t really make sense,” Huggins said.

“If you are going to check someone’s hair, you should be checking everyone’s hair because anybody else of any other ethnicity could probably hide something in their hair.”

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