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Curly Nikki

Is Nappy the New ‘N’ Word?

By January 27th, 202139 Comments

Is Nappy the New 'N' Word?

by Tammy Goodson of CurlyChics

“Downy, meaning “fuzzy, kinky,” used in colloquial or derogatory reference to the hair of black people”

In 2007, radio talk show host, Don Imus, sent mainstream media into a frenzy with his racist commentary referring to the Rutgers Ladies Basketball team as “nappy headed hoes”. While he is not the first to cross the line of respect, only to later come back with a political apology, it was a highly publicized incident. Although there are other adjectives used to describe our texture which are deemed by some as derogatory, “nappy” seems to resonate more among black women. This is a topic that remains divisive and contentious within our own community. Some use the word synonymous with the term natural. Here are just a few opinions on whether or not the term is appropriate that I’ve heard from both sides.


  • It depends on how you use it. You can take its power away but using it positively. If you use it as a negative adjective, then it becomes problematic.
  • It is ok for “us” to use it but not for outsiders.
  • Freedom of speech argument – if we start allowing the language police to dictate word choice, where will it end?


  • Origin – the term was designed to be used against us in a negative manner and therefore it still carries the same negative connotation.
  • There are other terms that can be used to describe our hair such as curly, coily or highly textured.
  • It’s the same as the good hair vs. bad hair argument

These comments raised a few questions for me:

1. Do phrases such as these help lessen the blow?
“Happy to be Nappy”

2. Why is the term “kinky” more accepted? Or is it?
The definition of kinky (as it relates to hair) is “tangled or tightly looped, as a wire or rope; tightly curled.

3. How do you feel about salons that embrace the term by using it as the name of their business?
Rosario Schooler- Ukpabi, Owner of the natural hair salon “Oh, My Nappy Hair”, in California.

“The name caused a lot of controversy, and we had to overcome a lot of hurdles. People actually wanted to fight us because of the name of the salon! We’re trying to say that nappy hair, natural hair is beautiful because it’s the way God made us. But we got lots of death threats and hate mail because of it. We were challenging people’s notions of what natural hair was, after being brainwashed for years that straight hair is the best and only way to go. It was a fight within themselves– ‘I have to accept my hair? My hair is beautiful the way it is?’ But they tried to flip it on us. We’re just trying to embrace and celebrate our beauty, and announce it to the world!”


4. Sabrina Moella directed the film “Nappy Heads” as a celebratory tribute to the afro.
Does taking control of the word and using it in a positive manner make you feel more comfortable with the term?
5. Should we hold a mock burial and vow to never use the word again like they did with the other “n” word? And if so, will it have any effect? Will people still continue to use it anyway? What are the underlying issues?

Like most sensitive topics, this is a thought provoking one which is worthy of some discussion. I always say respectful debate is healthy but impolite condemnation is unacceptable. I personally do not use the term nappy because it makes me uncomfortable. This is largely because most of my exposure to the term has been negative. When I heard it growing up, it was always in the form of an adjective describing an undesirable look. Words have power. This word was intended to degrade and ostracize black people – period. It’s a descriptor, not unlike “nigger”, that was given to use by Caucasian people, and we have for whatever reason accepted it and adopted as our own. I do not believe that putting the word “happy” in front of it changes its connotation, and therefore I do not use it and it is offensive to me. I am not going to call for a public eulogy nor will I organize a march and condemn those who use it, that’s their choice. I respect others who chose to do otherwise. What are your thoughts?

Connect with Tammy–

Weigh in chicas!


  • Anonymous says:

    PART 3…I spoke out sternly and loudly in both scenarios. I informed them that their conversation was inappropriate and highly offensive. I LOVE my hair and I get that the average White person doesn't understand why I would love my hair. However, I refuse to use a word that is used by Whites and my own people to degrade what I have been blessed with by my Heavenly Father.

  • Anonymous says:

    PART unsightly and undesirable. She actually thought she was doing me a FAVOR by suggesting how I could FIX my NAPPY hair! Only an insensitive dummy would be so reckless with the term. She is too old for me to call naive and she frequently announces that she went ti a Black high school..which I've heard her refer to as ghetto. My point is that White people know exactly what it means. I recently interrupted a convo at work involving the same girl because they were talking about white people with "nasty,dirty,unkempt, nappy dreadlocks."I They were throwing the word nappy around like a toy. The conversation stemmed from a patient in our care (a newborn baby) who was born with an incredibly dense gorgeous afro.Homegirl from my first scenario was holding her during the conversation! Another girl had said of the child's hair just days before …"I usually like Black babies hair but this is just ugly!" Her face was contorted as she looked at it with disgust!

  • Anonymous says:

    I don't like the word nappy. It's never used positively. Its an insult regardless of what ethnicity its aimed at. When an African-American uses it against another African-American it means your hair is unsightly in their eyes. When a White person uses it against another White person it carries the same meaning with the added intentional sting of having their hair compared to the hair of someone of African descent. I have White co-workers that pretend like it's an acceptable term because they use it to describe their own hair…when its a matted,tangled mess. After I went natural one White girl said "You should buy Wen! I saw the infomercial for it and girl if you thought YOUR hair was NAPPY..the girl on the infomercials hair was a mess…until she used Wen!" I was dumbfounded! I love my hair and she just described my hair as

  • AfroColors says:

    I hate the word "nappy". I don't care who says it or how they use it, just don't say it! It's like a bad word to me because I've only ever heard it used in a negative way…by my (relaxed) mother and grandma.

  • Jo Somebody says:

    Oh and just wanted to add that here in the UK I've never heard a non-Black person use the word. They just call afro hair 'afro'. So for me, and possibly other Brits, the use of the word has been determined by Blacks.

  • Jo Somebody says:

    The keyword in the definition is 'OR'. It isn't always a derogatory term (unlike the definition of the true n-word, where there is no 'or' about it), so I use my common sense and assess the context to decide if it is being used derogatoryly (ahem).
    I call my hair 'nappy' and tbh, I never even realised it was possibly derogatory until recently (probably because almost everyone hid their naps lol!). Maybe it's a US thing (yet again), but I'm cool with it. If anything, I get a little funny when people call my hair 'thick' or 'coarse' because of the disgusted look many women had on their faces when they attempted to tackle 'all this thick hair' – thick is certainly not a bad description, which just proves it's all about context.

  • Anonymous says:

    Nappy and the other n-word never held me back, out or down. It seems like the Black Community has hurt feelings over SO many things!

    We really need to stop living in fear of words. They're just words. I've watched our sensitivities get the better of us many times: our issues with skin color, hair texture, language, relationships with those outside of our race or culture. We have to stop letting these things conquer us.

    "No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper…" Isaiah 54:17.


  • Willow says:

    I've reclaimed the term nappy for myself, and I use it with pride.
    However, I do bristle when I hear non-black people use the word "nappy", because in my experience they've always used it in a negative way.

  • Anonymous says:

    This is my general rule of thumb when it come to words that most Black people do not want white folks to use: If a white person uses a word that you believe is offensive to your people, you shouldn't be using it either! Think about it folks! Just my two cents!

  • Anonymous says:

    I am a nurse supervisor and I am the only African American in my unit. I have often heard white coworkers refer to their own hair as "nappy" or another white person's hair as "nappy" when it is frizzy on unkempt. They use the term freely in my presence when none of them would dream of using the word nigger in front of me. The word nappy clearly has negative connotations no matter how some may try to cute it up and "own"it. I agree with Anna Renee: It is not just a black thang. It is a rude word no matter who is using it and should never be directed at someone else, and probably not at oneself, either.

  • Anna Renee says:

    White girls have nappy hair too! Though they have issues with the word, and call theirs "frizzy" O_o

  • Tammy - Curly Chic says:

    WOW! Thanks so much for all the comments! These are great points and provokes even more thought on the topic!
    Don't forget to stay connected with me through my blog/facebook and twitter!
    Have a good one ladies!
    Tammy G

  • Kan says:

    My personal opinion? I hate the word nappy, and I can't stand the word "kinky" either. Once a woman (Caucasian)asked me to describe my curls and when I couldn't she asked me if my hair was kinky. I'm ashamed to say that I think I caught a mini-attitude.

    Others might be able to embrace the words "kinky" and "nappy", but my mind can't separate them from their negative origin.

  • Anonymous says:

    I don't use or like to hear the word nappy it makes me cringe. I dont use the word kinky to discribe mine or anyone else's hair. & depending on the persons tone & the context that it's used to towards me I might react. But is I hear some one describing there hair as kinky I will them that it's not kinky & they should not use that word to describe there hair.


  • Anonymous says:

    I'd much prefer kinky than nappy, honestly. The thought of a non-black person using it to describe my hair just is a trigger for me. When black people use the word it comes off as sounding ignorant and low-class. That's just me though.

  • Carla says:

    I'm more disturbed and offended that Don Imus called women "hoes" than his use of the word "nappy".

    Nappy, just like the words Black, dark, kinky, colored etc are as offensive as who and how the words are being used and the context. You can say NAACP, but you don't call people "colored" in 2011 for example.

  • Anonymous says:

    Nappy was never used in a negative sense in my household growing up, so I have no problem with the term nappy.
    I take it as a positive, but it can be used a positive or negative. Just like saying someone is pale. Pale could be good or bad, depending on who you are talking to.
    I personally don't like the term "kinky" as to me it perpetuates the sexualization of black women.

  • Danielle says:

    It's weird because I was just telling my mom this last night. She always calls my hair nappy and uses it in a negative way. I try to tell her that my hair is curly not nappy.

  • KC says:

    When I was younger, I remember my mom telling me that "nappy" is the word that Black people use to describe our hair [texture], whereas White people might say "kinky." My mom describes her hair as "nappy" when it doesn't lay down or do what she wants it to lol. She even scrunches up her face when she says "nappy". But I have referred to my own hair as nappy, kinky, or coily. I guess I could say it's extremely curly, but it's not the same to most people. I had never really thought much about it, but I have never described anyone else's hair texture as "nappy." And before I started following CurlyNikki and other natural hair blogs, I might have been offended if someone else called me nappy.

  • Serenity Spot says:

    I don't really take any bad comments on my hair to heart because after all it's just hair, but the other day at school these girls were discussing soemone's hair. The girl being discussed had curly hair and they said, "At least you don't have that tough hair, you know, like nappy hair and it's all dry etc."

    I don't know if it's a different story in other countries, but in England I don't tend to hear the word nappy associated with afro hair texture in a good context. People mostly use it to desribe hair that is dry, not looked after, tangled or matted, no shine etc. rather than using it to describe curly, coily, highly textured hair in a good light.

  • Tara Shenéa says:

    I have a serious problem with the word ni**er, however I do not with the words nappy or kinky. Because my hair IS, by my own definition, nappy and kinky and absolutely lovely, I might add. I don't see these words as negative because I don't view my hair negatively. I tell natural protesters/nazis and all of them other overly obsessed naturals that it's not what society thinks about your hair but it's what YOU think about your hair. And I think that you are the person who actually has a problem with natural hair subconsciously. Society "group think" roots run deep.

    But they will argue up and down that they love their hair but I beg to differ. They are battling issues within regarding its look, etc. especially in trying to get "everyone" else around them to embrace it. “My hair is not nappy, it’s highly textured, “my hair is not kinky, it is not sexually freaky, etc.” “My hair is this beautiful thing, and “my hair is that wonderful thing,” who are you trying to convince, yourself? Look, you can only control you and your thought process so why bother? If you know you got it going on or rather that your hair in its truest form is one of your most wonderful assets, you have no need to convince others because you KNOW it or do you?

  • Anonymous says:

    The term "nappy" is another hold over from slavery…as is the N word and colorism. I have no desire to embrace words and concepts used by our oppressors to denigrate, divide and dehumanize us. These words are not ours to own. But hey, if others want to self identify with racist pejoratives then more power to them.

  • Tara Shenéa says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • Kim D. says:

    "Nappy to me means uncombed and just a tangled mess." I agree with this statement. I think of "nappy" as referring to a temporary state or condition, not a hair texture. I've seen some very curly or kinky hair that I would not consider to be nappy in the least bit. I've also seen some straight hair that was unkempt and appeared real nappy to me.

  • Tai says:

    For me the word 'nappy' has always carried negative and painful associations with it. Just thinking about the word makes my feelings hurt and attempts to turn it into a more positive thing like 'napptural' don't really help too much. I've always heard it as an insult and even now that my hair is natural people are still using it in a negative way.

    I think what I most dislike about it is the fact that when other people use it I think they have this vision of my hair being like… what raw wool looks like when it's throw in the washer. A dirty, matted mess. Not the tons of tiny little curls that make up my afro and are so nice to play with.

    Kinky is a little better but I'm not overly fond of that term either. I really wish I could describe it as curly. One of my happiest hair memories was when I was discussing my hair-nomenclature stigma with a friend and she was like "Why would anyone talk about your hair like that? It's just really curly right?" However, I agree with the above commenter. Curly is what people think of when they are talking about Bernadette Peters. I really wish we could come up with our own new and special word.

  • Michelle @Radiant Brown Beauty says:

    Doesn't bother me one way or the other. If the hair is nappy based on it's definition, that's what it is. Be proud of it just as if it were straight. i agree with Shaune, it's just another word for kinky.

  • Anonymous says:

    I wouldn't use the word nappy around some people. To most black folks outside the natural world, nappy is seen as negative, people regularly use it as an insult. In the natural world, kinky/nappy seem to be interchangeable.

  • Anonymous says:

    Saying a person has curly hair is very different than saying a person has nappy hair.
    Bernadette Peters has very curly hair.
    Has anyone ever called her hair "nappy"? Probably not.
    I don't like the term regardless of what word is in front of it. I personally have never heard someone say "wow, you have beautiful nappy hair". "Hey that N***** is so prety". Nope.

  • Anonymous says:

    There are times when it's time to detangle my hair and I might say, "Wow, my hair is nappy."

    But I would never call someone else's hair nappy because it is not a compliment. Nappy to me means uncombed and just a tangled mess. I don't take it to mean the texture or synonymous with being black, or anything like that.

    If someone called my hair nappy and it truly was, then I wouldn't get mad. If they used "nappy" to try and belittle me, then of course I'd get angry.

  • Quite says:

    In my mind, nappy is just another word kinky. I think the reason nappy gets a bad rap is because its used conjunction in phrases with other derogatory words ie" nappy headed hoes". Calling one a "kinky headed hoe" is not less offensive. I wouldn't fight anyone of another race if they told me I had happy hair–as I've heard folks of other races describe their hair as nappy. If you look up the word "nappy" in the dictionary, its defined as kinky hair. And on a subconscious level, maybe people just find the word nappy offensive because its another N word?

  • ashley says:

    It really offends me when a non Black person says it, well pretty much anyone that says it nowadays. I had a huge ordeal at my job over this guy calling me nappy headed. My hair is not matted, tangled, dirty, it is just curly, grr…

  • African Violet says:

    I think that this is an interesting discussion. I (unfortunately? Fortunately?) still associate the word with negative connotations, and I don't know how often using it in a different context will change the sting associated with it. It's meant to be a stinging term. Don Imus used it years ago, and Nikki Minaj uses it in one of her songs today, rapping, "You li'l nappy-headed hoes need a perminator." Just because Nikki Minaj is black doesn't change the intent behind the word and its use. She means it the same way that Don Imus meant it.

    I'm still transitioning, but I refer to the "new growth" (aka my actual texture) as my kinks. I don't think I have ever (or will ever) refer to them as my "naps." Ever. I'm just not comfortable with it. If someone else is comfortable with it, that's on her (or him). But for me, I don't like it.

  • Nadine says:

    Sadly, Nappy has only been used in a negative sense, at least towards me, and usually by ppl envying our texture. Why else would you be against something you dont have or understand? Envy and hate, mixed with a little jealousy. There are several other ways to describe our hair, curly, textured, thick, rich and luxurious, beautiful, voluminous, there are infinite ways. But ignorant ppl will say ignorant things, as long as u understand the differences and mentalities out there, and understand yourself, none of this will bother you, and all you will do is SHAKE YOUR HEAD TO THESE poor mentalities. We are beautiful.

  • Anonymous says:

    I also don't like the work "kinky".

  • Alesia-Mason says:

    Recently I had the same type of discussion on twitter. Some guy said you had to wrap your hair to be a boss bit** and he didn't like nappy head hoes. I don't agree with the word in any sort of way b/c I've heard my 5 year old niece use it to describe her beautiful 3c hair.

  • TiAnna Mae says:

    Because of the history of the word and the negative connotations behind it, I think you should only refer to your own hair in that way if that's how you want to describe your hair. You just never know how someone else will take it. I certainly wouldn't have that in my business name. Why have to breakdown barriers, just to get customers???

    As for me, I'd be offended if someone called me or my hair nappy (regardless of race).

  • Anonymous says:

    215Nina writes:
    Hmm… very thought-provoking debate. Personally, I dont have a problem with the word. "Nappy" to me represents our rich and diverse culture. Especially when it comes to OUR unique hair textures and all it's forms. “Nappy” is not limited to tightly coiled, down-right unruly and ornery hair! “Nappy” is all encompassing — in the sense that — if it isn't “bone straight” then it's “nappy!” lol! Never had a white person call me a "nappy headed hoe" (nor was I offended by Don Imus’s as HIS statement was just a reflection of who HE is; and not a reflection of me or any other black woman for that matter) nor have I been called a "nigg" (or a “black b#tch). Thus I am unqualified to say how I would react as I’m totally detached from any of the stereotypes and negative connotations that are associated with those words. Kinky, coily, curly, notty — call it what you want but it's all still very “Nappy.” And I’m happy with that! :O)

  • Anonymous says:

    LOL, whereas with the word "nig…" you can't walk up to me and say that word in context without me getting pissed.

    Let's try it:

    "What's up, nigg..?"
    "Nice weather we're having today, nigg..!"
    "That's a really nice dress you have on today, nigg.."
    "Hey nigg.., can you please pass the brussel sprouts?"

    Um…no. I'd be ready to fight no matter who says it or how nicely they say it.

  • Anonymous says:

    Wow… this is a very interesting post because I never thought of "nappy" this way.

    I'll admit that while I use it, I don't know if it would be recieved well if a person of a different race uses it.

    While I don't think it carries the same history as the word "nig…," I do think it depends on how it said and who says it. But to be honest, if a black person said to me, "damn, your hair is nappy as hell!" I would be offended too….

    i think it depends on the tone whoever is making the comment…..

    It is very complex because it isn't a black or white issue to me per se….. I mean, if a loc'd white person said, "I love your nappy hair!" I wouldn't be offended by that….!!!

    But if a black person came up to me pointing saying "ew, look at her nappy hair" Emphasis on the word nappy, I'd be pissed.


    This is certainly a thought provoking post!!!!!!

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