Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Working out the kinks: taking care in anti-racist language

Something interesting came up in the comment section of my Jessica Simpson post [edited for clarity]:
ME: I actually had a "!" moment today when I was talking about my layout - I said I was trying to work the "kinks" out of it when I realized the racial implications of that, in terms of how black woman's hair is policed. It's in so much of our language that it's impossible to completely root it out, but we've gotta try, esp. when we are called on it.
CatieCat [of Shakesville]: I grew up using the word "kink" as in having a pain or stiffness in the neck, a kink in my neck. This was what I learned as a kid in the UK, without any association with black people's hair at all...
Me: There are a LOT of different connotations to that word though - beyond hair and stiffness, I can also think of kinks with relation to cords/wires and of course to sexual kinks. It makes me wonder which was called which first - is kink a way to devalue black women's hair, or does the connotation of black women as problematic lend it to description of these other nouns?

CatieCat: [I]t's not needed so much that I'd use it if there's risk of it bothering someone. Nice thing about English: there are always other ways to say things. :)
Kinky" is not a word that's commonly recognized as a problematic and somewhat moralizing descriptor - no white followers on my Twitter recognized it as an issue, and many didn't realize the racial connotation. And it's used to describe problems on a regular basis. I'm not saying that kink is necessarily a racist word to use in description of other problems, but I think it definitely could be. Natural, kinky black hair is beautiful, but it's problematized:

"Good hair" is considered relatively kink free, and relatively straight whereas "bad hair" refers to kinky "unmanageable" hair.
Natural black hair is often seen as non-professional:
The pressure that black women feel to go to extreme lengths to obscure the nature of their hair from the cradle to the grave is not the same as a white woman deciding to get highlights to look smart for her professional job. It would be the same if kinky hair was coveted and white families vigilantly watched as a baby's hair grew in, hoping that the little might have "good" nappy hair... It would be the same if an editor at Glamour magazine caught heat for telling a group of female attorneys that "ethnic" styles like bobs and ponytails are "political" and inappropriate in the workplace. It would be the same if a white woman could be fired for simply wearing her hair down. It would be the same if long, straight hair were considered unfeminine. It would be the same if, to stress her dangerous radicalness, Cindy McCain was featured on the cover of The New Yorker wearing her hair long, blonde and straight.
To me, it seems that that same problematization would extend to the very word kink, just as the neutral descriptive word fat has been made into a slur. All of the synonyms for kink listed in my comment above are also things that are problematized by our culture: tangles in wires, bodily stiffness, non-standard sex. (I'm not saying that non-vanilla sex is bad - it's awesome - but it's definitely also a way to shame sexual women and men in our culture). As with black hair, it's a problem to be straightened out, made right - made white.

Kinky doesn't just mean curly in this case. It means problematic. Was this descriptive word for black hair twisted into something problematic? Or was a word used to describe problems applied to black hair to moralize and shame?

And I don't think that it's "just how it is" - just a word used to describe tangles without any kind of racial connotations. Yes, black hair is curly and can be tangled, but white people have curly and tangled hair too - I wrestle with tangles in my hair on a daily basis, despite it being very straight (a feature I'm often told that I'm lucky to have). Sometimes non-black hair is described as kinky, but it's usually understood as descriptive of black hair - a Google image search for "kinky hair" returns mostly black women (and, um, one picture of Thomas Jefferson?)*

As a white woman, I don't think that I get to decide what is and isn't racist. But it is my responsibility as an anti-racist ally to police my own language for the racism, sexism, cissexism, homophobia, and ableism that the dominant culture has thoroughly ground into it. For me, I'm erring on the side of caution with this word. Kinky as descriptive of a problem - a tangle, a stoppage, a stiffness - is something that feels like linguistic privilege to me.

What do you think? Can you think of any other words like this - little words, little adjectives with race/gender/ableism connotations that are used as a problematic descriptor in other contexts - and are not recognized as such? Do you have any knowledge to share on the history of the word "kink" and its usage?

*I should note that Echo Virgil-Kelly on Twitter argues that "kinky" is less offensive than "nappy" to describe black hair.


  1. i found this really interesting - as a white woman with friends with very non-standard sexual preferences, i hear "kink" as a sexual descriptor, rather than a racial reference. it's interesting to think that they're both ways of "othering" groups and that the sexual descriptor is likely derived from the racial one.

  2. This was a really interesting, eye-opening post. I had never thought of the word "kink" has having racial connotations, but as you point out, it definitely does. I can't really think how much I use the word because it is part of my vocabulary. But I will definitely take notice when I use it from now on on reflex and in what context.

    "But it is my responsibility as an anti-racist ally to police my own language for the racism, sexism, cissexism, homophobia, and ableism that the dominant culture has thoroughly ground into it."

    This was a really good point. That's how I feel as well. With my privilege, I sometimes don't notice when I am exerting that privilege. It's my responsibility to understand and be conscious of my privilege as well as police my privileged language and actions.

  3. @abby - I actually don't have a problem with it as descriptive of sexual preferences, since I construct those as positive and they're both "othered" groups.

  4. The President of the college in which I teach, who is Caribbean, took offense when someone said someone else was "monkeying around" with something. It had never occured to me that such an expression could be offensive until I thought about how black and brown people have been likened to monkeys.

    Or what about the ways in which we use the words "black" and "white," or "light" and "dark?" The days the stock market crashed are commonly called "Black Tuesday" and "Black Friday." And days on which tragic events occur are often called "dark" days.

    Hey, how about a "white knight?" Women and people of color need not apply. So what's that?--about 80 percent of the population?

    Then there is the tendency to call something that's half-assed or simply not acceptable "lame."

    How often does a male, in making a promise, say that he will be a "man on his word."

    And let's think about the inverse of "kinky": "straight." Need I say any more?

  5. this reminds me of a conversation on Dan Savage's podcast about the word "gay".
    Someone called in complaining about his usage of gay to mean stupid (his is a gay man btw), and Dan brought up an interesting point that gay once meant happy, and people were really upset when gay started to be applied to homosexuals and now it also seems to mean stupid, which- while it may be a slight on the glbt community, he felt that getting all upset about it just made it worse, and that someday, it may mean something else as well.

    Obviously the premise for the phrase Indian giver, is false and derogatory, and it would be hard to see how it wouldn't be offensive.

    The word kink seems to mean a lot of things, and there is nothing wrong with having kinky hair, so I would think that the term is pretty innocuous even is there is someone out there who would take offense.

  6. Thanks for the heads-up - I'm fascinated by the discussion, and will certainly be monitoring my own use of the word in anything other than a non-vanilla-sex sort of way.

    And isn't it interesting that vanilla is often thought of as the "white" flavour? Normalization all around us. Like smog.

    Thanks for the discussion!

  7. (Off or on topic?)

    I don't like the word "spazz"--as in, ohhhh I am such a spazz, since it derives from "spastic"--that is to say, cerebral palsy. But I don't think lots of young folks who say it realize this, or mean it as derogatory. Nonetheless, it is.

    Ditto, "lame"...

  8. Daisy, definitely on topic.

    I just now used to word "lame" in the context of a feminist conversation, actually. Big fuckup...shows how ingrained this bullshit is.

  9. If you haven't read Moore's "Racism in the English Language" (, you need to. The sheer number of idioms that hinge on dark=bad and light=good will boggle the mind.

    As for hair, I use the term "textured." It's problematic because it uses less-textured hair as the standard, but I think it's more neutral than many other terms.

  10. Wallflower Ex, thanks for the link - I'd not seen it before, and as a linguist and language geek, I'm always interested in that sort of thing. :)

  11. I don't think there's anything offensive about the word "kink" or "kinky" any more than I do about "nappy" - unless I were to specifically use it in an offensive way. Why? Because those words have very different meanings to me.

    Living in Chicago, I've never heard "kink" be used to describe African-American hair (and I have lived/worked in neighborhoods where I am the only light skinned person, literally, for miles.)

    Brits/Aussies/Kiwi's (and many in the cloth diapering community, which I'm a part of) call diapers "nappys". They've never heard the term applied to African-American hair either.

    So, because some person in some culture somewhere else decided to take a word and use it in a derogatory way, now I have to stop using the term to mean exactly what it has always meant to me?

    Nope. I live in a free country, and nobody's going to shape my language but me.

    Letting other's hatred shape your own behavior is as good as letting the threat of terrorism keep you from living your life.

    Besides that, every time we let "them" turn something into a bad word, we're giving "them" more power, don't you think?

  12. TL, DR. Let me sum up:


    You're really Karl Rove, aren't you?

  13. For me, language does not exist only in my sphere and my mind. It is well integrate into the patriarchy/kyriarchy, and when I use words that have been problematized, I am ingraining my privilege further. If I use a word - like lame - and just mean "not awesome", it still carries the hurt of ableism when I say it to others. And I think I'm responsible for that.

    Besides that, every time we let "them" turn something into a bad word, we're giving "them" more power, don't you think?

    There's a way to reclaim words, but it takes collective and not just individual action. The English language is deep and wonderful, and there's always another way to say what you mean. I operate with enough privilege that I'd rather err on the side of caution.

  14. Okay, so because you, and a very small group of hateful people in America, have decided that a word means something, the millions of english-speaking people who have always referred to a diaper as a "nappy" should suddenly find another word to use?

    Some people use "Feminist" as a bad word - will that make me stop using it exactly how it's meant to be used? Come on now. It's only a bad word if I'm intending it to be.

    As a communications/business/law major, I've taken enough CMUN courses in my life to learn that words are used so very differently across cultures, and it's culturally insensitive to dicate how another group of people uses a word, even though it may mean something different to you. One group doesn't get to dictate to another group what language they should speak. Americans don't get to decide that the rest of the english speaking world needs to rename their "nappys."

  15. It's only a bad word if I'm intending it to be. I recognize you. It took a little while without the wall, Humpty Dumpty:

    When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less

    Looking good for an egg your age. Guess the King's Horses and Men did a better job than Carroll said.

  16. @CaitieCat - uh, okay I have no clue what any of that meant. Is that some sort of a code? I wish I was in on the joke.

  17. Silly me, I thought you could read.

    I'll be over here now. B'bye!


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