CHICAGO—For African-American women, hair has been the battleground over definitions of beauty. And when it comes to their hair, no word is more incendiary than “nappy.”
So when radio host Don Imus described members of Rutgers University’s women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos,” he not only devalued a talented group of young women with a misogynistic term. He also stepped into a fray over “good hair” vs. “bad hair” that has gone on for generations in the black community, stirring up pain and anger over a word that little black girls still lob at one another each other as an insult.
As officials at Rutgers denounced Imus’ remarks Tuesday and groups continued to press for his resignation, an animated discussion unfolded in black beauty salons and barbershops across the Chicago area.
“`Nappy-headed’ means you don’t look good. They used that word on slaves, like we don’t have hair that’s good enough,” said Tina Branch, a hair stylist on the city’s South Side. Her clients nodded in agreement.
“It’s a word that makes you feel bad, like you don’t look your best.”
The negative meaning of nappy—a reference to tightly curled hair—has been attacked over the years as Afros, dreadlocks and other natural styles celebrated the coarse texture of most African hair. Yet, despite popular tote bags, shirts and books that proclaim “Happy to be Nappy,” for some blacks the word implies that people you are not beautiful unless their your hair is straight.
The idea dates back to a time when many black women felt the need to conform to a white standard of beauty promoted in mainstream culture. Today, African-American women feel free to wear their hair chemically straightened or natural.
Still, there is a billion-dollar industry built on products and companies that promise to eliminate curls from textured ethnic hair. And even in Chicago, hair salons that use chemicals to transform tight curls curled hair into straight, flowing hair are crowded on almost every main street in the African-American community.
“Nappy can be considered the other n-word sometimes,” said Lanita Jacobs-Huey, an anthropologist and associate professor at the University of Southern California. “When it’s used by someone outside of the community, it can be seen as offensive.”
But pair the word nappy with the explicit word “ho” and it’s a particularly traumatic slur, Jacobs-Huey said.
“When Don Imus uses the term, it can be painful,” she said, noting that the context added to the insult. “He said `nappy-headed,’ making a derogatory comment about hair, and paired it with `hos,’ which is a sexual reference. It plays to how black women have been sexualized in the media.”
No one has documented the origin of the word nappy as it applies to blacks, Jacobs-Huey said. But historically the word has been used to slight African-Americans who either could not straighten their hair or refused to wear it straight, or in more European styles.
The word often has been used among blacks toward other blacks. But it becomes touchy when a person of another race uses the word, Jacobs-Huey said.
This isn’t the first time use of the word nappy has stirred controversy. In 1998, when a white teacher brought the book “Nappy Hair” to share with her 3rd-grade class, some parents of her African-American parents were livid. Though the book affirmed natural hair, the parents were upset because the teacher was white.
Hyde Park hair stylist Larry Parker said the word is still tossed around often, especially in hair salons. But it all depends on who is saying it and what they mean.
“African-Americans can say it to each other because we know what it feels like to wear that name or that label,” he said. “But others outside our race can’t say it. They don’t understand it, they don’t have to live it and they don’t identify with it.
“We shouldn’t have to explain why it’s an insult,” he said. “It’s just not acceptable to say something like that in this day and age. In 2007, you should know better.”
When Angela Fisher-Brim heard Imus’ comment, she said it the insult took her back to another era. All she could think of was blaxploitation films in which where highly sexualized black women with natural hairstyles were glorified. It was an image and stereotype she had hoped most people had dismissed.
“His comment reflects what he feels inside for African-American women,” she said. “It’s a feeling deeply rooted in this culture. It’s a racial slur and it’s ignorant.”
As Branch discussed the word in her salon, her co-workers and clients piped upon the topic. At her salon, most of the women come in to have their hair straightened and styled.
“I ain’t nappy-headed,” said Monique McCoy. “I’ve got a comb. That word is for people who can’t get their hair straight.”
“It don’t look good to be nappy-headed,” Branch said as she explained that for many African-Americans “good” hair is still considered European-style straight.
Almost all of his life, Donald Kindle has been called nappy-headed, he said. It’s mainly because he’s chosen to wear his hair in natural styles.
He has learned not to be offended by the word, he said.
“It’s something every black person has heard at some point,” he said. “As long as you know who you are, it doesn’t matter.”
(Chicago Tribune staff reporter Michelle Keller contributed to this report.)