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Avigail Borah / Staff Illustrator

I used to love going to the airport. It used to be the prelude to an adventure novel. I was embarking on the Airbus A380 to a pirate’s island; readying myself for a scavenger hunt in the dreamy Abomey, Benin; preparing for a historical trip to see the wonders of Turkey; or flying across the Atlantic to the city that never sleeps.

When I traveled alone for the first time, the prologue of my adventure turned to a succession of annoying administrative steps. In my romantic travel fantasies, I had never imagined asking for a visa, making sure that I was properly vaccinated, or checking in luggage. Nor had I imagined being turned into a possible security threat.

It’s December 2018, and I am going back home for winter break, asking myself the usual stressful questions: Is my fully-packed suitcase too heavy? Have I taken my I-20 and those earrings I just bought for my mom? My suitcase is fine; I have my I-20 and, of course, all my friends’ presents. Soon, I am in line to go through the Transportation Security Administration screening and already thinking about the raclette waiting for me at home.

I march through the full-body scanner. Then the staffer asks me to step aside. She puts on gloves and comes closer to me. Surprisingly, she doesn’t engage in the usual full-body pat down. Instead, she says in a robotic voice, “I’m gonna have to check your hair, miss.” Sometimes people ask you for something, and you just think, “Whatever, let’s get this over with already.” And indeed, I really don’t think much of it. Without hesitation, she places her gloved fingers on my scalp. She stops and frisks my hair.

I’m so hungry I don’t even think about what the experience meant. After ordering the worst kebab I’ve ever had in my entire life, I text my friends in a group chat about the incident. A myriad of shocked gifs later, one of them asks me for the ethnicity of the TSA agent. I haven’t had the time to think about it yet. I just type: “She was Black.” When I hit send, I realize that there was probably a protocol for the search. I wonder: What is it about my hair that would require a security protocol?

On the plane, I try to get this out of my head by watching the underwhelming “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” but I just can’t ignore it. What could I have potentially hidden in my braids? What was so dangerous about my hair?

My hair has always been a subject of fascination. Writing this down, I can see how superficial this may sound, how vain. But the fascination is never a positive. Do you wash it? Does it grow? Can I touch it? Do you comb it? How often do you wash it? Can I touch it? Is it your actual hair? Is it a wig? Can I touch it? Don’t you hate it? There, I touched it.

I had always noticed this morbid curiosity among my peers, a curiosity that I could understand to some extent. Over the years, I have had my fair share of arguments and debates. , Most people would say that their curiosity stems from the fact that my hair is different than what they’re used to. Every time, I would say, “Well, straight hair is different from mine, but I don’t go around touching other people’s hair, or asking questions of strangers I met in the line to the club.” I tried to tell my peers that their questions are often times legitimate. However, there is a difference between asking innocent questions to a friend, asking annoying questions to an acquaintance, asking hurtful questions to a total stranger, and patting my hair down. Little interactions of the latter variety—like that I had with a guy in my class in high school and that random guy at a bar—have made me adopt a more defensive stance when it comes to my hair.

When discussing this issue with my parents, they argue that it is not so abnormal, that it’s only a security measure, that it’s fine, that I am overreacting. As usual, their liberal anti-racism and my radical anti-racism clashed. While they saw the pat down as a displeasing but harmless encounter, I saw it as a security treatment discriminating against women like me, women who were taught to resent their hair. According to the testimonies I read while writing this article, afros, braids, dreadlocks, weaves, and wigs are all potentially hiding a cutter or a bomb—the end of Western civilization as we know it.

But I did wonder whether or not I was overreacting. Maybe I overreacted because of my own insecurities about my hair. In comparison to the hair championed by white beauty standards, my kinky crown had always felt like a burden.

And now that I think about it again, I realize that the real problem is exactly that insecurity: Just like many other women of color, I was taught to resent my hair. That resentment was strengthened over time by daily microaggressions I resented my braids because they “made me look like Bob Marley.” I resented my weaves because “Black women like to cheat to entice men.” I resented my wigs because they “looked fake.” I resented my relaxed hair because it “made me look like David Bowie.” I resented my afro because it was “so 70s.” The pat down was just another instance of a microaggression which not only posits that my afro-hair is different, but that my afro-hair is a security matter. After years and years of work on self-love, I am not willing to let the TSA affect how I love my hair. So I am not overreacting; I am merely reacting.

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JFK airport hair braids break travel microaggressions