Thursday, 26 March 2015

Can White People Use The Word 'Nappy'?


I recently joined a Facebook group about biracial hair and the majority of the group members are white women based in the US. I have seen the word 'nappy' used several times in discussions about hair care and hair typing; 'nappy hair with knots on the end', 'coarse and nappy' and 'unkempt, nappy hair' are just some of the examples. And these are women describing their own children's hair.

The trouble with words is that their intent is often open to translation and while I can not speak for these ladies and why they chose to use this word, I can say that it is the first time I have felt deeply offended by it. Could this be another dreaded N word, that black people are allowed to say but white people aren't? Because I have seen the word nappy being used by black people and never really paid it any mind. I ask myself, am I only so offended because it has been used by white women to describe their biracial children's hair and if so, is that fair? 

Here in Kenya, nappy is not a word that was historically in our vocabulary, so it isn't very commonly used. If we do use it, it is very much an affected colloquialism. The Oxford Dictionary translation is:

'(of a black person's hair) frizzy'

while the urban dictionary description is:

'tightly coiled/curled unaltered hair. Coiled hair in it's natural state.'

Pretty innocuous, if used without the weight of history and the subtleties of context. But the racial overtones that arose when American slave owners began to refer to the hair of their slaves as nappy mean the word is often still used in a negative or derogatory context, even by black people. There are those, however, who are trying to reclaim it, and teach positive associations. But even with all this, is this a word that anyone who is not black can ever confidently use without raising eyebrows?

Nappy Hair by Carolivia Herron

Happy To Be Nappy by Bell Hooks

Nappy by Charisse Carney-Nunes

Nappy by George L. Cook

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