J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · February 15, 2017

Rhode Island Rep. Anastasia Williams, chair of the Legislative Black and Latino Caucus, recently introduced HB 5436, which would deregulate the practice of natural or African-style hair braiding. Under Rhode Island law, braiders can only work if they first obtain a cosmetology license, which takes at least 1,500 hours of training. Only six states have stricter requirements. But if enacted, HB 5436 will exempt braiding from the state’s licensing laws.

“The government has no business licensing something as safe and common as braiding hair,” said Christina Walsh, director of activism and coalitions at the Institute for Justice (IJ). “This bill would vindicate the right to economic liberty for natural hair braiders.”

“For centuries, natural hair braiding has been a common practice for African and African American women,” noted Rep. Anastasia Williams. “Natural hair bradding is an art form, limited only by the braiders’ creativity and does not require any kind of formal training. Forcing braiders to meet the same licensing requirements as cosmetologists is a clear injustice.”

Unlike cosmetologists, braiders do not use any harsh chemicals or dyes. And many cosmetology schools do not teach natural braiding. Yet in Rhode Island and 14 other states, braiders must first become licensed cosmetologists or hairstylists, which forces them to waste thousands of dollars on tuition to learn skills that are completely irrelevant to their occupation.

“This bill allows braiders like me the ability to make an honest living, while following our dreams and fulfilling our passion,” said Jocelyn DoCouto, a local natural hair braider and an advocate for the bill.  “With the passage of this bill, I can establish a better life for my kids while doing something I love to do.”

With HB 5436, Rhode Island may soon join a growing reform movement. In 21 states, braiders are free to work without having to procure a license from the government. Earlier this month, South Dakota became the latest state to exempt braiders from occupational licensing, while similar bills have been introduced in IndianaMissouriNew Hampshire and New Jersey.

Since its founding, IJ has protected the rights of braiders in the District of Columbia, CaliforniaOhioArizonaMississippiMinnesotaUtahTexasWashingtonArkansas and Iowa. IJ is currently challenging the licensing of hair braiders in Missouri. Last year, the Institute published a report, Barriers to Braiding: How Job-Killing Licensing Laws Tangle Natural Hair Care in Needless Red Tape, which found that braiders received very few complaints, and that strict licensing laws stifle economic opportunity.