When Rihanna responded to a fan’s critique of her “nappy” hair with the retort “I’m black bitch,” the public was divided in their reactions. Many were appalled by how crass she was on a platform viewed by millions, others celebrated her fiery attitude and quite a few were glad someone finally called her out on her tired hairstyle. All I could think was: “Why is nappy still an insult?”
The fan, whose Twitter handle is @NinaBella, obviously meant to be condescending and Rihanna perceived her comment that way; the pop star immediately went on the offensive. Many of us have felt that sting. It was just as palpable when Don Imus referred to the Rutgers Womens basketball team as “nappy-headed hoes.” Or when Method Man revealed he doesn’t like natural hair because he prefers a woman’s hair done (read: straightened or chemically altered).
It’s clear that in society’s imagination to be nappy is to be unattractive, undesirable and unkempt. It’s a look that is oft rejected by corporate and even popular culture. Rock it and prepare to defend yourself—or be ready to correct it with a flat iron or a relaxer. Yet again, we find our hair tangled in the web of institutionalized racism and sexism in America.
We are one of the few groups of people forced to defend the texture that grows out of our scalps. Though sharp and to the point, Rihanna’s response “I’m black, bitch” is loaded. It captures the ire many of us feel toward the constant attack on black women’s hair. Our naps are inextricably linked to our heritage. Rihanna’s comment makes it resonate for those that seem unable to understand: kinks are a part of who we are. We’re nappy because God made us this way…bitch.
When I decided to go natural, the change I underwent was more about what was inside my head than what was on top of it. I had to relearn, redefine and reclaim beauty on my own terms. Yes, I was beautiful without the security blanket of a long weave or a chemical relaxer. No, I didn’t need to look like a European woman colored in with a brown crayon to be attractive.
Months later, I see the varied and unique beauty of “nappy”-haired women from children with curls coiled as tight as rosebuds to elders with strong, majestic locks with a new sense of adulation and fondness. I am so in love with kinky hair that “nappy,” being used as a derogatory term, is beyond my comprehension. It’s so foreign from the way I’ve come to view and love what’s happening on my scalp.
But is ‘nappy’ a word we can reclaim?
Like most words that have been used to antagonize and demean us, redefining a word marred by hate is walking a tight rope. One gust of wind, or snarl of a comment, and the pain of years of degradation comes flooding back.
Should we retire the word nappy once and for all or can we redefine it by embracing our roots and deciding that they’re beautiful?