Friday, September 2, 2011

Do You Let Your Kids Use The 'N' Word?

Terez Howard pictured with her daughter

Do You Let Your Kids Use The ‘N’ Word?

By Terez Howard

The ‘N’ word has oppressed black people for decades. Other races offensively use it to describe us. We ourselves have taken it and attempted to transform it into something positive, a source of affection. Some might argue we have achieved a victory with it, while others, like myself, still refuse to use it.

Oh, not that ‘N’ word. I’m talking about nappy.

During the late 18th century and the early 19th century, black slaves were called “nappy heads,” comparing their hair to the nap, or fuzzy surface layer, found on cloth or yarn. This was no compliment to their curly, coily, kinky hair textures.

Excuse No. 1: But that was then.

True. The past has passed. This is now. And now, especially among the natural hair community, nappy is used with fondness to describe the unique twists and turns in our hair. It’s no longer what white slave owners called out to demean our ancestors.

But let’s say a white person did dub our hair nappy. Don Imus did in 2007. This radio show host referred to one American girls’ college basketball team, 8 blacks and 2 whites, as “nappy-headed ho’s.” He was fired from CBS, only to later hit the radio waves with ABC. He claimed to be making an attempt at being amusing, but made a public apology for being offensive.

Think about this: Do you want someone white talking about your nappy hair? Further, when this white person talks about your nappy hair, is he/she using this word as a synonym to beautiful, like you would be?

Excuse No. 2: Blacks only.

My mother can call my hair nappy because she understands it and loves me. My black friends know about nappy hair. Those of us who understand that nappy is not negative use it merely to describe a hair texture.

Excuse me, but what hair texture? Is my daughter’s 3b to 3c hair nappy, or is nappy only designated to 4a, b and c hair?

I was raised to call nappy hair the kinkiest of textures, the most difficult to manage, like my own. I grew up believing that my nappy hair had to have something done to it to fix the way it was naturally. My mother said I had nappy hair. Even though she loves me, she still uses nappy to describe a problem with hair.

Once when my daughter was visiting my mom, she picked up on the word nappy. She was 3. She said her hair was nappy when she woke up in the morning, and it was all over the place. She said that I needed to fix it.

That’s when I knew my 3-year-old could discern how other black people in her life used the word nappy. It meant, to her, a mess. With my eye toward the future, I knew that I didn’t want my little girl (who never minces words and has yet to have learned about this thing called tact) to call someone’s messy hair nappy. I know her, and I know that my biracial daughter would use nappy to describe black and white hair alike, as long as it was a mess.

How are you using it?

Friends among the natural hair community happily embrace their nappy hair and openly discuss their successes and woes with nappy hair. Even natural hair care products affectionately include the word nappy in their titles.

I don’t have a problem with that. I’m not going to boycott those products or services. However, I am not going to use nappy or brand myself with such a controversial word.

I don’t use that other ‘N’ word, that swear word to describe females or any other word that’s intended use is to hurt feelings. Certain groups might be reserved to use it nicely, but how am I supposed to teach my preschooler that? How can I tell her that she can call some of her black relatives’ hair nappy, but not to use it to offend certain blacks and to not confuse her white relatives by using it to describe their hair?

It has the potential to offend many. We are not going to use the word nappy at all. There is so much more to natural hair than that.

About the author
Terez Howard, who has been researching natural hair for 5 years, endeavors to help ladies learn more about their precious tresses. At her blog, she shares her Sisterlocks journey.


  1. i've never used nappy because i quite honestly didn't understand it's definition =)

  2. I am not sure if Be' ever used the term. Now I know I will say often especially when I am joking, "Happy to be Nappy."...I guess it depends on how it is being used. I sure wouldn't want my child to say "Nappy Head" or anything like that to another child. That would be sad.

  3. I totally agree with the author. I just got involved or shall I say started participating in the online natural hair community and when I initially stated seeing the word nappy used to describe hair I cringed. I personally don't like the word but I see many in the online natural hair community use it, if not all, use it positively. And honestly online was the only "place" I've heard it used as a positive thing to be. It's always meant a hot mess to me as well. I grew up hearing that it wasn't the thing to be. It was hair that was tangled not combed (like the slaves who weren't able to have combs).

  4. I have use the word nappy in the past, however, it isn't a favorite hair-describing word of mine because of it's history. I prefer to call hair like mine coily, curly or even kinky. Like Anonymous 4:16 pm, I have only ever heard the word "nappy" used in a negative way, except online. I just have a thing with using words that were used to put down people and then making them "positive".

  5. I'm ok with saying nappy just like I am ok with saying black (as opposed to African American). We all know what it means and I don't embrace the negative connotation

  6. Thank you all for your comments. Like Anonymous said, the online community is the only place I've heard nappy used positively. When we say it out loud, it usually never means something positive unless we couple it with a positive adjective. Without something positive (like "Happy to be nappy," as KeeKeeAllNatural said), we just think of nappy as a mess.

  7. Amen! I'm glad I'm not the only one that has thought this when I see it used on blogs and message boards. I cringe inside especially when I hear it in these hair videos. In 'real' life it's always used in a negative context.


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