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Entrepreneurs Challenge Governmental Constraints on African Hair Braiders

“There is no added value, we already know how to braid. It doesn’t make sense to go take a long class to get a diploma for something you have already mastered.” — Awa Doumbia, salon owner. 

New York, NY – The natural hair industry has grown immensely among the Black diaspora in recent years, resulting in more Black people using fewer chemicals to straighten their hair to fit white beauty standards and more local beauty businesses selling natural hair products to style Afros and curls.

New legislation also exists to stop hair discrimination in schools and workplaces across the country. Black beauty contestants are feeling more empowered to go natural, too, winning significant contests and inspiring a whole new generation of young girls to go the same hair route.

Despite all the momentum in the Black natural hair movement, however, African Communities Together (ACT) and the non-profit research group Take Root Justice West African, say Black immigrants working as hair braiders in the U.S. are still struggling against a lot of xenophobia in the beauty industry.

In response, the African hair braiding community is speaking out about systemic injustices, pushing for new licensing reforms and unionization.

“We don’t have [a union] organization, but that has been one of the recommendations we have,” ACT Program Manager Maimouna Dieye said this week. “That would be a benefit to the braiders as well as to the community,” .

For generations, mothers and grandmothers have taught Black hair braiders across the diaspora to style hair in traditional ways. Now that the natural hair business has taken off, state governments are requiring licensing for the homegrown skill. In New York, licensing mandates 300 hours of educational training. 

According to research conducted by Erin Markman, director of research and policy at Take Root Justice, home health aides and unarmed security officers, need less than 80 hours of educational training for their professions. In other words, African hair braiders are expected to spend nearly 38% more hours training in their industry than someone in health care or security.

“The research shows [the licensing process] is prohibitive for African hair braiders,” Dieye adds. “Requirements for obtaining a license include a physical examination, a social security number or federal identification number, or a written explanation to why that can’t be provided.”

Hair braiders would have to take written and practical exams after their training, prove they have five years of experience in their field, or get proof from their home countries (often developing or third world countries) that they were licensed to do hair or were not required to get a license to do hair, according to Dieye. 

To prove they have five years of experience braiding hair, they need to get tax returns, a copy of their passport and letters of recommendations from both their clients and employers with dates and locations for where the service was conducted. 

Awa Doumbia, a salon owner and immigrant from Mali, has braided hair for nearly 20 years. She found the 300 hours required to be impractical, taking both time and money away from her that she needs to survive. 

“We want them to take into account the women who are illiterate and those who are undocumented when thinking about the license,” Doumbia said. “The women in these situations do not have any other option but to braid hair. They need to take into account the fact that many of us did not go to school and make the license easily accessible.”

“We need to focus the entry [for licenses] on health and safety, and not necessarily validating that someone has a skill set that they have learned that was passed on from generations and generations. That is the epitome of white supremacy.” Xamalya Rose, NYC Public Advocate’s Office. 
Doumbia also believes she is being unfairly targeted because she is an African immigrant. She has been fined $500 for failing to put up a refund policy when her salon walls were wet from paint. The mother of three was also fined after her landlord failed to put out garbage twice. Each time, Doumbia had to go to court to settle the matter.

Doumbia finds the thousands of dollars associated with licensing excessive. She says she learned to braid hair from her grandmother, who was also a salon owner.

“There is no added value, we already know how to braid,” Doumbia said. “It doesn’t make sense to go take a long class to get a diploma for something you have already mastered. It will be best if the classes are shorter.”

There are only 630-licensed hair braiders in the Empire State, according to Markman. This number is a sliver of the workers in the profession who want to get a license.

“Braiders want to be licensed, but the process is logistically burdensome, time-consuming and costly,” Markman says. “The report’s policy recommendations must be implemented to allow hair braiders to access the license and to work with professional security and dignity.”

Of the nearly 1,260 hair braiders who participated in 346 surveys conducted between 2018 to 2019, 93-percent had no license to braid hair, and 97-percent wanted to obtain a permit. Nearly 65-percent (more than 2/3) braided hair for more than a decade; roughly 65-percent learned to braid hair at home while growing up, and almost 90-percent said hair braiding is their only occupation. 

Despite wanting to get a license, there was usually one barrier preventing 89-percent of them from being considered a hair professional. Approximately 80-percent of participants don’t understand English in the written form; 79-percent said talking to someone about obtaining a license would be difficult; 33-percent had no formal education; and 25-percent only had primary/elementary school education. 

According to surveys, a $10,000 expenditure was too high a price tag for 77-percent of braiders that charge on average $100 for their service; 83-percent found the time requirements would cut their earning potential. Approximately, 41-percent of survey participants found their immigration status to be a problem, too ,when it came to getting a license.

Those surveyed emigrated from the Ivory Coast (36%), Mali (21%), Guinea (11%), Burkina Faso (10%), Senegal (6%) and Togo (1%). Five-percent were from other countries like Benin, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria.

Councilman Mark Levine (D-Manhattan) agrees that the requirements for Black entrepreneurs are onerous. He thanked those in the African hair braiding community for their economic contributions to the state. 

“Thank you for being a strong force for economic development and bringing us together stronger as a community,” Levine said this week. “You have provided economic vitality, you have provided employment and you have created a much-needed service.”

Levine backs licensing, but doesn’t believe fees, language barriers and immigration status should continue to constrain the full potential of entrepreneurs. 

Possible reforms include calling on state government to do more to inform hair braiders about the licensing process. Those operating without a license risk a $500 fine. Having a designated office for hair braiders to sign up for a license would also help those who lack computer literacy. 

Advocates say that applications in French, Mandingo, Bambara, Djioula, Wolof and Fulani would further smooth the process for new English speakers. Reducing the training hours to 80 (20 of which should be for health and safety) would help, too, they say. Advocates also say that hair braiders, similar to security guards, should not have to take written and practical exams, but had a certificate of course completion sent to the Department of State. 

The Department of State should allow for two recommendations prior clients since some hair braiders own their salon and government officials should provide templates for those letters, according to the survey. The requirement for letters from consulates and tax returns should be gone. Allowing NYC Municipal ID cards would also be beneficial to African immigrants. 

Most importantly, advocates say two slots on the Appearance Enhancement Advisory Committee designated for natural hairstyles left vacant more than two years, should be filled.

“This further underscores the reason we have to advocate for the hundreds of Black women in the natural hair profession as natural hair stylists and how we need to break down these structural barriers in them receiving earnings and being able to support their families,” said Xamalya Rose, a representative from Public Advocate Jumaane Williams’ Office. “We need to focus the entry [for licenses] on health and safety, and not necessarily validating that someone has a skill set that they have learned that was passed on from generations and generations. That is the epitome of white supremacy.”

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