It’s business but it’s culture

child with her hair braided

Despite the name of this blog, I rarely say anything about hair. But I heard something yesterday morning that irked me from a cultural and business perspective. I head a story on NPR’s Morning Edition about professional licensing. Jestina Clayton, who grew up in Sierra Leone and moved to the U.S. at 18, started a hair braiding business in her home, and “found a little niche braiding the hair of adopted African children.” When she put an ad on a websiste, someone threatened to report her for operating a business without a license. She ended up shutting down because it would take 2 years and $16,000 to get the license, and it wouldn’t teach her how to do what she was already doing.

On the business level, this angers me because she was doing what business owners are supposed to do to get more business, and she was punished for it. I’m also mad that, as the story says, the licensing is just a scheme to keep competition down. I understand that, but given that this took place in Utah, most of the cosmetologists who took time away from their businesses to show up and protest against Jestina were probably white and didn’t know how to do the kind of braiding she was doing anyway.

Thinking about this culturally pisses me off because I see going to someone’s house to get your hair braided—and paying the braider—almost as a rite of passage for black girls and women. Yes, I’ve had a few bad experiences with this, but my scalp didn’t end up blistered and any damage to my hair came more from the relaxers I was putting in it than the braiding. And I usually had fun going to a different house and meeting someone new. We do unique things to our head. If you grow up learning how to do them, why do you need someone who doesn’t know anything about that to validate your skills?

This is not to diminish the need for or skills of a professionally licensed cosmetologist. I do see a licensed master stylist (who’s fantastic, with whom I’m very happy and who continues training to perfect her craft), but I get my hair done as a treat, as has been my habit since I stopped putting relaxers in my head 12 years ago. When I don’t go to her, I do it myself or my mom or my cousin does it, and this has been a source of bonding for us since I was a child.

How many times did you ask to see the state-approved cosmetology license of the woman braiding your hair? How many times did you ask your mom to produce one before she touched your head? Do you have to be licensed to do your own hair? I know when you decide to start a business, there are certain rules you have to follow to be a “real” business, and in today’s lawsuit-happy times, it’s best to be protected. But Jestina’s case just doesn’t seem fair.

What do you think? How did growing up with this tradition affect you? Are you still getting your hair done at someone’s house? Do you feel consumers who do need protection?

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3 thoughts on “It’s business but it’s culture

  1. Personally, I have always despised getting my hair done whether it’s at a professional salon or someone’s house, but I agree that for our generation and the generations before it was almost a rite of passage getting your hair done in someone’s kitchen. I also agree that it’s a shame this woman had to close her business because, as you mentioned, I’m sure there are very few stylists in Utah who can do the type of braid she did. But I do wonder what type of protection there is for someone if you’re very badly burned by say a relaxer given by someone who runs his or her business from home with no license. Is there any recourse?

    1. That’s a good question, and I’m sure a person in the situation you described could sue. I’m embarrassed to say, I’ve seen someone do just that on Judge Joe Brown (I promise, I’m not really watching it; it’s just on when I go to my grandmother’s house). I do think the licensing probably adds a bit of protection for the stylist against someone who’s lawsuit-happy, too, but the story still made me sad. I read your post about the new black beauty culture, and naturalistas are carving out new traditions, but I think the bond is missing.

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