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.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:
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. :)
"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.