Should Hair Braiders Be Licensed?

An Illinois bill seeks to get more hair braiders credentialed, to the relief of many customers. But will it create a black tax?

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Charemi Jones, an "occasional braid wearer," has experienced it all when it comes to hair-related drama. The Chicago police officer's hair has been braided so tight she had to take Ibuprofen to ease headaches. And once she had a braid rip away from her scalp while she was sleeping.

So the fact that Illinois legislators passed a law in late April requiring braiders to obtain specialized training and a license offers Jones some comfort about the direction of the hair-braiding industry. The new requirement "will help set a standard. There needs to be some professionalism to it," says Jones, who leads an active life running and practicing martial arts.

Other braid wearers share her sentiments about the law, sponsored by state representative Will Burns (D-26th district). The bill, expected to be signed by the governor in coming weeks, will require existing hair braiders who have shown they have practiced their craft for at least two years to get a license for a fee. Going forward, those who are new to the industry will be able to obtain a license after 300 hours of training in braiding and creating intricate styles, as well as sanitation.

Prior to the bill, hair braiders were subject to the more rigorous standards of traditional hair stylists, estheticians and barbers--who only can obtain a license after receiving a degree, taking up to 1,500 hours and costing $15,000. There are more than 60,000 cosmetologists in the state of Illinois.

The hair-braiding shop owners, many of whom are African and black American women, saw the current law as unreasonable. They ignored it because they had learned the ancient braiding craft as young girls and perfected it through the years. State regulators didn't see it the same way and started shutting down many of the shops that can be found mostly on the South and West Sides of Chicago.

A number of shop owners took their business underground, either working from their homes or just taking select clients, says Alie Kabba, executive director of the Chicago-based United African Organization.

"It's wrong to criminalize a perfectly legal profession. It's anti-competitive," says Kabba, whose Chicago-based organization stepped in and pushed for State Rep. Burns to introduce the specific hair braiding law. Working with state legislators and braiders, the organization also set up a curriculum that fits the amount of time and money needed for adequate training.

"We realize that within the hair-braiding profession that there needs to be some basic training," particularly in sanitation, he says. "That doesn't require thousands of dollars."

Yet the new requirements raise some questions for some hair-braiding patrons about the motives of the state, which has faced declining revenue. "I don't truly see this as trying to professionalize the industry," says Kennise Herring, a psychologist in Chicago who wore braids for many years before switching to sister locks (a much slimmer version of traditional dreads) about 10 years ago. "I see this as an effort to tap into a new stream of revenue for the state."

"I've seen brushes full with someone else's hair when I sat down in the chair for a blow dry; locks and braids falling off because they were twisted too tightly; and just a number of people who think they can do natural hair simple because they have an afro," says Tracey Harris, a Chicago-based electrical engineer and marathoner, who no longer wears braids.