By Lisa Crooms-Robinson
For more than 25 years, I have worn my hair in locs. For about the same amount of time, I have been randomly chosen for additional screening by airport employees and border control officials on four continents and in more than a few island countries.
Whether traveling alone or with others, on business or vacation, my hair seems to render the real reasons for my travel incredible. Under most circumstances, no matter how official my documentation might be, it tells a story that does not ring true with those who first identify me for a random search. I have grown accustomed to the randomness of my locs.
I was first made aware of this randomness in the summer of 1987. Early on the morning of July 30, I was part of a group of youth and students from the United States that arrived in London to attend the International Student Conference in Solidarity with the Struggle of Students in Southern Africa. Convened by the United Nations Special Committee against Apartheid, the British Anti-Apartheid Movement and the National Union of Students of the U.K., the conference was a major undertaking to document and capture the energy of international youth and student anti-apartheid activism. As we queued up to have our passports processed, I found myself separated from my traveling companions and subjected to a line of questioning about my trip, my money and my intentions. I was told how expensive London was and asked how I planned to cover my expenses. I produced cash, traveler’s checks, and my one major credit card. I explained that our accommodations and most of our food would be covered by the conference. As the immigration officer stamped my passport, he warned me about working and overstaying, both of which were strictly prohibited. As we left London seven days later, I was separated from my group, questioned, and patted down. What I experienced was quite possibly the result of my having been “systematically chosen for interview at [a] fixed interval from a random start” in the queue as I entered and exited London. Indeed, the U.K. Border Agency advises travelers that they might be asked “to produce evidence of the money [they] have available to fund [their] stay and…may count [their] cash or travelers cheques.” This is wholly consistent with what happened to me. The make-up of the group with which I was traveling, however, made me a bit suspicious. While our group included three women of color and two black men, I was the only one randomly chosen for additional screening upon both entry and exit. In my mind, and those of my travelling companions, I was randomly chosen because of my locs.
Over the next 15 years, the randomness of my locs would more often than not subject me to additional screening by border control and immigration officials. I grew indifferent to what were initially the indignities of having my travel plans scrutinized by those who seemed to view me and my hair as inherently suspicious. My attitude would change in 2002 when my research interest in the relationship between gender, violence and identity led me to choose Jamaica as the place I would spend six months as a Fulbright U.S. Scholar. My host institution, Norman Manley Law School at the University of the West Indies campus in Mona, Jamaica, meant I would enter and exit Jamaica through Kingston’s Norman Manley International Airport. Over the next 30 months, I frequently travelled between Kingston and Miami to finish my research. In the beginning, I traveled with my three-year old son who was rendered random by association. Moving between Kingston and Miami featured not only verbal inquiries but also an explicit interest in searching both my child and my locs. After the initial six month assignment, I chose to travel alone rather than subject my son to the types of searches that only seem to cause a furor when the child being searched is not black and cloaked in the randomness of his or her mother’s locs. I carried letters, work permits and whatever other evidence I thought might stop the border control and customs officials from asking the dreaded question, “Do you mind if I search your hair?” My locs had shifted from merely making me a random woman subjected to a search to being the target of such a search and rendering me a “high-risk passenger.” Perhaps it was the fact that Kingston is an unlikely tourist destination, especially for a black woman from the U.S. traveling alone who is more likely to access one of the resorts that dot the island’s northern coast through Montego Bay’s Sangster International Airport rather than Kingston’s Norman Manley. Maybe it was the increase in the reported use of “drug mules,” many of whom traveling to and from Kingston were black women like me. Perchance it was the number of times my passport indicated I traveled between Kingston and Miami. Regardless of the reason, it became quite clear that the randomness of my locs had reached a point where it rendered my story so incredible as to warrant searching my hair. In the eyes of Jamaica’s Passport, Immigration and Citizenship Agency, my locs posed a potential threat to national security.
It goes without saying that what I experienced amounts to a relatively small inconvenience when compared with those women who, for no other reason than they look like me, are detained and plied with substances intended to make them expel the contents of their intestines for further examination. What we share is the suspicion under which we travel which is largely attributable to little more than our appearance. Even if I did not expect to confront the randomness of my locs at Heathrow 25 years ago, I cannot say I was surprised. The reality of being seen as “the other,” was something with which I was intensely familiar – by way of both experience and study. What happened in Kingston, however, was an entirely different matter. The fact that the first person who made it clear that my locs were no longer merely a basis for a search but rather a proper object to be searched was a sister who looked a lot like me. My point is not to condemn her for the zeal with which she appeared to do her job – a job made necessary by the number of black women caught carrying drugs and the government’s desire to avoid conducting cross-gender searches. Like me, her ability to support her family depended on her doing her job. Unlike me, the sister who searched my hair has few options that will pay a decent wage on which she can support her family and not treat black women like us as inherently suspicious. The message from those who control Jamaica’s borders is that women like me and the sister who searched my hair are most likely to be seduced by the promise of quick money in exchange for agreeing to carry drugs in a country where poverty among black single mothers is intractable and employment opportunities are limited. If economic forces, including earning opportunities and wages in sending and receiving countries, drive, in part, trends and patterns in migration then there is something about black women’s locs that supports a stock story marked by either economic desperation or reckless criminality. Only these two things would be enough to make a woman risk her freedom and perhaps her life, as well as the well-being of her child to earn a living by carrying drugs. What the 15 years between my experiences at Heathrow and Norman Manley clarified was that the randomness my appearance seemed to justify could no longer be explained solely in terms of race and gender. Rather, hearing my story as incredible and choosing instead to search my child, my bags and my hair seemed to signal that my race, gender, national origin and class rendered any story I might tell about why I was traveling as incredible to the black women who questioned and searched me as I entered and exited Kingston as it was 15 years earlier to the white men who questioned and searched me at Heathrow. For both groups of officials, the stories told by my tickets, passport, my answers to questions about the purpose of my visit and whatever other supporting documentation I might have had on my person were incredible enough to justify the randomness with which I have come to expect to be treated. The only casualty of that reality was the naiveté that, at one time, made the idea of having my locs searched by a black woman like me unfathomable.
Lisa Crooms-Robinson is a professor at Howard University School of Law and the Director of the Law School’s Constitutional Law Center.
 Office for National Statistics, International Passenger Survey (IPS) methodology http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/guide-method/method-quality/specific/travel-and-transport-methodology/international-passenger-survey/index.html
 Home Office, UK Border Agency, “If you are not a citizen of the EU, EEA or Switzerland,”
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