#22: Ableism and Accountability
Yes, I'm going to talk about Lizzo.
This isn’t going to be the usual Accessible Social issue that you’ve come to know. It’s very much going to address a topical issue, several if I’m being honest. I probably won’t get everything right or articulate my points as well as I’d like, but I feel that it’s important we talk about this. And let this serve as a content warning: I’m going to be talking about ableist language and racism.
First, let me set the scene. Lizzo, our jazz-flute playing, gyrating, body-positive goddess, has been releasing new music recently. If you haven’t heard “About Damn Time” yet, it’s an absolute bop.
However, her other new song, “GRRRLS”, did not receive the same level of love. The backlash Lizzo faced over the song had nothing to do with her musical talents and everything to do with a particular word she used in the lyrics.
To give you some background, “spaz” is a shortened version of the word “spastic.” According to the inclusive language guide Self-Defined, “Spastic refers to an alteration in muscle tone affected by the medical condition spasticity, which is seen in spastic diplegia and many other forms of cerebral palsy.”
The word has been recognized as an ableist slur within the disabled community for quite some time and should *never be used, but sadly, its history and impact are not widely known or acknowledged by abled people. I personally didn’t know its origins until a few years ago, and that was only after doing my own research on ableist language and slurs.
Of course, not knowing isn’t an excuse nor does it absolve someone from being held accountable for their actions. So let’s get back to Lizzo.
The disabled community was rightfully upset and disappointed with Lizzo, with many people reaching out to her on social media to express those feelings. A lot of individuals explained why they felt hurt by her song and asked that she change the lyrics. But of course, this is the internet and not everyone was as understanding or kind in their responses to her. Some were blatantly racist and offensively aggressive.
It wasn’t just Lizzo who was subjected to racist remarks over the matter either. Black disabled folks were shouted down while trying to talk through the situation, often by white disabled folks.
So let’s break all that down.
You don’t know what you don’t know. We cannot expect everyone to be all-knowing. Our world is complex and language even more so. I’m not excusing Lizzo’s mistake, but I’m also giving her the grace to learn. Lizzo has never shown a pattern of ableist or bigoted behavior before. On the contrary, she’s probably one of the most forward-thinking, open-minded celebrities out there right now. She also has a whole team of people who failed her when they let that lyric move forward in the song.
If we want people to do better, then we need to give them the space to learn from their mistakes. I encourage everyone to learn more about ableism and ableist language in their own time. This blog post from Autistic Hoya is an excellent place to begin. Start educating yourself.
Lizzo isn’t the first artist to use ableist language in their music. And she probably won’t be the last. It took me less than a minute to find a whole blog post outlining the best 100 songs that feature the word “crazy” in the title. Even Taylor Swift has used ableist slurs like “crazy” and “psycho” in her songs before, and almost no one flinched. But she’s also a white woman.
The criticism that Taylor receives is vastly different from the kind that Lizzo and other Black artists face from fans and critics. There’s an obvious double-standard in the entertainment industry (and most industries for that matter), not just for Black people and people of color, but for other marginalized groups as well. This includes the disabled community, which also has a huge race problem.
Accountability is key. Lizzo was thankfully quick to acknowledge the numerous messages she received about the song and released a heartfelt message on Twitter addressing the use of the slur in her song and how she was rectifying the situation:
It’s been brought to my attention that there is a harmful word in my new song “GRRRLS”. Let me make one thing clear: I never want to promote derogatory language. As a fat black woman in America, I’ve had many hurtful words used against so I overstand the power words can have (whether intentionally or in my case, unintentionally). I’m proud to say there’s a new version of GRRRLS with a lyric change. This is the result of me listening and taking action. As an influential artist I’m dedicated to being part of the change I’ve been waiting to see in the world. Xoxo, Lizzo
This is a great example of taking accountability for a mistake and being a good ally. Lizzo listened, reflected, acknowledged her mistake, and shared how she was going to fix that mistake. But we also have to recognize something sad but true about her statement and the situation overall.
Lizzo had no choice. You’re probably thinking, “Well yeah, of course, she had no choice. She said something bad!” No, but really, she had no choice. Lizzo is a Black woman. Not only is she a Black woman, but she’s a self-proclaimed fat Black woman who also happens to be quite famous. If she had reacted in any other way than how she did or showed even a microcosm of frustration in her statement, the internet would have destroyed her. Lizzo would have been labeled as an Angry Black Woman. She would have faced a tsunami of racist, anti-fat comments and messages. Hell, she’s probably still facing shit like that despite taking accountability for her lyrics.
Let’s be real, Black people, especially Black women, are held to completely different standards within society when it comes to how they’re allowed to express and conduct themselves. They do more emotional labor in their day-to-day life than most white people do in their entire existence. They’re expected to metaphorically contort themselves into whatever role society needs from them at any given moment. These expectations get even heavier if they happen to be Black and disabled, or Black and queer, or Black and whatever else society deems outside the norm, and that’s patently unfair.
So to summarize all my rambling:
Spaz (and all variations of it) is a terrible ableist slur and we should all avoid using it along with other ableist words and phrases. Listen to disabled folks.
We cannot assume that someone knows all the same things we do or that they are intentionally malicious when they make a mistake, especially if they’ve never exhibited offensive or bigoted behavior before. Mistakes happen.
People are allowed to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes after taking accountability for them. If you want to be an ally or an accomplice or whatever you want to call yourself, accountability matters.
We all need to do a better job of taking responsibility for our own education. Disabled people do not exist solely to educate you on ableism and disability. Black people do not exist solely to educate you on racism and race. Queer people do not exist solely to educate you on LGBTQIA+ matters and anti-gayness. We all need to step outside our bubbles and broaden our minds in meaningful ways that break down harmful barriers and stereotypes.
Race and racism almost always play a part in the discussion of societal issues, no matter the subject or who’s leading the conversation. To not recognize that is naïve at best and willfully ignorant at worst. Before we enter into any of these conversations, we need to recognize and assess whatever privileges we may have and ask ourselves, “How does my privilege shape my thinking on this matter? Is it harming the conversation or other people in it?”
Okay, I’m done shouting now. I’m sure I’ve misstepped somewhere in here (as hard as I tried not to), and I welcome any and all feedback. Thanks for reading if you made it this far. And please broaden your world and your brain by following and supporting these outstanding disability activists: Imani Barbarin, Tinu, and Vilissa Thompson. They’re way more articulate and knowledgable than me!
*While spaz is an ableist slur, many people with cerebral palsy and similar disabilities have reclaimed the word as part of their personal identity. This is their choice and does not give anyone else permission to use it.