On June 10 Lizzo released a new song titled GRRRLS, which instantly faced backlash from the disabled community over the use of an ableist slur. Lizzo was quick to change the specific lyric and even went as far as re-uploading her song on all platforms without the ableist language. The slur in question was sp*z, which is a derogatory term for spastic. “Spastic” can cover a plethora of disorders and disabilities that cause involuntary and uncontrollable muscle spasms. There was no doubling down or excuses; Lizzo listened, learned, and acted. Still, as a Black disabled woman, I did not feel the situation was handled well.
The situation required additional context and a genuine intersectional gaze. The important context, being the specific word Lizzo used, is a part of African American Vernacular English (AAVE). The name is apparently much more than a slur, and critics practically ignored this context as an integral part of the discussion. That’s because most disabled people dominating the conversations where white and non-black disabled people of color.
To be clear, disabled people of all backgrounds have every right to be offended by Lizzo’s song, but the slapdash accusation that her intentions were malicious from such an immense number of people does not sit right. Especially given that when non-Black people and Black men use ableist language in their songs there is no backlash. In addition, the specific word used was not only a component of AAVE but has been so for a very long time.
African American Vernacular English is a living, growing, and diverse language, and its appropriation by non-Black people leads to miseducation and misunderstandings about context and syntax.
To Lizzo, and many Black people, the word genuinely meant something else entirely.
Even other disabled Black Americans were unaware that the word was a slur until recently, and if it was not recognized as a slur by most of the community before Lizzo Black disabled people have certainly opened the conversation now. Similar AAVE words like r*tar*d also weren’t seen as slurs until recently, and it’s important to understand that even if some things weren’t seen as harmful to the overall Black community years ago, that can change—particularly when Black disabled people are using this chance to speak.
While these ideas can coexist that doesn’t change the fact that majority white, and non-Black disabled people spoke over Black disabled people. Lizzo needed to be educated, but the nuance and context of AAVE also needed to be a part of this conversation. This never happened because non-black disabled people saw this as a chance to center the conversation around themselves and ignore cultural context rather than giving the floor to Black disabled people. Instead, they silenced the voices of Black disabled people while painting Lizzo as something she wasn’t.
It angered me to see Twitter posts from white and nonblack disabled activists calling for Lizzo to “do better” and “listen to disabled voices,” while a legitimate cultural context was ignored. These activists failed to defer to Black disabled people for nuance and appeared more determined to demonize a celebrity. And, as we so often see in these situations, their threads, think pieces, and talking points got far more publicity than that of actual Black disabled people and activists calling out the lack of context.
After Lizzo rewrote her lyrics and publicly re-issued the slur-less version of the song, most white and POC disabled people continued to ignore the concerns of Black disabled people and use this incident to platform themselves rather than make space for the context conversation.
Additionally, they refused to extend grace to Lizzo, and that’s a nagging shame, because being open to education and making the decision to change a lyric is more than most celebrities do; and as a Black disabled person, I am grateful for her willingness to listen and learn.
I hope that in the future, white and non-Black disabled people take a step back when situations like this arise and give their platforms to Black disabled people for a more well-rounded take.