Friday, August 7, 2009

Dispatches from Nappyville: The trouble with reclaiming a socially-charged word

When I talk about my nappy hair, I know what I mean, but do you?
After viewing the trailer for Chris Rock's "Good Hair" comedy documentary--the black actresses talking about the pressure to straighten, wig and weave and how that effects everyday things like their sex lives; Rock's attempts to sell kinky hair to an aghast beauty supply store owner; an experiment showing the corrosive effect of the sodium hydroxide that most black women regularly put on their hair; a trip to India to see where the hair many black women covet comes from; Rock's sharing of his daughter's heartbreaking question, "Why don't I have 'good hair?'"--I felt kinda good about this film getting the social politics of black hair right. But I am a black woman who has embraced my natural hair and is well aware of the implications of nappiness. What Tami Said commenters, Sandy and Sassy J, raised some important concerns about Rock's movie: Even if the film "gets it," will the mainstream audience that will be drawn to the film by Rock's star power? Will they understand how sad it is that the mainstream and black communities demand that women with African ancestry erase an ethnic feature, risking health, esteem and intimacy just to fit within accepted European beauty standards? Or, will this comedy provide another opportunity to guffaw at black culture, titter at the social legacy of racism and exoticize black hair care?
The "Good Hair" trailer quotes Vanity Fair as dubbing the film "Hilarious!" Sassy J says, "Right."
What exactly does Vanity Fair find funny about "Good Hair?"
Yes, yes...I know Chris Rock is a comedian. I'm likely going to laugh a lot at this film when I see it. But will the mainstream audience and I be laughing at the same things? Will they be laughing with the film's African American protagonists or at them? This is always the problem when comedy dives into issues of race for a mainstream audience (Paging Dave Chappelle!).
This reminds me of two recent nap-related incidents. As you may have noticed, I embrace the word "nappy." My Merriam-Webster defines the word as meaning "closely twisted or curled." What's so wrong with that? The description is only derogatory if you believe that all beautiful hair is straight and silky. I do not and I reject the societal value that says this is so. Compared to other words that marginalized groups have worked to "take back," I think "nappy" is easy. Unlike embracing, say, "the n-word," which involves reinventing its definition, reclaiming "nappy" means only understanding that the word's definition never has been inherently negative.
So, I proudly wear my closely twisted curls--my nappiness. I even have a cute "I love nappy hair" tee that I wear on the weekends. Twice in recent weeks, a young, white woman has enthusiastically complimented me on my t-shirt. "I LOVE your shirt!" And a couple weeks ago, one added, "It's so FUNNY!"
Now, it is possible that these women in my 95+ percent white suburb have close relationships with black folks and understand the social message behind my shirt, that I'm not being ironic, but making a statement about self love. But I'm afraid that's not the case. I mean, what exactly is "funny" about saying that I love my curly, kinky tresses just the way they are? Would an "I love bouncing, blonde hair" shirt be as amusing? I could have asked--started a discussion about it. But it was awkward and in both cases I was in a store checkout line, so...I just mumbled a "thank you." 
I've stopped wearing my "nappy" shirt out and about, because I'm concerned that while I know what statement I'm making, too many folks on the receiving end won't. I hope Chris Rock's "Good Hair" doesn't suffer the same fate.


AJ Plaid said...

Hey Tami--

You picked up on another concern that I have w/ Rock's _Good Hair_: what are the conversations going to be like when this movie comes out? Are some folks, esp, non-Black folks, going to feel emboldened by this film to come up to Black women and try to "relate" to us or otherwise make our hair a discussion-starter?

My big reservation is Rock's sexism, which you already wrote about. In the ad he blames movies and other visual images, but I'm also wondering what his little girls have heard coming from his own mouth about "good hair." So, I'm wondering how much self-examination is going to be in the documentary, too.


TheFeministBreeder said...

Hi Tami - got linked here from @deepproblematic.

You're the perfect person to present this question to.

In my cirle, the word "nappy" is used in place of diapers - usually cloth diapers. In Britian/Australia/New Zealand (and other King's English-speaking countries) diapars (as Americans call them) have always been called "Nappys" by Brits, etc. They've don't identify "nappy" with "african american hair." To them, it's a diaper.

Now, some would argue me that those millions of people should cease and desist using the word "nappy" all together because it's considered derogatory here in the U.S.

I say, it's culturally insensitive to define what some other culture means by a word - and by proclaming that a word is "bad" - you give the haters more power (and a bigger arsenal.)

So, as a self-described "nappy advocate" and as a woman of color - what do you think?

Tami said...

Feminist Breeder,

Yes, I've been aware for a while that "nappy" in the places you mentioned means something very different than what it means in the U.S. That doesn't offend me. Different countries, different context. I am shocked that anyone would propose that British use of the word in place of diaper is offensive. Head-scratcher, that.

Pamela Lyn said...

Great post Tami.

In response, to AJPlaid, I really don't have a problem when people of non-African descent want to start a conversation about my hair.

My freshman year in college I shared a dorm room with a pretty sheltered white girl from northern Pennsylvania. Since we got along really well, one evening she asked if she could touch my hair. I said sure and chalked it up to her learning experience. People don't know what they don't know.

I'm sure that I'm going to offend someone with my next statement but hear goes.

For me the whole "good hair/bad hair" issue is simple. Parents of all races need to explain to their children that in this respect people are just like dogs. Different breeds of dogs have different coats and different grooming needs. Some are collies or afghans, some are terriers, some are chihuahuas some are poodles and some are even hairless. You don't hear anyone saying that a poodle should have hair like an afghan do you?

Something to ponder.

TheFeministBreeder said...

@Pamela Lyn,

I'm glad you bring that up, because I've had issues my entire life with being ridiculed and discriminated against because of my hair color. You see, I'm a red head. An all natural, color of fire, red-head. This gets me called "fire crotch" and "carrot top" and being told I should be "beaten like a red-headed step child." Honestly, being a red-head has damaged my psyche more than anything else I can think of.

I always prayed that I would not have a red-haired child - but I did. A little, gorgeous red-headed boy. I think his hair is absolutely stunning, and I wouldn't change it for the world, but I live in fear of the day he starts school and gets picked on the way I did.

Now, if someone had said "Can I touch your hair" I probably would have been very hurt, just because I spent my entire childhood feeling terrible about it. But as an adult people stop me on the street to tell me how much they love my hair color, and I SHOULD accept the compliment, realize that my difference makes me unique, and be happy with myself.

It's very, very hard to do that though. But I have to learn how to deal with it somehow, because I would never, never want my son to think his red-hair was anything short of beautiful.

Thanks for making me think about it.

Tami said...

Feminist Breeder,

I forgot to tack this on to my initial response: Of course, the fact that people in other parts of the world use the word "nappy" differently does not change the fact that it is "loaded" here in the U.S. of A. Any person using the word on these shores knows exactly its implied meaning and should know to use care.

Sassy J said...

Thanks, Tami!

When I was watching the trailer, my eyebrow raised at the Vanity Fair ratings. After visiting your site, it did prompt me to put something on my FB status about this.

I do hope people will have real conversations about this issue that plagues us.

Oh, and Tami, I have a "I &heart& my LOCS" bumper sticker and "I love my hair" tshirt (did you get yours from a natural magazine that had a cafepress store???) There is definitely a shift in the air since Obama won the election, in that, I don't wear my tshirt out anymore because I feel VERY uncomfortable in certain areas where I currently live (Maryland).

I LOVE my hair! I have been nappy since 2000 and I don't think I'll ever go back to "liquid crack". LOL I do admit that I have had some doubts about my locs since being back on the East Coast; part of the culture, I guess. But I don't want to have to compromise who I am to...*sigh* I don't know.

AJ Plaid said...

Tami, I feel like I roll up on your blog and the disagreements starts a-brewing!:D

@Pamela Lyn--I understand your analogy about human hair and dog hair. And if *you* wish to have conversations with non-Blacks about African hair, that's great.

I also understand your human/dog hair analogy for explaining texture differences. However, IMO, it's an unfortunate analogy precisely because some non-Black folks have wanted to "pet" our African hair like we're animals, if not worse. The analogy further "otherizes" an attribute that's already looked at askance in this society. In fact, I have had some white people whom I knew yank my natural hair (at the time, I wore it in a 'fro) in sheer defiance of my turning down their request to touch it--that's how entitled they felt to do what they wanted to do to parts of my person.

Now, should I have let the people I mentioned have their "teachable moment" in order to avoid what amounted to violence? Absolutely not. I have a right to my person--even the right to talk or not talk about it. I think it's not my racial/civic/social duty to "educate" folks about my Black hair or any other part of my Negritude, even those I'm close to.

I just don't want this film to turn into some weird mandate, as if Chris Rock wanting to "talk" about Black hair means that non-Black folks are expecting me to do so as well 'cause, ya know, one Black person doing it means all the Black folks are going to do the same.

Lady C said...

Tami, I maybe totally wrong, but the term nappy used for diapers is short for napkins and not nappy hair. I love my nappy hair, and am not offended by the term nappy in reference to diaper.

In other words, my common sense prevails.

CaitieCat said...

Thanks, AJ Plaid - I was wondering how to express that concern.

Pamela Lyn, while I think your idea about the dog breeds is really genius in terms of being able to explain it easily, I'd be really, really uncomfortable making that analogy as a white ally, because there have been so many racist connections made between African-ness and animal-ness, which I'd be loath to contribute to.

So I wonder, then, is there a similar but non-problematic analogy which could be made? Because I think it's a really good one, and one I'd like to be able to refer to myself, if I could. :)

Tami said...

AJ, you always startin' stuff! LOL

Seriously, my thought is this: teaching IS good. It is how we learn about each other. I have had several white friends with whom I have been able to discuss issues like hair in a way that felt safe for me. But no one is OWED a lesson from me on cultural issues that can be thorny and personal. And neither Rock nor I have the ability to explain all the nuances of the hair thing.

So, I worry that "Good Hair" will give the mainstream a false sense of black hair knowlege and (as you said, AJ) promote more entitlement toward black bodies. Cause, yeah, I've had strangers pet and take pictures of my hair, which is very different from a friend asking gentle and respectful questions.

AJ Plaid said...

Hee! My troublemaker-ness must stem from my Taurus-Leo-Scorpio combo, Ms. Tami.:D

The "teaching moment": Bah, I loathe them so, perhaps because I've had too many and am weary of them. I guess I tend to approach them nowadays by deflection, by saying that "x is my opinion. But the Group didn't vote me as the Spokeperson, so don't take my opinion as a generalizing fact. Please read about it and listen to others speaking on x." Yep, even did this with exes 'cause I just wasn't in the mood to deal to "teach" them.

Oh no--there's that combination at work again.:D

Seattle Slim said...

This really made me think. You know, honestly, it didn't even occur to me that "others" would go to see this movie about good vs bad; straight vs nappy hair. Now that you pose the question, I am not really sure if I have the answer.

I think when I see the movie, I'll be able to say whether or not someone could miss the point, or if Rock managed to make the gravity of the situation inexcapable.

PPR_Scribe said...

Second Slim: I never thought it'd have broad appeal. But perhaps it will with Rock's name attached to it, and also the recent exposure of his wife in the CNN program.

I'll reserve judgment, but I do see where there is a chance that this might be misinterpreted and mis-framed--by Black folks as well as others.

S3XinthePantry said...

They chaged the cover pic on the book you blogged about last week:

Anonymous said...

Tami - I found your blog via

Maybe a twist on the tale, maybe not: I am a British woman of Middle Eastern origin. My hair has very tight kinky curls, and from a young age (14) I have been relaxing it straight. In fact, the first time I had to go to an afro hair salon to have a professional do it right.

I see a lot of other people with the same problems described within the movie's trailer (and have had it highlighted once again when I read the 'Curly Girl' book a few years ago)...some of my European friends also have this problem! So I feel a huge afinity with this community that decides to relax / straighten / modify their hair.

"Will they understand how sad it is that the mainstream and black communities demand that women with African ancestry erase an ethnic feature, risking health, esteem and intimacy just to fit within accepted European beauty standards?"

I am not normally an optimist, but I believe they *will* get it.

However, what about the phenomenon of white women [further] straightening their hair with the huge pravalance of hot tongs?! These women, I think, will need a swift thwap to the face with a hot iron before they understand the sadness behind other women's decision to straighten their hair. :(


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