If you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me take you back to about six weeks ago when Grammy-winning singer and rapper Lizzo released the song “Grrrls” from her latest album “Special.” Mixed with catchy beats and powerful lyrics, I can imagine millions of girls dancing is a competent slur; the word “spaz”.
Spaz, short for “spasm,” is often used in everyday life as a shorthand for someone who is out of control, on the verge of or in the middle of an emotional breakdown, or lacking in wisdom. But in a medical sense, for someone like me with spastic cerebral palsy, or CP for short, the word spastic means something completely different.
It refers to cramping, which is the constant and endless tightness in my legs and body, which can be very painful, doesn’t have to be triggered by anything specific, makes my life difficult, and in cold weather becomes more difficult to manage. It’s not fun, and it doesn’t affect my emotional control or intelligence. However, the term has been a campus insult for as long as I can remember, used against me and others I know by people who may not know what it means but know enough to weaponize it.
So hearing the word in Lizzo’s songs and knowing how important space she occupies in conversations about representation and marginalization is confusing and hurtful. The acceptance and body positivity she’s championed throughout her career doesn’t make any sense.I spent less than five minutes write a tweet
And post it with other disability advocates. I outline why the word is harmful and how I wish she could do better.
Now, I’ve tweeted thousands of times over the years, but I’ve never tweeted something like this: it went viral all over the world. If I had to guess why, it’s probably because I’m so direct and clear, but I think it also helps that in 2022, the world is more willing than ever to learn and be allies. It got me on the international press and made me a target for trolls. The disability community makes so much noise that Lizzo issued one of the best apologies I’ve ever seen and gave us all a master class on how to be allies. Beyond the part where she might try to go the extra mile or get angry, she goes straight to open learning and taking action.
In a statement posted on her social media platform, Lizzo said: “As an obese black woman in America, I have a lot of words that hurt me, so I understand the power of words (whether intentional or not). I Proud to say there is a new version of GRRRLS with the lyrics changed.” She re-released the song without defamation.
Then last weekend, I got a mean tweet from a stranger asking if I was going to be called Beyoncé too, for using the same slur. Confused, I searched and quickly found the words hidden under the sound effects of the song “Heated” she co-wrote with Drake. The song appears on her new album “Renaissance,” the long-awaited follow-up to 2016’s “Lemonade.” This time, the injury was deeper.
Didn’t we all just explain why the word is harmful? Isn’t it bad for the world not to hear that we speak competent language when we start talking to the music industry? The team at Beyoncé, no doubt dedicated to paying attention to every detail of the music industry, could have missed Lizzo’s moment? How did they not know that if they released a song with that word in them, they would have the exact same problem?
Despite the ongoing emotional toll of being a disability advocate, frustration and exhaustion, I tweeted again
. This time I’m less hopeful for a response, and I’m well aware of the untouchable mystery behind Beyoncé. Her status as a pop culture icon was earned by a few, and rightfully earned her decades after being at the top of the art scene. But three days after I tweeted, my world exploded again as Beyonce announced that she would also be re-recording her song without being vilified in another pundit ally performance.
Words matter. They always have, and always will. Language is one of the few tools that most people in the world can easily use, especially on social media. That’s why it’s worth paying attention to how we use it. That’s why my mom always taught me that the pen is stronger than the sword. If anything, tell me this week that we have the most powerful pen at our disposal thanks to the power of social media and well-crafted tweets. That’s why I hope we can use this global attention to have a broader conversation about the inequalities facing people with disabilities. From small things, big things grow.