The Rules About Licensing for Hair Braiding Are Shifting Across the U.S.

August 13, 2012  |  

A federal judge has ruled in favor of Jestina Clayton, who sued the state of Utah over its requirement that Clayton get a cosmetology license to braid hair, a side business that Clayton set up to help support her family. U.S District Judge David Sam ruled that Utah’s requirement was “unconstitutional and invalid.” According to the judge, licensing is meant to protect public health, but the state never established the public health and safety concerns that hair braiding raised.

Clayton came to the U.S. from Sierra Leone, has three small children, and started braiding hair to bring in extra income as her husband finishes school. She says she learned the skill when she was five years old. She filed her lawsuit last year after the state said it would be illegal for her to continue.

There is no uniformity in the laws governing the need for a license to braid hair. Utah is one of six states that requires a cosmetology license while those braiding hair in California and Arizona don’t need a license at all. In other states, like Florida, some training is required, but not the full cosmetology coursework.

“Progressives are joining what had been a strictly libertarian cause out of concern that excessive licensing requirements disproportionately hurt poorer Americans and newly arrived immigrants,” writes The Oregonian. In Oregon, hair braiders are required to clock in as many as 1,700 hours in cosmetology school, which can cost up to $20,000. The article makes the point that much that’s taught in cosmetology school doesn’t even apply to hair braiding because there are no chemicals involved in the process. Oregon now has legislation on the table, the “Natural Hair Act,” which will come up in the 2013 session. It would change the requirements for hair braiding, bringing the oversight in line with the nature of the business.

(That article in The Oregonian includes the interesting story of Amber Starks, who is making a business out of teaching people, black and white, how to care for natural hair.)

“The Utah case is particularly interesting because Utah obviously doesn’t have a long tradition of African hair braiding as a local industry,” says Slate. That’s a big part of the issue. A lack of knowledge about hair braiding — how it’s done and what’s required — is likely what prompted the overly-strict regulations in the first place. It’s one more example of how diversity in government — at all levels — benefits the governed.

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