Beyoncé and Lizzo removed an ableist slur from their songs. The controversy exposed a rift between Black and white disability activists.
- This summer, Beyoncé and Lizzo removed the term "spaz," which some call an ableist slur, from songs.
- The lyric changes prompted both praise and controversy.
In June, Lizzo issued an apology for using the term "spaz" in the song "Grrrls" off her latest album, "Special."
The word is considered a slur by many people in the disability community. It's short for spastic, most directly referring to spastic cerebral palsy (CP), a disability characterized in-part by hypertonic muscle tone. Calling someone a "spaz" makes fun of their uncontrollable body movements, per Urban Dictionary, which defines the word as referring to an "irrationally nervous or jumpy person."
But the term is also sometimes used in African American Vernacular English (AAVE) to mean something akin to "go wild," which was presumably how Lizzo intended it to be interpreted.
"As a fat Black woman in America, I've had many hurtful words used against me so I overstand the power words can have (whether intentionally or in my case, unintentionally)," the singer's social media statement on the matter read in part. "I'm proud to say there's a new version of 'Grrrls' with a lyric change."
About two months later, Beyoncé faced similar criticism for using the term in the song "Heated," on her album "Renaissance." As first reported by Insider's Ayomikun Adekaiyero, representatives for Beyoncé issued a statement saying the lyrics would be changed.
Both singers took swift action, which many advocates in the disability community applauded. But Black disabled advocates say conversations around the issue are deeper than a couple of song lyrics.
The conversations sparked by Lizzo and Beyoncé reinforced for some disabled, Black advocates the racism they experience. Some advocates with disabilities told Insider many of their white peers are unwilling to recognize the conversation should not focus on them.
The controversy also highlighted that the media is often slow to center Black disabled voices in stories about disability — even in situations where their voices should be amplified most, people with disabilities told Insider.
"There are plenty of disabled Black people, and their concerns are significant beyond the language that's used in the song," Andrea Kortenhoven, a Black linguist and freelance writer who has a disability but doesn't consider herself a disability advocate, told Insider.
"I think the hard part for the artists and the people who are criticizing it is, when do we value context? When do we value norms of a speech community?" she said. While some norms do need to be challenged, Kortenhoven added, "I think there's a kind of graciousness that's needed in the conversation."
White disabled people need to 'pass the mic' more, advocates say
Ola Ojewumi, a Black and disabled advocate and the founder of Project Ascend, which provides scholarships and grant opportunities to marginalized and disadvantaged youth, told Insider that the use of the term "spaz" is a complex issue that has divided the Black disabled and abled communities.
"Ableism is still an issue in the Black community," Ojewumi said, noting that just because "spaz" means something different in AAVE doesn't mean it's not also ableist. "But I think those conversations should be had by Black people."
Ojewumi told Insider she often sees white people with disabilities comparing disability to race, erasing the unique challenges faced by Black disabled people and other disabled people of color.
"There's this common belief that, 'Oh, if you're disabled, it's just like being Black,'" she said. But Black disabled people experience both ableism and racism, and they are the people who should be speaking on disability issues relating to the Black community and its language, Ojewumi said.
"Stop comparing ableist slurs to the N-word, because Black disabled people are called ableist slurs and the N-word. So pass the mic and stop speaking for the entire community," Ojewumi said.
Ojewumi said she has seen disabled people build their brands "on calling out Black prominent artists" without passing on opportunities that they get to speak with the media to Black disabled peers.
"I just see immediately when a Black woman expresses her opinion on social media, it seems to be immediately countered with a white voice," said Morgan Davis, a Black disability advocate and former intern at Respect Ability a non-profit that fights stigmas surrounding disability in the media and beyond.
In a Twitter thread on the topic of the slur, Ojewumi pointed out that Beyoncé gave opportunities to people like disabled Latina model Jillian Mercado and disabled trans model Aaron Rose Phillip early in their careers.
"The larger issue is who is getting called out for being offensive and if it's a disproportionate amount of people with privilege who are doing it and not holding white people to the same standard," she said.
Black linguists say the issue is complicated
Kelly Wright, a Black linguist at Virginia Tech University, said the term originates from the word "spasmodic," which describes unpredictable motion. At its core, it's neither a good or bad thing.
"Scientists who are watching bacteria in a petri dish are describing their motion as spasmodic because it's unpredictable," she said. "It's not undulating, it's not oscillating, it's spasmodic."
But these days, the word's connotation depends on your culture, ability, and where you live. That's how language works, she said, and it evolves.
Wright said she sees the lyric changes as acts of empathy by Lizzo and Beyoncé.
"They aren't just being woke, they're not placating their fan base, they're participating in long-standing traditions of ethic and civil responsibility when it comes to language use," she said. "This to me looks like linguistic justice."
Kortenhoven hopes the longer-term conversation will be more about awareness. "I think as critics, as listeners, we have to go slow. We should look to see if there's more to the story beyond 'there's this bad word here,'" she said. "The intention should be about growth — not about shaming."
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