NEW YORK (Reuters) - When syndicated U.S. radio host Don Imus called a mostly black women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos,” he used a slur considered so racist it has mostly fallen out of modern American usage.
“Nappy is in the lexicon of racism in the same category as pickaninny — an old Southernism which used to be used to describe a small African American child — and nigger,” said Anne Soukhanov, U.S. editor of the Encarta Webster’s Dictionary and a veteran columnist on language.
In many English-speaking countries, the word “nappy” means a diaper or a Scottish ale. But in the United States it is seen as a vile slur describing the tightly-curled natural hair texture of many African Americans.
“I have not heard ‘nappy’ for years and I was born in the South,” Soukhanov, 63, said, describing Imus’s comments as “antique racism — words not used anymore except by people who are very insensitive to the culture we live in.”
By contrast “ho” is slang for “whore” whose usage has exploded in hip-hop music and popular culture in recent years, prompting some black leaders to urge record companies to halt the use of offensive words in rap music.
Debates over racial expressions are a frequent feature of an American culture still struggling to come to terms with a legacy of slavery and discrimination.
Imus made the provocative remarks last Wednesday after the Rutgers University team lost the national championship game.
On Monday CBS Radio and MSNBC, which broadcasts the “Imus In The Morning” radio show on television, suspended Imus for two weeks.
Black leaders from Al Sharpton to Jesse Jackson have demanded he be fired outright despite his apologies.
Harvard University law professor Randall Kennedy, author of the book “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word,” called Imus’s remarks “terrible and reprehensible.”
“But it is not the words themselves that tell the whole story here,” Kennedy said. “‘Nappy-headed’ could be used in a variety of ways, it can be said lovingly or in a complimentary way, but Don Imus said it in to express casual contempt.”
Kennedy said the Imus flap was exacerbated by his past.
“This is not the first time Don Imus has said absolutely reprehensible things,” he said. “No one who knows his show at all could say, ‘Gosh, I was surprised.’”
The National Association of Black Journalists says Imus called journalist Gwen Ifill of the Public Broadcasting Service a “cleaning lady” when she covered the White House for The New York Times and referred to sports columnist William Rhoden of The Times as “a quota hire.”
“Nappy” derives from the Middle English word “noppy” or “noppe,” used to describe the frayed edge of a piece of cloth. It became a slur in common usage in America by the 1890s.
In 1998 the children’s book “Nappy Hair,” published in 1997 as a celebration of black culture, made national headlines when Ruth Sherman, a white school teacher, read it to her elementary class in Brooklyn of mostly black and Hispanic kids.
Her action brought protests from black parents who said the teacher was insensitive to the politics of black hair and self-esteem. Sherman said the book had a positive message but she received threats and resigned from the school.
Jesse Sheidlower, editor-at-large for the Oxford English Dictionary, said the cases of Sherman and Imus are indicative of how the use of sensitive words depends on who says them.
“Very often it is OK for members of one group to use a pejorative term on other members of that group, such as when black people call each other nigger or gay people call each other fag or dyke,” Sheidlower said.
“But it is almost never OK for non-members of a particular community to use such terminology,” he said. “‘Nappy-headed’ in particular is clearly a term which is very, very sensitive.”
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