Political hair: Occupational Licensing and the Regulation of Race and Gender Identity

Kimberley S. Johnson

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    This article argues that African American hair is a political matter by examining the little-known role of state occupational licensing of African American hair care. By focusing on recent legal challenges and legislative battles over state regulation of hair-care provision for African Americans, the article traces state authorities' responses to struggles over market share between licensed, and often native-born, African American beauticians, and typically unlicensed, and often recent African immigrant, hair braiders. Hair braiders challenged state regulatory oversight by invoking racial deference claims, in which they argued that braiding was a “cultural practice” that should be exempt from state regulation. A statistical analysis of state regulatory decision making revealed that states varied widely in addressing the issue of African American hair care. While racial deference claims, in the form of legal cases, put pressure on states to exempt hair braiders from regulatory oversight, by and large, most states did not choose this path. For states that did choose to address the demands for market protection or market relief, the choices were mostly in the direction of enacting new regulations or actively incorporating hair braiders under existing regulations. Despite the invocation of racial deference claims, African American hair care was not freed from state oversight—state regulators became more flexible in their oversight of Black hair care rooted in their concerns over public safety as well as the demands from a variety of interest groups. The analysis reveals that when race/gender and state regulation intersect, traditional economic theories of occupational licensing are not sufficient; an intersectional approach can better explain policy outcomes.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)417-440
    Number of pages24
    JournalDu Bois Review
    Issue number2
    StatePublished - Oct 24 2011


    • Gender
    • Immigration
    • Interest Groups
    • Intersectionality
    • Licensing
    • Race
    • Regulation
    • States

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Cultural Studies
    • Anthropology
    • Sociology and Political Science


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