✏️ What's the Kink with 'Kinky' Hair?

Walk down the hair product aisle at any convenience store and you’re bound to find it: the Ethnic Corner. Often a small array of products occupying two or four (if you’re lucky) shelves, the Ethnic Corner attempts to look like its consumers— earthy hues of brown and black packaging, red lettering like their skin’s undertone. Search a while, and you’ll see the products sold for their “kinky” hair: ‘Fix it’ masques, the hordes of ‘anti’ treatments (anti-frizz, anti-shrinkage, anti-anything-your-hair-does-naturally,) and the product to end a hair’s kink altogether: Relaxer. That chemical concoction that burns your coils flat, straight, relaxed— as if they were agitated (and agitating) to begin with.

Kinky hair has long faced this opposition. Much like the curl (we need only remember the ‘wild’ trope of curly tresses,) kinky coils have often been relegated to the category of the unkempt and unruly. Yet kinky hair, unlike the universalized curl, faces a double societal rejection: Kinky hair is Black hair. And this proximity to Blackness – whether real or imagined – naturally bears its own set of oppositions.

But is it all in the name? We ought to start there. Defined more closely, “kinky hair” (in its most neutral occurrence— lest we devolve to “nappy,” or pelo malo,) is generally understood as ‘Afro-textured’ hair. It is tightly coiled, and whereas general curl-types carry an ‘S’ shape, afro-hair follows a fluffier ‘Z’ pattern. One might explain the application of “kinky” to this kind of hair by its origins in the noun “kink.” An Anglo-word, “kink” may have first appeared in-print as “keenk,” when Lexicographer Edward Philips published the following in his The New World of English Words: Or, A General Dictionary in 1658:

Keenk (in Navigation), is when a Rope which should run smooth in the Block, hath got a little turn, and runs as it were double.

Thus delivered the nautical “kink,” which the Oxford English Dictionary went on to define as “a short twist or curl in a rope […] esp. when stiff so as to catch or cause obstruction.” Already “kink” is problematized: it is a word describing “obstruction,” trouble for that which “should run smooth.” That sounds familiar.

Inherent to “kink,” then, is this sense of deviation from the norm; an oddity or messy occurrence. It is this same quality that lent itself to later definitions— by the mid-20th century, as per Oxford, “kink” was a marker of sexual deviance: “a sexually abnormal person; one who practices sexual perversions.” Yet its derivative “kinky” was already in-use by the mid-19th century. In an 1858 collection of stories, Major Jones’ Sketches of Travel, American humorist William T. Thompson uses “kinky” to describe a Black man’s hair:

“I happened to call one of the nigger waiters ‘boy’. The kinky-headed cuss looked at me sideways, and rolled the whites of his eyes at me.”

Needless to point out the vitriol of “kinky” here. One wonders, yet: if dictionary chronology holds true, might we trace the later “sexual perversion” of kinky to this very moment? That is, did kinky also come to mean perversion because it was first a descriptor for Black folk’s hair?

Where dictionary lineage fails us, we need only recall instances of the eternally hypersexualized Black body to confirm this question. There is the gold-digging, lascivious Jezebel trope. There is the “Hot” rhythm of Black music— a contagious sound seduction, wherein early white jazz listeners feared they’d become “drunk” with rhythm, and by transmission, dirty with Blackness. [1] There is the ‘adultification’ of Black girls, who are often deemed as mature sexual objects instead of as innocent children. [2] Central to each is a sense of sexual pollution to the white body. Not only are Black folks sexual by nature, suggest their white contemporaries— but this perceived sexuality also poses a threat to 'respectable’ white sensibilities.

Might we imagine the first observed “kinky” moment, then: some deviant sexual act, more bizarre to its receiver than anything ever performed on them. What could they call it? Why, “kinky” fit the bill— for it situated the actor of said kinky act into the same context as that Black hair descriptor, a descriptor bred of the Othered Black body itself: deviant, inherently perverse. To be kinky, then, is to always share this racialized link. No wonder it remains something of a taboo: “kinky,” just like Blackness, has not experienced full acceptance yet.


[1] See Ronald Radano and Philip V. Bohlman’s Music and the Racial Imagination, Chapter 13: “Hot Fantasies: American Modernism and the Idea of Black Rhythm.”

[2] See 2017 Georgetown Law study ‘Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood.’