African-Style Hair Braiders Fighting ‘Racist’ Licensing Regulations in the US

A woman with braided hair is pictured in this studio portrait. Shutterstock.com

For many African-American women and African immigrants to the U.S., specialized hair care is a beauty necessity. Yet most salons do not have a stylist on staff who knows how to create the intricate styles of traditional African-textured hair braiding. There are salons that do specialize exclusively in the technique, which does not require the use of chemicals or dyes, and do not offer the nail or skin treatments. Despite this, in about half of states these natural hair braiders must still be licensed by their state’s cosmetology boards to provide their services. Some say the requirement for thousands of hours of training, which typically does not cover hair braiding, is inherently racist—and are challenging these rules in the courts. However, other salon owners say the skills taught in comprehensive beauty school programs are useful and make them more well-rounded stylists.

State regulatory requirements for braiding skills in salons vary across the U.S. In Missouri, for instance, “before braiders can even touch a client’s locks, they first have to obtain a cosmetology license, which requires 1,500 hours of irrelevant training that costs more than $16,000,” according to the Institute for Justice (IJ), which advocates on behalf of hair braiders. Despite stating in 2005 that hair braiders did not require a license, Washington, D.C., has reversed its regulatory requirements, without notice according to IJ, and currently prohibits hair braiding without a full cosmetology license. In total, 23 states have licensing requirements that place hair braiding under the umbrella of cosmetology. Full cosmetology licenses in these states can require thousands of hours of training, with costs reaching over $20,000, according to IJ.

The training requirement is not problematic in and of itself, but rather it is the content of that training that concerns some braiders. Most state-licensed beauty schools will spend hundreds of hours teaching students techniques involving chemicals, nail care, and massages. IJ claims that most African hair braiders do not offer these services nor are any classes offered on hair braiding. The braiding process uses no chemicals, and as IJ attorney Paul Avelar points out, the “government has no business licensing something as safe and common as braiding.”

Joanne Cornwell, an associate professor at San Diego State University and the founder of natural hair braiding company Sisterlocks, says that no state should “claim to have reign over natural hair care because they do not train [for it] or test it.”

In 1999, Cornwell won a legal victory, along with IJ, which means natural hair care practitioners are exempt from having to sit for a cosmetology license in California, where it requires 1,600 hours of training. The judge in the case ruled that natural and African-textured hair braiders “do not seek a special ‘out’ or preferential treatment; they seek rationality when trying to pursue a livelihood.” Cornwell says the case has been used for years as precedent for braiders in other states to challenge their boards on the grounds of economic liberty.

Although she agrees that the fair pursuit of economic livelihood is a valid argument to, “irrational” regulatory requirements imposed on hair braiders in other states remains as a “classic case of institutional racism.”

We do not use shampoo or chemicals,” says Cornwell. “[We] are not practicing cosmetology.”

Hair braider Nivea Earl,  who owns Twistykinks salon in Jacksonville, Arkansas, had been braiding for nearly 16 years and even learned special techniques at the Institute for Ancestral Braiding in Dallas, Texas, when she decided to move back to her home state. She soon discovered that Arkansas’ state cosmetology board required those seeking to exclusively provide hair braiding services to complete 1,500 hours of training in beauty school at the cost of nearly $20,000.  

As providing hair braiding services without the full cosmetology license was illegal, Earl attended beauty school classes but says, “me and chemicals didn’t work out.” and she chose to pursue “her love, her passion” for braiding natural hair. Discouraged but not giving up, Earl “made several phone calls” and finally came to the IJ’s door. Her explanation that her profession “is like being painter, you have a blank canvas and you create art. It takes skill, not everyone can be a braider” combined with attendance at a state cosmetology board meeting where no discussion of the regulations made progress prompted IJ to file a complaint in the Earl v. Smith case on June 17, 2014. They called for an amendment to the state cosmetology board regulations.

Earl said she had no choice but to take the case to court, as she “needed to support [her] family” and braiding was skill she had that could do it were she allowed. The case progressed quickly, much to Earl’s delight. As of April 22, 2015 the State Legislature and Senate voted to exempt natural hair braiders from needing the full cosmetology license or any license at all.

She pauses as she gets emotional about the change in the law, saying “this changes my whole life.” Instead of operating illegally out of her home, Earl is able to now openly market her services under the Twistykinks name and has even opened a storefront for operation once the new rules go into effect in July of this year.  
The Virginia-based Institute for Justice has been advocating on behalf of natural hair braiders since 1991. As well as their efforts in California and Arkansas, lawsuits supported by the organization have forced state cosmetology boards in Washington, Arizona, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio, Maryland, and Virginia to change their requirements. Those states now either have separate requirements for natural hair care licensing or do not require a license for braiders.

IJ’s advocacy, which in part kickstarted the National Braiding Initiative in July 2014, is not race-based. As Avelar explains, “Strictly speaking, the laws prohibit anyone from braiding without a license. Rather, the problem is that not many people know about what braiders do because it is a minority practice.”

For this reason, IJ centers its argument on the unnecessary training hours and burdensome cost placed on braiders, as an issue of economic liberty. Avelar notes that the 14th Amendment prevents the government from arbitrarily interfering with people’s ability to earn a living in their chosen occupation.

Yet the argument for economic empowerment is also used on the other side by those who say the state cosmetology board requirements are not burdensome or unnecessary.  

In New York state, there is option for aspiring hair braiders to get a license in Natural Hair Styling, which requires 300 hours of training and a fee. Yet Sharon Alexander, owner of Done Up! salon in Manhattan, feels her employees are more well-rounded stylists because they have completed comprehensive beauty school programs in New York. As a result, her salon can offer a full-suite of services with “fully licensed” stylists, says Alexander.

Glen Etienne, owner of De Lux salon in Brooklyn, New York, said though a specialized license in natural hair care is a good idea, his stylists are “glad they have picked up the skills” that come from going through the 1,000 hours of training required for a full cosmetology license by New York state. In any case, Etienne explains, most natural hair care stylists learn braiding techniques at home growing up as part of their personal care routine, not in a formal setting like beauty school.

He notes that “no one is really complaining” because it gives his stylists the flexibility to start their own salons or move into another area of cosmetology They have the know-how to do so because the “cosmetology [license] covers everything, according to Etienne.

However, he does acknowledge the racial issues involved in the licensing requirements. Etienne says that as black barber himself, he learned how to cut “black hair” first. “It’s not fair [though]…For the actual state board test, they want to see techniques to cut white hair,” he says.“You can cut black hair good enough, but you better know how to cut white hair.”

Any white person could walk into black salon and get their hair done properly,” explains Etienne, but the reverse is not necessarily true.  

Avelar says that cosmetology boards are well-intended, but often enforce the laws without “knowing what they are regulating,” meaning that many state government officials have not considered the fact that this requirement almost exclusively affects the African-American and African immigrant communities.

“They say ‘we don’t want to segregate’ and ‘hair is hair’…and while I may agree philosophically—we don’t want the cosmetology industry to take us over,” adds Cornwell.

Avelar explains that many of these state policies were enacted during a time when regulators were giving little or no thought to the different kinds of industries within cosmetology. He suggests that some competition-averse operators within the industry were instrumental in these regulations being adopted in the first place.

“Licensing laws are most often made not at the request of the public, but at the request of the regulated industry. Regulations make it easy to prevent competition with the people who are already in the industry,” says Avelar.

Cornwell suggests that the underlying problem is that the cosmetology industry does not see the natural hair care industry as a separate, viable peer industry. She notes that “natural hair care practitioners are criminalized…we’re seen as bootleggers, renegades, and law breakers” because burdensome regulations have forced braiders “underground” to operate in salons without licenses or out of their homes.

Court cases continue, and as Avelar notes “by continuing to fight for braiders, we also are fighting for everyone,” whether the argument is based on racism or framed in the context of economic freedom.