New Law Would Relax State Strictures on Hair-Braiding in New Jersey

Carly Sitrin | May 9, 2018 | More Issues
The practice has its roots in West Africa. Current NJ regulations require attendance at cosmetology schools, many of which have no classes on the subject

If you want to braid Afro-textured hair in New Jersey, you have to spend the equivalent of 50 days in a cosmetology school even though most such schools don’t even teach braiding.

A new bill would eliminate that requirement and make it easier to open and operate natural hair-braiding shops, which could be a boon for immigrants and New Jerseyans of color; public testimony on the bill is set to be heard tomorrow. (It’s called natural hair-braiding because it doesn’t use chemicals and incorporates the natural hair into the braid; thus, a natural” hairstyle as opposed to one that’s been relaxed or smoothed with chemicals.)

A young woman gets Senegalese twists at Tima Fashion African Hair Braiding Shop in Trenton.
The legislation (A-3754) in the Assembly is sponsored by three black legislators, Angela McKnight (D-Hudson), Shanique Speight (D-Essex), and Arthur Barclay (D-Camden). It would remove the state’s licensing requirements for potential hair braiders and instead would mandate that all hair-braiding shops register with the state. It would also create a committee within the Division of Consumer Affairs under the state Board of Cosmetology and Hairstyling to issue and renew registrations, establish criteria to which hair-braiding shops must adhere, and establish general health and safety standards for hair braiders. In the Senate, the bill (S-2510) is sponsored by Sen. Fred Madden (D-Gloucester).

The division of consumer affairs and state cosmetology board were not available for comment.

Need to remove barriers

Advocates say the legislation, if passed, would remove significant barriers placed on hairstylists of color in the state who practice on customers of color.

Senegalese twists with red extensions
Afro-textured hair is tightly coiled and encompasses a variety of curl types and groups, but in general, natural hair can be quite delicate and require a good deal of care, moisture, and attention. Protective styles, such as braids, twists, dreadlocks, knots, and wigs can be used to tuck away the fragile ends of hair and give the follicles a break from heat-styling and chemicals. The hair can be braided on its own but is more frequently woven into extensions made of synthetic or human hair. These methods are time-consuming and nearly impossible to do on oneself and require a skilled and steady hand.

Braiding styles have their roots in West Africa and the practice stretches back thousands of years. Because of the labor and time-intensive nature of braiding, the intricate styles often took on deep social meaning in communities and families. The braider’s home was often a community gathering spot and mothers used braiding as a time to bond with their children. Africans learned to braid as children and honed their artistry as they grew, passing the tradition on from generation to generation. The same holds true in communities of color today.

Hadijatou Tima Cisse
Hadijatou Tima Cisse, a Senegalese immigrant and braider working in Trenton, said her shop is a place for women of all ages and backgrounds to come together and spend time catching up and talking about events in the neighborhood. She said the shop regularly donates to the city police force as well as to hospitals across the state.

Cultural connection

“We are friendly with everybody … we are a member of the community, so we support the community,” Cisse said. “Also, I love doing it. It’s part of my culture.”

In the United States, slavery forced Africans to shave their heads or keep them covered as Afro-textured hair was looked down on by white Americans. Even after Emancipation, black Americans found themselves in a culture dominated by Caucasian-style hair and began using harsh chemicals and heating methods to straighten and smooth their locks to conform with a Eurocentric ideal of beauty.

From the 1960’s onward, the natural-hair movement began to empower black Americans and people of color around the world to embrace their true hair texture. As the movement grew, demand for braiding shops increased.

However, some braiders argue that state laws did not adapt to the changing culture.

New Jersey is one of 13 states that requires hair braiders to be licensed by the State Board of Cosmetology and Hairstyling. To secure that license, they must log at least 1,200 hours at an accredited cosmetology school. The problem is: those courses don’t necessarily teach braiding. The curriculum devotes around 27 hours to topics that may be useful for braiders —things like state laws and regulations, decontamination and infection control methods, and professional image and hygiene practices. The remaining 1,173 hours of instruction covers topics like the history of barbering and shaving, hair tinting and bleaching, chemical perms, manicures and pedicures, and even chemistry related to cosmetology, all with a focus on Caucasian-style hair.

No cutting, no dyeing, no relaxing

Hortense Fassu is a braider at Elegance Hair Braiding in Trenton.
Hortense Fassu, a braider working in Trenton and born in Cameroon, has lived in New Jersey for 17 years. She said earning a living by braiding was a natural and enjoyable way for her to get to know her community and keep food on the table for her family.

“It just comes easily to people from Africa, it’s part of our culture,” she said. “You have to know how to [braid] for your community and your kids.”

When she wanted to open her braiding salon, Fassu said she went to the city halls of both Hamilton and Trenton to make sure she was following the letter of the law. However, she said, no one informed her of the cosmetology requirement. She thought if she wasn’t cutting, dyeing, relaxing, or shaving any hair she shouldn’t have to pay tuition and spend time attending a school that only taught those methods. She was fined $1,150 in 2015 for braiding without a state license. (Braiding shops typically do not also cut and dye hair. Braiders differentiate themselves from stylists because they only braid.)

“I pay my taxes, I do everything right,” Fassu said. She added that, when she received notice of the fine, she asked “‘why do you want me to go to school for something I already know how to do?’ I asked who teaches braiding there and they couldn’t tell me.’”

Obsolete laws

As a young black woman with natural hair, Assemblywoman McKnight said she is perfectly positioned to change state law. She was surprised to learn of the strict requirements imposed on braiders and the lack of braiding classes offered at cosmetology schools. But, she said, the key to getting the rest of her largely white, male legislative colleagues on board is simply to share stories like Fassu’s. McKnight said she doesn’t anticipate much pushback on the legislation.

“Those laws are obsolete. It’s time for a change. It’s 2018.” McKnight said. “If I come to them with the right people and the right stories, I believe we can sell this.”

Braiders from across the state will gather at the State House tomorrow to testify at both the Assembly and Senate committee hearings.

Though McKnight doesn’t anticipate opposition to the proposed legislation, the central argument for licensing hair braiders is to protect customers from untrained or ill-prepared braiders and to establish a standard of public health.

According to an Institute for Justice study of states with strict braiding laws versus states without, however, “there is little evidence that occupational licensing, in general, successfully protects the health and safety of consumers or licensees.”

Strict laws make no difference

Box braids
Researchers at the institute collected and examined official complaints and documents from nine states dating back to 2006 and found that not only did states with stricter policies have the same low number of complaints as states with more relaxed laws, but those strict states had fewer licensed braiders overall. They found that the laws had done little to protect public health and were instead keeping braiders from owning and operating their own businesses.

Under pressure from braiders and people of color in diverse communities, a growing number of states have begun loosening the licensing requirements or removing them entirely. Virginia, for example, found that “no evidence of public harm supported the continued regulation of hair braiding” and subsequently removed the licensing barriers.

A change to New Jersey law is overdue, McKnight said. She noted that more black Americans are embracing their natural hair and trending away from applying harsh chemicals and relaxers to straighten and smooth it. According to a recent consumer study, sales of hair relaxer have decreased in the U.S. by at least 26 percent since 2008. But McKnight noted that changes in the law would have more than just an economic benefit; she said they would also be a step in “unlearning” a bias against natural hair.

The Perception Institute recently released results from its “Good Hair Study,” a test of implicit bias that measured 4,163 participants and found that “a majority of people, regardless of race and gender, hold some bias towards women of color based on their hair.” This bias gets reflected in real world examples of women being passed over for jobs or discriminated against in professional settings simply because of their hair style.

It also found “promising evidence that the effects of bias can be overridden” and reported that millennials showed far more positive attitudes toward textured hair than their older counterparts, and that white women who engage regularly with members of natural-hair communities online or in person have lower levels of bias overall.

“It’s a cultural tradition and it’s art,” Fassu said. “It’s a part of who I am.”