We all know and understand the complexity around the use of the N-word. We’re familiar with its history, and we acknowledge the relationship the Black community has with it. But in the beauty space there’s another N-word with a complicated history and connotation and we don’t dive into it often — until now.
On a recent episode of the new talk series Hold Your Ear, which features conversations about Black hair and natural hair care, hairstylists and show experts Ebony Riley, Tina Pearson and Chris Gees held a quick fireside about the word nappy, which they call the other N-word.
Producer Alicia Powell explained that the idea for the show topic came after Gees and Pearson used the word during an earlier episode, joking about how difficult it is to work with “tender-headed, nappy-headed” kids. Riley objected to their use of the word nappy.
“My co-producer, Stevland Wilson saw how uncomfortable it made Ebony feel and it also struck a chord with him,” Powell explains. “He thought about how that word has been used throughout our community and its negative connotation. In his mind it had a similar impact as the N-word. As producers we felt it was necessary to expand on this, especially during this movement of fighting for racial equality in all sectors. Through this brief discussion we hoped to enlighten some and re-inform others about the word.”
During the episode “The Other N-Word”, Pearson explained that she thinks that hair can be “nappy” and still be beautiful. While she understands that it can be offensive, she uses it matter-of-factly. For Pearson, nappy is just a neutral description, neither good nor bad.
But for Riley, the word is triggering. She says that hearing it in the interview took her back to a traumatic childhood experience where kids were pointing at her Afro puff and calling it nappy.
“Hearing it in [the talk series] was like whoa here’s that word again,” Riley tells ESSENCE. “It subconsciously took me to my hurtful experience hearing the N-word growing up. Eleven-year-old Ebony said nothing, but I knew the comments meant my hair was not considered “good”.
Celebrity and natural hairstylist and author Kamilah Gerestant (popularly known as Ms. Hair and Humor), agrees with Riley.
“I intentionally don’t use it,” she says. “On a macro level, the meaning is still offensive. Describing Afro textured natural hair as nappy was not supposed to empower. On a micro level, yes, we can sing about it, put the word beautiful in front of it, and attempt to erase and replace what it means at the core. However, just because you put flowers on a band-aid doesn’t mean there isn’t still a cut underneath.”
Just like the N-word that’s more widely discussed, it means different things to different people. In the song “My Power” from her recently released Black Is King visual album Beyoncé uses the word. “This that burn, this ain’t no perm. This that nappy, this that urb’,” she sings. In the video she sports jumbo box braids as well as waist-length straight hair. But it’s clear that she’s using the word as a symbol of Black empowerment, celebrating the rejection of European beauty ideals.
And then there’s all the brands and influencers that use the word in their names. Natural hair enthusiast and influencer Whitney White goes by Naptural85, there’s Insta-blog Knappily Natural, and the late Shana Donahue called herself Napp Queen on her popular YouTube channel. Her description still reads: I’m nappy and I’m a queen. Simple! All of their love for Black natural hair is obvious, and their use of the word nappy doesn’t even feel remotely negative.
The brand Knappy Hair Extensions specializes in textured and Afro hair extensions and wigs. It launched because other hair makers were not producing hair that matched textures for most Black women. Founder KJ said that she wanted to offer her sisters premium products and a better shopping experience for their needs. The brand was born out of love for Black women and Black hair.
Even a quick search for the #nappy on Instagram produces results of countless Black women with gorgeous type 4 hair, and it’s clear that they are proud of their tresses. But for anyone who has experienced texturism, it’s hard to take the belittling connotation away from the word.
“It gets confusing when we use it in songs, products, names of companies, and in our branding. It’s public secret code,” Gerestant says. “[Black people] know what the message is. We know because we buy the shirt, and feel like we are supporting a larger cause to replace the meaning. It makes sense to us when we see ‘I love my beautiful (nappy) hair!’ To society at large, it doesn’t. It’s a tangled web to use the word to cure the pain of the same word.”
“The work that I do is a celebration of Black hair and the women I serve do not have to dig deep or decode anything I say to know that the curls, coils or kinks coming out of their scalp are regarded as beautiful no matter what,” she continues. “The negative association with ‘nappy’ will continue to be there until natural hair is regarded as beautiful on a larger scale. It’s still used to devalue and degrade the glory of our manes and I want no part [of that].”
Riley says that she’s more comfortable having a conversation about the word, and she can see how it’s a term of endearment to many. But she also thinks that we must be mindful of how we expose our children to terms like nappy and ensure that we’re filling them with positivity to shape their self-confidence.
“We must not forget that children are sensitive to words and the energy behind them. The very things that we say and do shape the way our children feel about themselves, so we have to watch what we say,” Riley finishes. “But I love how our people can turn a negative word to a positive stream of income. Shout out to all the people who turned the [other] N-word into greatness!”