TSA Body Scanners Disproportionately Target Women of Color, Report Says

Apr 20, 2019

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A report published by ProPublica claims that people of color, specifically women, are disproportionately targeted for additional screening by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) body scanners as a result of popular hairstyles worn predominantly by women of color.

The report cites testimony from a TSA officer, personal accounts from women of color, and a government report from 2014 that says body scanners have a “higher false alarm rate when passengers wore turbans and wigs.”

“With black females, the scanner alarms more because they have thicker hair; many times they have braids or dreadlocks,” a TSA officer told ProPublica. “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.”

Dorian Wanzer, an African American woman who travels frequently for work told ProPublica she feels “singled out” when she is asked to step aside. “It happens with my natural Afro, when I have braids or two-strand twists. At this point in my life I have come to expect it, but that doesn’t make it any less invasive and frustrating.”

The TSA has acknowledged the concerns of women of color last summer by asking its vendors to “improve screening of headwear and hair in compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act,” a law that bars federally funded agencies and programs “from discriminating — even unintentionally — on the basis of race, color or national origin.” It also announced back in 2015 that it would stop targeting African American women’s hair during pat-downs.

Body scanners relay an image to TSA agents if a traveler triggers the scanner. This is the image that TSA agents use to determine the region that should be subject to additional screening (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Body scanners relay an image to TSA agents if a traveler triggers the scanner. This is the image that TSA agents use to determine the region that should be subject to additional screening (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

When a body scanner detects an area on an individual that the machine is unable to properly scan or that could house a prohibited item, travelers are required to receive secondary screening. This secondary screening is typically a pat-down of the region. For travelers with hair that triggers body scanners, a “hair pat-down” will be carried out by a TSA agent of the same gender. The TSA has even posted a video on its website going over what to expect during a hair pat-down.

Travelers who are selected for additional screening have few options. If flagged, you can choose to receive secondary screening publicly in the screening area or in a private area, which may include more invasive screening procedures. If you believe that you have been targeted unfairly during the TSA screening process, you can contact the TSA directly and file a complaint through this link.

The Points Guy has reached out to the TSA for comment but did not receive a response upon time of publication.

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Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

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