The word 'nappy' has its hurtful roots in slavery

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Since slavery times, "nappy" has been used to malign the natural hair texture of many people of African descent: dense, dark and tightly curled. So when Don Imus referred to the women of the Rutgers basketball team as "nappy-headed hos" -- a widely condemned remark that got him fired Thursday -- it cut deeper than many who are unfamiliar with the term might realize....

"When I hear it from someone who doesn't understand the depth of pain, they just don't have the right to say it," said Carla Lynne Hall, a singer from Harlem.

The pain goes back to slavery. Whites saw blacks' natural hair as a negative attribute, a contrast to the European standard of "ideal" beauty. As a result, even blacks started to look down on their own natural features.

"If your hair wasn't straight, it was called nappy. Nappy hair meant you weren't beautiful or desirable," said Nsenga Burton, professor of communications and media studies at Goucher College in Baltimore. "Even within the community, nappy hair for a long time was seen as a bad thing."

There are accounts of African slaves attempting to change their hair using axle grease or dirty dishwater with oil, said Neal Lester, chairman of the English department at Arizona State University. "Slaves knew the ideal of beauty didn't fit them," he said....

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