With most of the pandemic restrictions being lifted, writer Christine Rodriguez has been traveling extensively for work lately, regularly hopping in and out of airports to get to festivals and media events.
But with the return to air travel came an unpleasant experience: Rodriguez was searched by airport security officials three times in less than two months.
The third time it happened about two weeks ago at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport.
“I was really upset because it’s just — it’s not a coincidence. It happens to me every time I travel,” said Rodriguez, a Montrealer, in an interview with CBC News.
Rodriguez, who is of multiracial background, often wears her crown of brown hair in a ponytail.
Even when she undid her ponytail and shook out her hair at the security gate, agents said they had to check her hair with their own hands, she said.
“They don’t seem to understand that it’s deeply offensive and invasive,” Rodriguez said.
Nancy Falaise is a black hair stylist based in Montreal who specializes in curly hair. Falaise said there was a story of black women having their hair touched by strangers without their consent, and mixed into that story was the persecution black women faced for wearing natural hairstyles.
“It adds to the trauma we endured for many years of not feeling pretty enough and always having to straighten our hair to look professional,” Falaise said. “And now we can’t catch a flight with our crowns?”
Rodriguez said the searches, which took place at three different Canadian airports, were after she entered the body scanner at the security gate.
The first time, on May 20, Rodriguez said she thought the request was a joke but went along with it because the agent conducting the search was a black woman.
“I didn’t feel too threatened because she probably understood my experience,” Rodriguez said.
The second time it happened in June and the third time two weeks after that. The controls were starting to feel like a “physical injury,” she said.
Scanners triggered by certain styles?
There have been multiple reports in the US of black women with curly hair having similar experiences.
In 2015, a complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California prompted the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to conduct awareness training “with a particular focus on hair scanning of black female travelers,” according to the ACLU.
But even after that, ProPublica, an American nonprofit investigative journalism organization, found that the patdowns were still common.
ProPublica surveyed several hundred women of all races with curly hair.
It has been reported that scanner alerts, now found at most international airports across North America, are “often triggered by certain hairstyles” and agents are required to perform a scan when this occurs.
According to ProPublica, in 2018 the TSA asked providers to help them “improve the screening of headgear and hair consistent with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.” “This law prohibits federally funded agencies and programs from discriminating, even unintentionally, on the basis of race, color, or national origin.”
CATSA strives for “respectful” interaction
CBC contacted the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), which is responsible for screening people and baggage at airports across the country.
In a written response, CATSA said that while it cannot comment on a specific case until it has investigated an official complaint, the federal agency strives to screen people in a respectful and professional manner. It encouraged Rodriguez to file a complaint, which she says she has done.
“When an issue has been identified, we investigate and review the passenger’s screening process and ensure procedures are being followed and additional training is provided to screening staff as needed,” CATSA spokeswoman Suzanne Perseo said in an email.
Fo Niemi, director of the Montreal-based Center for Research-Action on Race Relations, said hair checks appear to have become more common in Canada.
He said CATSA agents should undergo racial sensitivity training with a specific focus on gender so that if protocol still requires agents to touch people’s hair, they can do so with a more thoughtful approach.
“Many black travelers were treated differently at airports and subjected to excessive screening,” Niemi said. “This is another incident that may require a policy change.”
For more stories about Black Canadians’ experiences—from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community—see Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.