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Despite white discomfort, natural hair braiding is an issue of race and culture



“I take major offense at that,” said Rhode Island State Senator Elaine Morgan (Republican, District 34, Exeter Hopkinton, Richmond, West Greenwich) in response to the testimony of Joseph Buchanan, a 65 year old black man and lifelong Rhode Island resident. Buchanan had just finished testifying on S2323, which would “exempt natural hair braiders from the requirement to be licensed as hairdressers or cosmeticians, and would define the practice of natural hair braiding” before the Senate Committee on Commerce.

“You should,” replied Buchanan.

“Well,” continued Morgan, “Playing the race card like that isn’t going – isn’t in your best interest.”

“I was giving my opinion,” said Buchanan.

Buchanan’s opinion, presented in his usual blunt and direct style, may have been uncomfortable for the white people in the room, but he wasn’t wrong. The issue of natural hair braiding isn’t simply about an out of control regulatory state or the virtue of free markets: It’s about race and culture at a deep level.

“What I typically see in Rhode Island, is the plantation state,” said Buchanan in his testimony. “Any time people of color try to get ahead, you have things like this that stymie it. We know our culture. We know how to do our hair. We haven’t had a problem with it. It’s the white community or the business community that always has a problem with anything that any person of color does to improve themselves…

“What I know is that if you don’t pass this bill, the State of Rhode Island, again, does not like black people and people of color, in my opinion.”

The senate bill was introduced by Senator Dawn Euer (Democrat, District 13, Newport, Jamestown).

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During her testimony, cosmetologist Jackie Pace noted that, “Last year when a young lady did a demonstration, after she put the hair and braided it she stuck the comb in her mouth. And I was like, okay, those are the things you learn in school, about sanitation.”

Representative Anastasia Williams (Democrat, District 9, Providence), who introduced the House version of the bill, took exception to the charge of uncleanliness. She drew upon the long history of slavery, when African Americans learned creative ways to stay clean despite the brutal conditions under which they were kept. “Those were things that were creatively done by individuals who were interested in remaining clean in sanitation in spite of the hardship they were facing. But they did not keep it to themselves. They passed it on to generation, to generation, to generation.”

The issue of natural hair braiding is about culture and race. And charges of uncleanliness against people of color are rooted in the deep culture of white supremacy.

It was Jocelyn DoCouto who did the natural hair braiding demonstration for the senate committee last year.

“…last year, when I put the comb in my mouth? That was my daughter that I did it to,” said DoCouto. “So I wasn’t really thinking. If it was a client, I don’t know what they’ve done with their head. More than likely I’m not going to put it in my mouth.”

DoCouto also talked about the cultural aspects of hair braiding, and how she learned to braid hair as a young girl.

“At Christmas time every year I braid my two sister’s hair,” said Ray Rickman, a former Democratic state representative from Providence and cofounder of the organization Stages of Freedom. “My mother taught me how to do that at 11 years old… We were six kids.. and that was one of our duties. So I’ve been at this for fifty-plus years.”

Natural hair braiding, said Rickman, “is a cultural thing that’s generally racial… This morning… I called seven women that I know braid. Six of them, not publicly. Is that a nice way of putting it?” Rickman wants to bring this underground economy into the light. “These seven women… braid hair. Quietly. And it would be wonderful if you make it legal.”

“Finally,” added Rickman, “I gave you a one page statement from Quincy Mills, who is the foremost expert, an African-American professor, foremost expert on black hair and culture. And he asks you to pass this bill.”

Below are the testimonies of men and women to whom the culture and practice of natural hair braiding is important.

I’ve broken the testimony of Anastasia Williams into two parts because in the middle Senator Ana Quezada (Democrat, District 2, Providence) spoke about her family’s culture and tradition of natural hair braiding. Williams presented a history of black hair.

Representative Camille Vella Wilkinson (Democrat, District 21, Warwick) drew upon her 17 years of knowledge as a member of the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights.

“Black hair, as an industry, is a multi-billion dollar industry,” said Vella Wilkinson. “And when you consider, after listening to the history lesson that my sister [Anastasia Williams] has provided all of us, that there is a large portion of a culture that is being co-opted for economic reasons by another group of individuals, it’s hard, or at least it’s difficult or me, not to see this as somewhat of a racial divide.”

Here is all the testimony, in order:

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About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.