NEW YORK — Call it “the other N-word.”
Since slavery times, “nappy” has been used to malign the natural hair texture of many people of African descent: dense, dark and tightly curled. So when Don Imus referred to the women of the Rutgers basketball team as “nappy-headed hos” — a widely condemned remark that got him fired Thursday — it cut deeper than many who are unfamiliar with the term might realize.
Even today, with natural black hair in full bloom throughout pop culture, “nappy hair” remains a sensitive issue — especially, as with the original N-word used so casually by many blacks, when a white person uses it.
“When Imus says ’these nappy-headed hos,’ his first flaw is he’s using an in-group term that’s loaded,” said Lanita Jacobs-Huey, associate professor of anthropology and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California.
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“When I hear it from someone who doesn’t understand the depth of pain, they just don’t have the right to say it,” Jacobs-Huey said.
The pain goes back to slavery. Whites saw blacks’ natural hair as a negative attribute, a contrast to the European standard of “ideal” beauty. As a result, even blacks started to look down on their own natural features.
“If your hair wasn’t straight, it was called nappy. Nappy hair meant you weren’t beautiful or desirable,” said Nsenga Burton, professor of communications and media studies at Goucher College in Baltimore. “Even within the community, nappy hair for a long time was seen as a bad thing.”
‘The ideal of beauty didn't fit them’
There are accounts of African slaves attempting to change their hair using axle grease or dirty dishwater with oil, said Neal Lester, chairman of the English department at Arizona State University. “Slaves knew the ideal of beauty didn’t fit them,” he said.
More sophisticated methods of altering hair emerged later. Madame C.J. Walker, the first black woman to become a millionaire, made her fortune in the early 20th century on hair-straightening products.
Carla Lynne Hall used similar products until she decided to let her hair grow naturally. And then she met resistance from her own family — especially her hairdresser aunt.
“She hated it,” said Hall, a 39-year-old singer from Harlem. “For women from my aunt’s generation, that’s the worst thing you could do.”
Slideshow: Eye on Imus Even a month before her aunt died, when Hall had worn her hair in long dreadlocks for more than a decade, she told Hall that “with a hairstyle like this I would never get a man.”
But attitudes toward hair have changed, especially with the advent of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, when the afro became popular. Today other styles like braids, locks and everything in between have become accepted as alternatives to chemical straightening, which is still popular as well.
The irony of Imus’ comment is that many of the Rutgers players have straightened hair — and at their news conference Wednesday, it seemed nary a straightened hair was out of place.
“None of them fit the cultural description of what nappy is,” Jacobs-Huey said. “Don is telling us something about himself.”
Making matters worse was Imus’ use of the word “hos,” a hip-hop slang synonym of “whore” or “slut” heard in many rap songs. “That is one of the lowest things you can call a woman,” Burton said.
Women’s groups have condemned Imus for his remarks, although most of the outrage has come from the black community, which was first to speak out.
In the final analysis, the phrase that torpedoed Imus’ legendary radio career was a perfect storm of volatile words with deep and hurtful meanings.
“It’s both racist and misogynist,” said Hall. “It has nothing to do with (the players’) accomplishments, with who they are.”
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