“Nappy headed” is a term used almost exclusively in the black culture; it refers to the little balls of hair that knot up next to the skull as a result of neglectful grooming. In a less common sense, nappy-headed can also be a reference to a natural (“afro”) african-american hairdo, without the unkempt connotations. In general, when a person uses the term “nappy headed” to describe another person, people consider it quite insulting. The offender means to draw forth images of an abjectly poor, dirty, uneducated, unwashed person.
White people tend to be unaware of this very specific African-American cultural phenomenon. The physical requirements of grooming the type of black hair that can turn “nappy” is a mystery to those people outside the culture. Most black people can avoid nappy hair by simple grooming like combing.
Economic class distinctions are also inherent in the term. The straight, smooth “white” type of hair (like actress Halle Berry’s hair) seems to be often the ideal; it can be simulated with expensive and frequent salon procedures. As white people can identify lower economic class members by things like ratty clothes, crooked teeth, matted hair, etc., black people can also see culturally-specific physical manifestations of poverty, naps along the hairline being one of them.
The slang word “ho,” short for “whore,” is prevalent in hip-hop culture and song lyrics. Both “nappy headed” and “ho” are insulting terms, but the ubiquity of “ho” lately has softened its offending power; The more esoteric “nappy headed” retains its debasing punch. “Ho” alone would have not been as outrageous for shock-jock Don Imus to say when referring to a champion collegiate women’s basketball team. Adding the “nappy-headed” makes it a supremely degrading affront meant to equate a person with a destitute, irresponsible, drug-addicted, street-walking sex-worker.
What does this have to do with writing?
It’s a great lesson for any fiction writers who want to portray characters that are not within their own cultural group. Mr. Imus was, like many radio disc jockeys, attempting to show his adept use of the black culture lexicon, which in turn he hoped would increase his listening audience and build his “cool” persona. His mistake was to assume too much familiarity with black culture. Many within the culture can use terms jokingly that those outside of the culture may not (e.g. “ni -double g -er” <- I may get in hot water for even using this term as an example!). Mr. Imus did not issue the “off-limits” respect to the term that he should have when speaking publicly.
If you would like to write about characters who speak differently than you or who are black, white, chinese, hispanic, teenagers, elderly people, teachers, doctors, garbage men, etc., simply do your research. Use culturally specific terms, euphemisms, and dialect patters infrequently, as they tend to stick out; a little bit goes a long way in portraying a character. Find some beta readers within that group to go over your interpretation; ask them if it sounds authentic and not forced or overdone.
Of course, exhaustive research won’t exempt you from offending the more sensitive readers, but it will show up in your writing as an honest respect. I researched my Master’s thesis, an ethnography, on the use of African-American dialect in the high school classroom (before the whole “Ebonics” controversy hit in California). People reacted in a variety of ways to my whiteness and my curiosity on the subject. I’d listen quietly to the angry naysayers to show them consideration and I’d thank the cheerleaders for their encouragement, but I continued on with my thesis, eventually earning my degree. More importantly, I gained a new understanding of the richness and sanctity of language and culture.
In your writing, and in life, treat each culture with true reverence, always making sure to balance the differences in characters with the common ground we all share as humans.