African hair braider, seeks clarity on laws

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My name is Salamata Sylla and I am the proud owner of Kent’s Sally’s African Hair Braiding. I am from Senegal. I love home, I’m very proud of where I’m from. And since I moved here at the age of 15, I have been doing my bit to keep the West African hair braiding tradition alive in the United States.

I came to the United States of America for a better life, a better future. But when you get here things are a little different, it’s not paradise. You know, back home they show you Hollywood, until you get to JFK and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on!’

My sister put me through school. After school I would go to her hairdressing salon and do hair braiding and on Saturdays and Sundays too. Women would visit from as far away as Portland and Spokane.

Now I have my own shop but about a year ago, I was paid a visit by the Department of Licensing. The two officers who conducted the inspection told me that I needed a cosmetology license to do hair braiding. I told them, I didn’t need one. They said I needed to go to school, I needed to close my shop. We argued back and forth.

For almost a year they insisted but I stood my ground. I know that I don’t have to go to school to do hair braiding. I know my rights. There were no complaints listed for my salon and no other shop was targeted but mine, in Seattle, as far as I know.

So I decided to file a lawsuit. But the day before it was filed I got a call from the Department of Licensing. They told me that I could carry on with my business and that it was all a big misunderstanding. But for me it was a little too late. I don’t think it is right for you to harass someone for no just cause for a whole year and then when they decide to take legal action, all of a sudden you want to call and apologize.

Now they have to deal with a lawsuit. I am not asking for any money. What I want is an actual law that states that hair braiders do not have to go to cosmetology school. This is something that Paul Avelar, the Institute For Justice attorney, says was already established, but somehow it magically disappeared. They need to bring it back.

“Way back in 2005, the Department of Licensing, in response to an earlier lawsuit that we had against them, said that natural hair braiding wasn’t the practice of cosmetology because it didn’t use things like chemicals or hair cutting or heat or anything like that,” said Paul.

And that is my point. Cosmetology school doesn’t actually teach braiding, something that keeps many West African immigrant woman afloat in this country.

We braid hair to survive, instead of being on the streets or doing different things that are illegal. We braid hair to feed our children while getting our life on track. This is a job that helps us keep our dignity and allows us to celebrate our heritage.

Braiding is a gift. Nobody really teaches you. It has to be inside of you. I can be on my feet for up to eight hours braiding hair. This is my passion. It is my gift.

A court date has yet to be set, but Paul says they have filed several similar lawsuits in states around the country.

Source: This GoWoman Diary entry was coined from an article originally written by Rachel Belle for MyNorthwest. The article has been purposely rewritten so it reads in the first person.

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