Tennessee Has Fined Residents Nearly $100,000, Just For Braiding Hair

Ever since she was a little girl, Fatou Diouf has been braiding hair. And for almost two decades, Fatou has turned that tradition into a vocation by working professionally as a licensed natural hair stylist in Tennessee.

“I never did any other job but hair braiding my whole life,” she said. “I cannot recall a time when I did not know how.”

But in recent years, Tennessee has forced Fatou to pay a staggering $16,000 in fines, simply because she employed workers who did not have a government license to braid hair. Nor is she alone. After examining meeting minutes and disciplinary actions for the Tennessee Board of Cosmetology and Barber Examiners, the Institute for Justice has identified nearly $100,000 in fines levied against dozens of braiders and more than 30 different natural hair shops and salons since 2009. All of those violations were for unlicensed braiding; none were triggered by any health or sanitation violation.

Typically, the Board will issue a $1,000 “civil penalty” for every instance of “performing natural hair care services for clients without a license” it encounters. In addition to fining braiders who work out of their homes or unlicensed salons, the Board has targeted licensed shops, like Fatou’s.

For Fatou, those heavy fines have been “very stressful.” Under a payment plan for her most recent violations, she has had to pay over $830 a month to the state, a burdensome expense she’s struggled to cover, on top of providing for her two children, dealing with her divorce, and sending remittances to support her family back in Senegal.

Driven by those first-hand experiences, Fatou has become of the most outspoken voices for reform. Together with the Institute for Justice and the Beacon Center, Fatou has testified in favor of a bill that would eliminate the state’s license for natural hair stylists—and the Board’s basis for fining braiders. “We can create more employment if this bill passes,” she said.

With a rich heritage dating back thousands of years, natural hair styles—which shun the use of any potentially harsh chemicals—have grown increasingly popular in many African American and immigrant communities. Today, braiders are free to work without a license in almost half the country.

But in Tennessee, only licensed “natural hair stylists” may earn a living by braiding, twisting, wrapping, weaving, extending or locking hair. Obtaining that license can be quite the ordeal. Braiders must complete at least 300 hours of coursework, which often means sacrificing the equivalent of working almost two months full-time. Across the entire state, only 3 schools offer those courses, charging anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000 for tuition.

With her years of experience, completing the classes required for a state license was “mostly a waste of my time,” Fatou recalled. “We don’t need 300 hours to know how to wash a clip or a comb.”

Read more of this Forbes op-ed by Nick Sibilla by clicking here.

Photo: Institute for Justice