Professor: African-American women are subject to greater scrutiny in airports

Rachel Lew

African-American women are subject to greater airport security measures than other passengers at the airport, according to a UT professor.

Sociology assistant professor Simone Browne spoke Tuesday about how African-American women are treated at the airport, both when they are passengers and security officers. The lecture was part of a conference series the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies offers called “Feminist Geographies: Mapping the Spaces, Nations, and States of Being.”

To discuss the challenges African-American women face at the airport, Browne cited an incident when officers asked singer-songwriter Solange Knowles to comply with a search of her natural “Afro” hair at the airport.

“Certain bodies, particularly those of black women, get taken up as available for public scrutiny,” Browne said. “They are marked as threatening and unruly.”

African-American women are more likely to be X-rayed after being pressed or patted down, but they are less likely to be carrying contraband items, such as sharp objects, firearms or liquids, than white women, according to Browne.

Browne used the metaphor of baggage to describe how some passengers are able to go through airport security measures quickly while others are stopped for further inspection.

Sociology graduate student Anna Banchik said airport security officers’ racial profiling leads to members of certain races being treated with more scrutiny.

“The metaphor of baggage was an interesting way to think about how some people are penalized for their presentation — the way they look and act,” Banchik said. “It privileges some passengers.”

While African-American women have faced discriminatory treatment as passengers, African-American women who work as security officers are subject to stereotypes ranging from lazy, loud and rude to predatory, Browne said.

“Black women as [Transportation Security Administration] officers struggle with a long history of being in domestic labor,” Browne said. “Officers face high turnover and injury rates, job dissatisfaction and low pay.”

Browne compared the numerous security measures travelers face at the airport to a theatrical play. Airport security signs, pat downs and X-rays are all part of a facade, Browne said.

Garrett Sawyer, women’s and gender studies graduate student, said he agrees with Browne’s depiction of airport security measures.

“The process is so theatrical in terms of how one performs,” Sawyer said. “There’s always so much going on in one period of time, from getting your body checked to having your items scanned.”