Hair-brained politics

Braiding is an age-old tradition in the African-American community, but California cosmetology regulators are cracking down.

Published September 13, 1999 12:00PM (EDT)

On July 1, 1998, a pair of undercover police officers posing as husband and wife walked into Braids by Sabrina, a small shop in Compton, Calif. After the store's proprietor, 29-year-old hair braider Sabrina Reece, spent five hours braiding the woman's hair, the male officer handed her $150 for his "wife's" new hairstyle.

The woman excused herself to use the bathroom and came back out wearing a jacket emblazoned with POLICE on the back and a pistol on her hip. At first Reece didn't pay her any mind; black policewomen get their hair braided too. But the next thing she knew, a third police officer came barging in from outside the store, barking orders at her.

"The officer came into my shop and told me to sign a piece of paper, or he was going to arrest me," says Reece, who reluctantly signed the ticket, which ordered her to appear in court. She was caught in a hair sting. She was fined $1,000 by the state cosmetology board for violating the law. The Department of Consumer Affairs says that hair braiding in California is illegal unless a practitioner has a cosmetology license, which Reece doesn't have.

"According to the law, any type of treatment of the hair for pay requires a license," says Consumer Affairs spokeswoman Nancy Hardaker. But the problem with California's stance is that braiding isn't taught in cosmetology school. It isn't even on the state cosmetology test. Cosmetology licenses require 1,600 hours of schooling and may cost as much as $9,000, of which a hefty share goes to the state cosmetology board.

But hair braiders have argued they should be exempt from the onerous licensing requirements. The politics of hair braiding has reached as far as the California Legislature, emerging as an issue of governmental bureaucracy and regulation vs. cultural tradition. The issues stalled in the legislative process this year, but will be resurrected when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

While the political hoopla may be new, hair braiding is an ancient tradition that can be traced back to Africa and has been handed down from generation to generation. Hair braiding weaves existing hair or fake hair into strands of hair, similar to dreadlocks that can be worn down or in various other styles. Although this process can take hours, black women are attracted to braided hair because it lets them wear their natural hair, and it protects them from chemicals that can damage the texture of African-American hair.

Reece began braiding out of the kitchen of her house when she was in high school, and soon became known as one of the best in the area. Braiding hair is big business, and Reece's emerging reputation became lucrative. Hair braiders can charge anywhere from $75 to $250 to braid a head. Reece eventually opened two small shops -- both called Braids by Sabrina.

As business boomed, she began to attract the attention of women within the black community in L.A. She also attracted the attention of state regulators, culminating in the sting last July for practicing without a cosmetology license.

Cosmetology involves the use of chemicals in hair, which is the primary reason the state licenses cosmetologists. Hair braiders argue that licensing doesn't make sense for them since they don't use chemicals.

Hair braiders say that the curriculum for cosmetology schools doesn't even address braiding, and call it "a waste of time. I went to cosmetology school for 1,600 hours and paid over $6,000 and they didn't teach one thing about braiding," says Sheron Campbell, a licensed cosmetologist and owner of World of Braids in Oakland. "I don't see how the state can enforce something they don't teach."

"It is ridiculous that the state is trying to regulate an act of culture," says Stacy Pyles, director of "Combing Out the Kinks," a film about hairstyling among black women. "Hair braiding is a cultural bond that is taught between mothers and daughters, aunts and nieces."

But according to Taalib-din Uqdah of the American Hairbraiders and Natural Hair Care Association (AHNHA), laws regulating hair braiders are prevalent across the country.

"At least 46 states and all the U.S. territories have onerous laws and rules that make criminals out of African-style hair braiders," says Uqdah, who travels the country fighting hair-braiding legislation.

"These state boards of hair are controlled by a cosmetology cartel that wants to control every aspect of hair."

Uqdah says the laws create an unnecessary hurdle for African-American entrepreneurs, particularly in the era of welfare reform, with more people moving into the workplace. He called the laws a "restriction (of) the economic freedom of people trying to make use of a valued skill."

After some intensive lobbying in Sacramento, Uqdah was excited about the possibility of passing legislation that could save hair braiders from the "hair police." Two bills currently pending in the Legislature would allow hair braiders to work without having to get a cosmetology license.

One of the bills was sponsored by Sen. Ray Haynes, a Republican from Riverside. The other was sponsored by Assemblywoman Carole Migden of San Francisco. Both bills have stalled temporarily in the legislative process.

But a legislative solution may be moot. Last month a U.S. District Court in Southern California found against the state and in favor of Joanne Cornwell, a San Diego braider, who challenged the constitutionality of the cosmetology requirement.

"It is irrational to require Cornwell to comply with the regulatory framework," the court ruling stated. The federal judge declared that California's cosmetology laws regarding hair braiders wouldn't "pass constitutional muster," and that they rest on grounds "wholly irrelevant to the achievement of the state's objectives."

"This ruling is about more than hair braiders," says Miranda Perry, a staff attorney for the Institute for Justice, a Washington nonprofit law firm that represented Cornwell.

"Approximately 500 occupations have some type of licensing scheme. This ruling is important to all type of entrepreneurs across the country because it makes it harder for the state to pass arbitrary regulations that prevent them from making an honest living."

Consumer Affairs is pondering its next step. "We got word on the interim decision, and we are reviewing the decision," says Hardaker.

Hair braiders are also wondering what's next.

"The ruling nullifies the laws in regards to Joanne Cornwell and people situated like her, but I need to see how it plays out," says Uqdah.

While the ruling could set legal precedent across the country, as the law stands now, braiding for profit in California is still against the law without a cosmetology license.

"As many crimes that are being committed, it appalls me that they would go to such lengths to set me up the way that they did," Reece says. "I assume they would rather me strip for a living."

By Lee Hubbard

Lee Hubbard is a San Francisco writer who covers hip-hop culture as well as urban and national affairs.

MORE FROM Lee Hubbard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------