Melissa Harris-Perry, 8/10/13, 10:41 AM ET

A truly ‘hair-raising’ situation

Melissa Harris-Perry’s “Open Letter” this week goes out to John Pistol, the leader of the Transportation Security Administration, as she talks about a personal experience she had in the airport on the way back from Kentucky.

Black women’s hair becomes target in TSA’s security theater

Updated

From time to time on my show Melissa Harris-Perry, we find reason to wade into the thick of things on the subject of African-American women’s hair. But this week, it was Oprah Winfrey demanding that we talk about hair on the cover of the September issue of O Magazine, where her usual solo feature was upstaged by a massive, perfectly round Afro.
Turns out, Oprah’s own considerable head of hair got a whole lot bigger courtesy of a faux ‘fro. Her cover co-star was actually a three-and-a-half pound wig, designed by hair stylist to the stars Kim Kimble. Who, coincidentally, was also shocked this week–along with the rest of us–when another one of her superstar clients snatched her own hair–right off.
It was just a couple weeks ago that headlines declaring “Beyoncé Gets Attacked By A Fan” had us all clarifying that, “No, it was a real fan…the kind that makes the wind!” Well, Beyoncé decided to make sure that wouldn’t happen again. She ditched the weave, chopped off her own hair, and revealed the new look on Instagram–a short pixie cut! As an official member of the Beyhive, I’d been enjoying the heck out of this hairy pop culture moment.
Until–at the airport on my way back from Kentucky this week–it got personal.
Which is why in today’s letter, I need to have a hair talk with the man in charge of the Transportation Security Administration.

Dear John Pistole,
It’s me, Melissa.
Yesterday we listened to President Obama offer us his assurances about the National Security Agency. That America isn’t interested in spying on ordinary people. Which would have been a relief to hear, if I hadn’t had an up-close and personal experience with the overreach of a completely different government agency.
Turns out, it’s not the National Security Agency I need to be worried about. It’s the TSA getting all up in the business of regular folks. And I mean all up in there.
Listen, I’m no stranger to the pre-flight security screening process. It’s become a regular procedure for me thanks to my weekly flights from New Orleans to New York. And I am grateful for the diligence of the TSA in doing the tough job of keeping us all safe. But this time, as I prepared to depart from the Kentucky airport, I experienced–let’s call it a kink in that familiar routine.
There I was, having just stepped out of the body scanner, when something unusual happened. The TSA agent pulled me to the side and proceeded to examine my hair. And by “examine,” I don’t mean a simple pat-pat-pat. Oh, no. We’re talking the full-on fingers through the braids, scalp-tickling treatment.
I was sent on my way feeling a little violated and unclear about why exactly, that intrusion was necessary. Because if your $170,000 machine can see under my clothes, but can’t figure out I’m not hiding a bomb in my braids, maybe it’s time to recalibrate the machine.
Let’s be clear–I realize this is an occasional occurrence in my otherwise privileged position of getting to fly around the country for my job. And this isn’t a “stop-and-frisk,” Stand Your Ground, end-of-the-Voting-Rights-Act kind of problem. But it is one of countless microaggressions endured by black women on a daily basis.
Especially since I’m not alone among those with textured hair who’ve been singled out for the hands-on treatment by the TSA. If I didn’t know that Beyoncé flies on a private plane, I might wonder if her new short hair had anything to do with wanting to avoid her sister Solange’s experience of the TSA searching her hair last year.
Solange took it all in good stride when she joked on Twitter that she was a victim of “Discrim-FRO-nation.”
But John, I understand the TSA’s screening procedures are no laughing matter for you. And you’ve considered sensible reforms to make the TSA screening more security, and less security theater. So all I’m asking is while you’re rewriting that script, you reconsider who the TSA has been casting as potential villains. Because we can agree that there remains the need for protection from a threat.
But I’m here to tell you, you’re not going to find it in my hair.
Sincerely,
Melissa

Black women's hair becomes target in TSA's security theater

Updated