‘Nappy’, ‘Uppity’, and Other Shitty Words You Shouldn’t Use

What did you say?!

Language is powerful. Some words trigger beautiful memories, and some make us recall horrific moments in our personal lives. And then there are words charged with memories of hateful histories and contemporary abuses. There are some words that we should all know–as functioning members of this world–are not okay to use. Sure, sometimes you may be unaware of how loaded a certain term is, afterall, we’re not all perfect. But that ignorance doesn’t justify abuse.

Let’s take the word ‘nappy.’ This word was used in front of me recently. Let me paint a picture for you.

It was a room full of white people. Some people whom I like a great deal, and some who I am starting to like. We were all gathered for something really special: to support the President of the United States.  One particularly passionate volunteer showed me and my friends a picture of her dog. The cute little black poodle was wearing a sweater with an Obama pin. Adorable, right? The dog was cute, and its owner was sweet (I’ll go with sweet).

Then it happened.

“My dog and the President have a lot in common.”

I saw it coming. You couldn’t miss it.

“They share a birthday. Last year when the President turned fifty, my dog turned five.”

Ah shit. Yup, she’s going there. I don’t know where exactly, but it’s about to get racist up in here.

“They’re both in public service. My dog is a therapy dog, and the President, well, he’s the President.”

Maybe not? Maybe I was panicking for no reason?

“And they both have nappy hair.”

There it is.

I swear to you, I thought the room stopped. I could have sworn that the whole room quieted, and everyone stirred uncomfortably. I looked around to see if anyone else heard what she said. My cheeks were on fire. I was simultaneously embarrassed for the lady and mad at myself for my silence.  I was immediately combing the annals of my brain for a tactful (though I didn’t feel like being tactful) response.

Perhaps something along the lines of, “Maybe that last comparison could be worded differently? Your dog and the President both have curly hair? They both have black hair?”

I don’t think its very nice comparing anyone’s hair to that of a dog, but blam-o, the President and his nappy dog hair. Shit.

We walked out of the headquarters, hopped in the car, and it sounded like I had been holding my breath when I blurted out, “Did anyone else hear the racist bomb that lady dropped?”  Nope. None of my car mates noticed. What about the slowing of the room, and the uncomfortable stirring? There is no way I was the only one. Haven’t we all seen the recent coverage of Gabby Douglas in the Olympics, and the faux controversy over her hair? How about that inspiring op-ed by Zina Saro-Wiwa in the NY Times about transitioning to her natural hair?  Oprah on the cover of O Magazine showing the world her lovely, natural locks?

Seriously?!  No one else knows how relevant the policing and politicizing of black hair is?

I’m being dramatic, plenty of people know. Especially people of color, you know, the people that have to deal with that crap on a daily basis. The same group of people that spend millions of dollars a year in an attempt to conform to Eurocentric beauty ideals. They know all too well.

Here is the gist of the thing: the word ‘nappy’ has been used for centuries with a negative tone. It was used by slave owners in the American South. The word may be used by a person of color in a positive way. Sometimes hateful words can be reclaimed (take for instance the annual Dyke March in SLC, people self-identify as Dykes). However, in a room full of white people, that word shouldn’t be used. That word is an insensitive use of our powerful language. That word, in this context, from that person, is shitty.

Then there’s the word “uppity.” This word came up in a recent episode of True Blood. A white woman called Tara “uppity” and I instantly screamed, “I hope she drains that twit!” I am certain the writers intentionally used the word to evoke anger, and engender sympathy for Tara in the situation, but I wonder how many people realize that word is truly disgusting? My significant other was unaware. Hell, two years ago I was unaware (it wasn’t until some reading that I learned the significance).

That word may not mean much to you or me, but that word has been used to denigrate people of color in this country. Someone was chastised as “uppity” when they were “acting out of place” or “putting on airs.” When someone is accused of acting uppity, it’s oppressor speak for: “quit acting like a person, it makes me uncomfortable.” I hope I never hear this word used in person, because I might go ape shit.

This whole post may sound condescending. It may have insensitive language, and if it does, I’m sorry. The point is, I’m a white woman trying to make sense of racially charged language (something I will never fully comprehend), and the people I know and love should try to become more conscious of their word choice.

The English language is immense, I think we can all abandon a couple of insensitive words. What do you think?

Comments

  1. hear, hear! i also take language very seriously because it is SO interesting and telling of our culture. great post.

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