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Inspired by ‘Black wellness’ and the Crown Act, Spokane hairstylist Kameishi ‘Meme’ Williams opens first independent salon chair

July 17, 2022 Updated Sun., July 17, 2022 at 2:29 p.m.

At Sola Salon Studios, hairstylist Kameishi “Meme” Williams, business owner of The Sanctuary Beauty and Wellness, is dancing with herself to early 2000s R&B on a typical Wednesday.

She embodies the spirit of your favorite hairstylist. Hilarious and outgoing, she understands how to provide an intimate space.

“Hair stylists – we create peace of mind, we play therapist,” she said. “We teach, you’re learning. We’re giving you a moment to breathe, and that’s self-care. That’s why ‘wellness’ is also part of my brand.”

Williams wears her hair in a traditional sew-in with hair down to her waist, a classic, manageable style.

“With my hair, I’m versatile; how I’m feeling at the moment is what we’re giving,” she said. “I kinda go off the weather or how much I feel like doing, but outside of that, it’s always going to be a look.”

Williams’ passion for Black hair is reflected by the opening of her first salon and becoming a local figure fighting for hair equality for all through anti-discrimination laws.

This is one step in healing the complicated relationship between Black people and Black hair, one that Williams has decided to take on full force.

“Rather than doing hair ‘cause I can, I’m allowing God to lead me in what direction to go with it, and it’s building my purpose more and more,” Williams said.

The Crown Act (standing for “Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair”) looks to stop hair discrimination, particularly against Black people, while creating programs to love their hair. The Crown Act was implemented in California on June 27, 2019, after senator Holly J. Mitchell wrote and introduced it. Since then, the beauty company Dove created the Crown Act Coalition, which centers Black women and their experiences with hair discrimination.

This came after nationally recognized instances of hair discrimination, including Andrew Johnson, a high school wrestler forced to cut off his locks to compete in the last round of a New Jersey state championship in 2018. Alan Maloney, the referee who mandated the impromptu haircut, was suspended from officiating for two years.

Dress code policies have also been at the center of the Crown Act’s purpose. Deanna and Mya Cook, Black twins attending Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Massachusetts, were given multiple detentions for wearing Afros and braids to school. They were facing suspension before national outrage in 2017.

Earlier this year, Rogers High School Community Specialist Jaime Stacey notified Williams that hair was becoming a prominent issue within the school’s sports world. This began Williams’ work similar to the Crown Act.

“That’s what got me in the conversation, and, as a stylist, I just so happened to stumble upon the opportunity, to share my thoughts around it,” Williams said.

A Tacoma native, Williams always had a love for hair, which started with school. She showed signs of loving the craft as early as 6 years old. Her mother worked nights and sometimes overslept and missed a chance to do Williams’ hair before school.

“My mom would say, ‘Oh, your teacher did your hair? It looks so good!’ And I was like, ‘Girl, I was not leaving the house like that,’ ” Williams said. “That’s when I knew that Little Miss Kameishi was going to step, regardless.”

Candance “Candy” Wells and Catrina Ngwashi owned a beauty school and taught Williams how to do her hair. By her salon’s washing station, Williams has a photo of her at 12, happily prepping her sister’s hair for a style.

“I’d braid my big cousin’s hair, do sew-ins and it’d take all day,” Williams said. “But Catrina taught me how to properly cut hair since she was a licensed instructor.”

The community confirmation led Williams to Glen Dow Academy, where she graduated with a license in cosmetology in 2019. In her studies, Williams noticed some of the negativity surrounding Black hair and the trouble white stylists had with doing it.

“Here, in Spokane, there’s a really negative connotation around Black wellness in conjunction with our hair. A lot of the times, people are insecure,” she said.

The relationship between Black people and their hair can be distorted, complex and broken, especially when someone hasn’t learned how to properly care for it in its natural state.

This leads to dangerous alternatives to assimilate, including chemical products that straighten hair but lead to hair loss, fibroids and higher risks of contracting chemically induced cancers.

In 2021, the health journal Carcinogenesis published a study that detailed evidence that Black women could be at higher risk for estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancer if they use hair relaxers that contain lye.

The conversation gets trickier in families in which Black and biracial daughters are raised by white mothers.

This is a relatively common case in Spokane, where, according to the 2020 census, biracial people make up 5% of the population compared to the 2% of people who identify as Black.

Genetically, mixing races will alter hair textures. For people who are both Black and white, the tighter curl patterns associated with Black people and the straight, fine hair commonly found in white genetics could mix for a wavier, looser curl pattern.

Since genetic factors are random, however, the hair texture of a mixed-race person could still sport kinkier and tighter curl textures.

”There are so many mixed girls with loose curls that told me they grew up getting relaxers – that’s not even for your hair,” Williams said. “Especially if I can press it out and it’s bone straight with a light blow dry … you think you need a chemical straightener?”

Williams is inspired to teach people to love their hair in part because of her 3-year-old daughter, Aminah. Aminah is a fully Black child, and Williams does beaded braid up-dos and Afro puff styles to maintain her hair.

“She walks around telling people, ‘Oh! I like your hair. Oh! I like your hair,’ because she heard that from people and me growing up,” Williams said. “I need her to know that she is worthy just as she is, whether she offers anything or nothing at all.”

Within her clientele, Williams recalled numerous occasions where children would internalize the negative perceptions of their hair, calling it “nappy,” a derogatory term used in Black culture to describe coarse, matted or tangled hair.

“I hate the word ‘nappy’ … we need to change the language around our hair and the way we talk about it. There’s so many other descriptive words,” Williams said. “If I did something abstract with my hair every time, and my mom was yelling, ‘You look a mess!’ I’d never have the courage to be a salon owner.”

Chelsea Messan has been Williams’ client for a year. Messan is Togolese, with shared ancestry from the Mina and Ewe tribes. She has a 4c medium-sized Afro, one of the tightest, most delicate curl patterns.

She came to Williams’ salon for a wash and trim after the two created successful hair growth plans. Messan used relaxers for a decade, but recognized the danger, along with how it affected her self-esteem.

“My relationship with my hair was very typical for Black women my age; it took me years to learn how to care for it, and I’m still learning, actually,” said Messan, 27. “It definitely took some time learning to love my hair as well.”

She found Williams’ attentive care to her Afro helped her regain confidence and comprehension when it came to her hair.

“She listens to you. She’ll address whatever you ask her to address and doesn’t give unsolicited advice,” Messan said. “She’s really a calming presence, reassuring you, guiding you. You can tell she cares for her craft and what she’s doing, and that definitely makes a difference. You want to go to people who aren’t just doing it for money.”

While Williams nourishes personal relationships, she is also participating in hair-positive conversations at the state and legal level. Implementing the Crown Act nationally is the next step. She serves as one of Washington’s Crown Act spokeswomen, as it aligns with her purpose as a Black stylist in Spokane.

“I didn’t know why I was supposed to be in Spokane, all of this stuff happened so aligned, especially with so many Black girls not being raised by Black women,” she said.

On June 9, Williams participated in a virtual discussion with California hairstylist and salon owner Kari Williams. Natasha Hill, a District 5 congressional candidate, sponsored the conversation. Williams detailed the experience of being a hairstylist in Spokane, along with some of the harmful practices she’s seen in regards to doing Black hair.

Williams recalled moments where she’d hear parents call their daughter’s hair a “disaster” when frustrated with the upkeep.

“It’s all about the language. I had a little girl, and the mother just kept saying mean things to the little kid, she told her that she was a disaster because she cut some of her hair,” Williams said. “This is her crown. She gets to accept it, she gets to decide how she feels about it. Talk to them so they know they have healthy options.”

She’s created her own initiatives that align with the Crown Act to educate the Spokane community. Williams hosts “Get Comfy with Your Curls,” a monthly hair education class that distills decades of Black hair care into a two-hour session. Williams held the class session on June 14 at the Carl Maxey Center.

“I want to change how we feel about hair, but we can’t do that until we build community and trust,” Williams said. “It’s the lack of education that comes with the lack of confidence. It’s disheartening to see. I can help you find that.”

Jena Toulou, 37, and Alea Smelser-Batibure, 15, attended the June session. The two are among that 5% of Spokane families that are biracial; Toulou is white, and Smelser-Batibure is Black and white. They drove from Cheney to attend the class.

Toulou praised Williams as “great representation and a sense of validation” for her daughter, as the class opens the door for conversations where the discomfort and lack of knowledge is welcomed.

“She comes home a lot with comments she’s heard about her hair … I didn’t know a lot about her hair, her dad didn’t know anything about her hair, so to learn about it myself, she wanted me to come in case I have to do her hair,” Toulou said.

Williams builds an interactive environment, including an informative slideshow for what’s typically best for Black hair and mannequin hair dolls for those who prefer hands-on learning.

In the name of relatability, Williams also uses Aminah as a model to showcase the real-life struggles of doing hair on talkative minds and jittery bodies that just won’t sit still.

“When you’re parting and sectioning the hair, a rattail comb is your best friend,” Williams said, Aminah squirming. “I’m just sectioning the hair off in different ways. You don’t have to use too much tension; especially if the product is good, you won’t have to tug on it so much.”

Williams doesn’t hold back from the secrets of healthy hair, either. She gives the advice of only working on wet hair to prevent damage, hydrating the hair and the importance of washed pillowcases to prevent accumulated dirt seeping into the hair.

“Just as much as your skin needs to be hydrated, your scalp needs it, too,” Williams said.

“If you don’t have proper scalp care, then the rest of your hair doesn’t even make a difference.”

Williams answers every question, fueling each answer with patience, charisma and humor. One of the participants of the learning session asked about consistency when doing a toddler’s hair.

“For small kids, they’re going to be looking crazy in less than 24 hours anyways, like Aminah and I used to go to war,” Williams said. “One time I did her hair for Christmas, that lasted all of 19 minutes. We were about to go to dinner, I looked at her and said, ‘Sis …’ She was out here fighting for her life.”

In the name of education, Williams also taps into her own vulnerability, detailing how she realized Aminah’s scalp was suffering and showing signs of the hair follicle being torn from the scalp.

“A lot of the times, if you overpull the hair, they’ll get little white bumps and that’s the hair popping out of the follicle,” Williams said.

Williams’ decision to not leave Black people behind is a reason why her light shines so brightly, why her appointment books are never empty and how she will continue to fulfill her purpose by healing her community.

The next class session is Tuesday at The Carl Maxey Center. Williams will teach the class easy braiding and twisting methods for kid hairstyles, along with children hair care practices.

“It’s nice to have people with the same hair as me, because nobody around does usually since I’ve been little,” said Smelser-Batibure who purchased one of Williams’ hair kits after class. “This class will help me in the long run to be more confident.”

While Williams played some B2K in her salon, she looked around. She can’t wait to style it with brown paint and gold shimmer, words of affirmations and an aura of safety. There will be mirrors all over the walls so her clients can’t run from themselves, but accept what is in front of them.

After all, The Sanctuary’s Beauty and Wellness saying is: “Beauty has no boundaries.”

“We all have different textures, all of our hair does something different and all of our hair looks so different, but all of us can look super fly in our natural state,” Williams said. “We’re never going to thrive as a city if people don’t feel safe enough to be authentic.”

Amber D. Dodd's work as the Carl Maxey Racial and Social Inequity reporter for Eastern Washington and North Idaho primarily appears in both The Spokesman-Review and The Black Lens newspapers, and is funded in part by the Michael Conley Charitable Fund, the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, the Innovia Foundation and other local donors from across our community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper's managing editor.

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