Braiding Freedom

A project of the Institute for Justice

Washington Goes After African Hair Braiders

June 16, 2014

Braider Sues After Officials Demand She Obtain Irrelevant Cosmetology License; Lawsuit is Part of a National Hair Braiding Initiative

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 not—and will not—require a cosmetology license.

Fast forward nine years and the very same Department has decided that African hair braiders must obtain that same license.

Today, Kent-based braider Salamata Sylla, represented by the Institute for Justice, filed a major federal lawsuit in Seattle, challenging the Department’s unexpected new interpretation of state law that would put her and many other natural hair braiders out of business. The lawsuit comes after Department officials arrived at Salamata’s salon and ordered her to obtain a cosmetology license if she wants to continue braiding, all because she weaves in extensions when she braids hair.

“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 now the Department now insists that braiders must put their lives and businesses on hold to obtain costly and irrelevant licenses when they weave in extensions–but extensions pose no more of a threat to public health and safety than natural hair braiding does.  If the Department cannot regulate one, it cannot regulate the other.”

To become a cosmetologist in Washington, Salamata would need to spend 1,600 in cosmetology school, but not one minute learning hair braiding. That is more than ten times the number of hours required to become an animal control officer, emergency medical technician and a 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.

“The Department’s interpretation of state law perversely limits the lawful practice of African 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 needs to stop playing games with African hair braiders’ livelihoods and 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 represented braiders in Washington, D.C., Ohio, California, Arizona, Washington, Mississippi, Minnesota and Utah, and 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 state’s 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, visit Founded in 1991, the Virginia-based Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty.