Washington Plays Games With African Hair Braiders’ Livelihoods

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · June 16, 2014

Seattle, Wash.—In 2005, African hair braider Benta Diaw sued Washington’s Department of Licensing after an effort to condition her and other braiders’ ability to braid hair for compensation on an irrelevant and burdensome state-cosmetology license. In response, the Department announced that braiding does notand will not—require a cosmetology license.

Fast forward nine years and the very same Department continues to play games with braiders’ livelihoods.

Today, Kent-based braider Salamata Sylla, represented by theInstitute for Justice, filed a major federal lawsuit in Seattle, seeking a judicial order requiring the Department to adhere to its stated position that African, or natural, hair braiding does not require a cosmetology license. The lawsuit comes after Department officials arrived at Salamata’s salon and ordered her to obtain such a license if she wants to continue braiding.

“The Department made a promise to hair braiders that they would not need cosmetology licenses to practice their craft,” said Wesley Hottot, an attorney with the Institute for Justice. “As a result, entrepreneurs like Salamata began opening their own braiding businesses in Washington. But despite this promise, Department officials continue to show up at braiding salons to insist that braiders put their lives and businesses on hold to obtain costly and irrelevant licenses.”

To become a cosmetologist in Washington, Salamata would need to spend 1,600 in cosmetology school,but not one minute learning hair braiding.That ismore than ten times the number of hoursrequired to become an animal control officer, emergency medical technician and security guard—combined.

African hair braiders reject Western hair styling techniques that use chemicals, dyes and glues. But those are exactly the techniques taught in cosmetology school. In addition, Salamata would need to spend hundreds of hours learning how to give manicures, wax eyebrows and trim beards—services her customers do not want and that she does not want to provide.
“Forcing African hair braiders to obtain cosmetology licenses perversely limits the lawful practice ofAfrican hair braiding to those who are not required to know anything about African hair braiding,” said Hottot. “At the same time it precludes people, like Salamata, who are highly skilled in hair braiding from offering their services to the public.”

Salamata came to the United States from Senegal in 1999. She has been braiding hair since she was a little girl. She learned to braid the way many African girls do—by practicing on her family and friends. A single mom, Salamata opened Sally’s Africain Hair Braiding in 2012. (Salamata, like many Senegalese, prefers the French spelling of “Africain.”) There, she exclusively practices African hair braiding—a safe, 5,000 year-old practice that is deeply rooted in African cultural heritage.

“Washington claims that African hair braiders do not need cosmetology licenses to practice our craft, yet their officials continue to show up at our salons and say the exact opposite. The Department needs to stop playing games with African hair braiders’ livelihoods and just keep its word,” said Salamata. “We pose zero threat to public health or safety. We just want to earn an honest living.”

Salamata’s challenge to Washington’s regulation of braiders is one of three cases being launched on the same day as part of a new IJ National Hair Braiding Initiative. IJ is also taking on Missouri’s and Arkansas’ regulation of braiders. The three cases are just the most recent challenges to protect braiders’ right to earn an honest living, free from arbitrary government interference. The firm has previously represented braiders in Washington, D.C., Ohio, California, Arizona, Washington, Mississippi, Minnesota and Utah, and it is currently representing a braider and her school in Texas.

According to a recent survey of state laws conducted by IJ, hair braiders in 34 states and the District of Columbia labor under burdensome, irrational occupational licensing laws.

The licensing of hair braiders is part of a national trend of states’ using occupational licensing laws to create artificial barriers to entry for entrepreneurs seeking to take their first step up the economic ladder. These licenses are especially common for occupations that traditionally cater to individuals just beginning a professional career, like hair braiding. In the 1950s, only one in 20 workers needed the government’s permission to pursue their chosen occupation. Today, that figure stands at almost one in three.

For more information on today’s lawsuit, visitbraidingfreedom.com. Founded in 1991, the Virginia-based Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty.