Black women know what to expect when they go to get their hair braided from a seasoned professional: a wall full of every possible shade of synthetic hair, TVs playing videos from countries across the African diaspora, pictures of famous braided celebrities like Alicia Keys and Ciara, a row of salon chairs, a cluster of mirrors, an array of combs and hair gels on every surface.
Anita Yeboah's hair braiding shop in Trenton, New Jersey, is no exception.
But in many states those cultural clues aren’t enough to validate hairstylists in the eyes of local legislators and cosmetology boards. If you want to legally braid hair in Anita’s home state of New Jersey, you need to have up to $20,000 on hand and approximately 1,200 hours of free time for a class.
That’s what it takes to get the state-mandated cosmetology license. Black and immigrant women who offer African hair braiding services say that’s not only a steep personal and financial investment but also an unjust occupational burden and an utter waste of their time.
Beauty schools typically focus on practices like cutting, coloring, chemical straightening, and nail painting. Braiders rarely wash their clients’ hair before they style, and they never use chemicals or sharp tools. The majority of them learn to braid at home in countries in Africa and the Caribbean, or in tight-knit communities in the United States.
Even so, New Jersey is one of thirteen states in the country that treats braiding like any other beauty service that requires a mainstream cosmetology license. Without one, braiders are at constant risk for inspection visits, expensive fines, and business shutdowns.
For Peter Macri, a longtime barber and a recent member of the New Jersey State Board of Cosmetology and Hairstyling, the current rules help to keep all stylists working under a single standard and sanitary practice.
But others, like Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, who is a black female lawmaker, say braiding “is a perfect opportunity for entrepreneurs, especially African descendants, to be able to provide for their families.” To her, occupational licensing is an obstacle to economic advancement.
VICE News traveled to New Jersey to meet with a coalition of braiders fighting to reverse legislation and separate hair braiding from cosmetology for good.
This segment originally aired May 3, 2018, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.