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Hair Braiding Lawsuit

Christine McLean, top, braids Nivea Earl's hair at her shop, Labelle Professional Hair Braiding, in Little Rock, Ark., in 2014. (Associated Press)

For almost a decade, I’ve been able to follow my passion and braid hair professionally. At first, I worked out of my home, braiding hair for people in my community, particularly for interracial foster and adoptive parents who often struggle with caring for textured hair. But as my business grew, I realized I needed to expand and set up a storefront to keep up with the demand.

So, along with my two sisters, I opened a natural hair salon and spa on Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis in 2014. Business was booming, and in February, I opened a new — and bigger — salon that currently employs 13 people.

But in Missouri, braiders are treated like criminals. Without a barber or cosmetologist license, earning a living braiding hair is actually a crime, punishable by fines and even jail time. In Missouri, a cosmetologist license requires at least 1,500 hours of classes, and attending a cosmetology school can cost as much as $20,000.

As part of that training, I would have to learn how to give hand and arm massages, style eyebrows, use flat irons and hood dryers, and handle potentially dangerous chemicals to bleach or straighten hair — all skills I have never used and never will use in my business. Adding insult to injury, many cosmetology schools don’t even teach braiding, let alone ancestral, African-style braiding.

Complying with the state’s licensing laws would be a waste of time and money. I have already earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree, and I trained under JoAnne Cornwell to become a certified consultant in Sisterlocks, a unique style of natural hair care. Obtaining a cosmetologist license — a completely useless credential for me — makes absolutely no sense.

But now Missouri has a chance to expand economic opportunity for braiders. Two bills are pending in the Legislature that would exempt natural hair braiding from the state’s barbering and cosmetology laws and replace them with more common-sense regulations.

Under Rep. Shamed Dogan’s HB 230, braiders would only have to register with the state, read a brochure that covers scalp diseases and infection control, and take a self-test on that material. Sen. Andrew Koenig’s SB 227 is similar, but the current version replaces the brochure with an instructional video.

Last month, HB 230 overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives 137-10. It’s now awaiting a hearing in the Senate Professional Registration Committee, chaired by Sen. Jeanie Riddle. That same committee previously voted to pass SB 227, which now awaits “perfection” and a vote on the Senate floor.

If passed, these reforms would eliminate a huge burden for braiders like myself and allow us to work without the fear of a government crackdown looming over our heads. Licensing reform would also help boost entrepreneurship in the African-American community.

But if the Legislature does not fix this problem, I will continue my lawsuit to have these regulations ruled unconstitutional. In 2014, I partnered with the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that has filed lawsuits for hair braiders in over a dozen states, and sued the state cosmetology board in federal court. That case is ongoing. I won’t stop fighting for my rights and the rights of all braiders in Missouri.

Almost half the country has already deregulated braiding hair. In 21 states, braiders do not need a license at all, which includes neighboring Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska. This year, Indiana, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Rhode Island are also considering freeing braiders from pointless licensing laws. It’s time for Missouri regulators to get out of our hair.

Tameka Stigers is the owner of Locs of Glory.