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African Hair Braider Sues Wash. Department Of Licensing, Seeks Clarity On Regulations

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Ashley Gross
/
KPLU
Salamata Sylla braids her daughter's hair at a press conference announcing her lawsuit.

The owner of an African hair-braiding salon has filed a suit against the state Department of Licensing in the latest move by a cottage industry that has fought to limit what they call unnecessary regulations.

For the past two years, SalamataSylla has owned a salon in Kent where she braids hair in the traditional African style. Last year, two inspectors from the Department of Licensing told her she’d have to get a state cosmetology license if she wanted to keep braiding hair for pay.

"He told me that I need to stop, close my shop and go to school," Sylla said.

Sylla resisted and told the inspectors that cosmetology schools in Washington state don’t even teach African hair braiding. She then linked up with the libertarian law firm Institute For Justice, which has filed numerous lawsuits on behalf of African hair braiders, including cases in Arkansas and Missouri.

But state Department of Licensing spokeswoman Christine Anthony says hair braiders do not need cosmetology licenses in Washington as long as they’re not cutting hair or using chemicals. 

She says the confusion stems from how Sylla was doing hair extensions; the inspectors thought she was using some kind of glue, but she was just braiding in the extensions.

"We feel our inspectors are very educated about the issue," Anthony said. "It was just sort of a misunderstanding about the actual hair extension."

The Institute for Justice says it is proceeding with the lawsuit because it wants a permanent injunction prohibiting the state from applying the cosmetology law to people who do natural hair braiding. 

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.