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Lizzo and Beyoncé called out for ableism in lyrics, a White band is not. Activists say that’s a problem

Lizzo on Thursday, April 11, 2019
TODAY -- Pictured: Lizzo on Thursday, April 11, 2019 -- (Photo by: Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
(NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Disability rights scholars and activists Vilissa Thompson and Moya Bailey discuss the use of ableist language in music and the disparate racial responses when it occurs

A couple of things are happening in the recent controversies about the use of ableist lyrics in popular music: One is the inherent and systemic ableism in our culture that normalizes the use of language that stigmatizes people with disabilities. Another is the way that the response to these recent uses of ableist language are seen through the lens of race.

Over the past couple of months, Lizzo and Beyoncé were both called out for their use of a word that is considered a slur in the disability community that refers to people with spastic paralysis or cerebral palsy. Both artists quickly took the correction and removed and replaced the offending word from their songs. More recently, the band Big Time Rush was trending on Twitter as fans were excited about a previously unreleased song that was leaked to an online platform, titled “Paralyzed.” Black disabled activists pointed out the stark contrast in the response from White disabled activists who criticized two Black women artists, compared to what they saw as a lack of outrage for a group of White men who were engaging in the same kind of offense.

“With Big Time Rush, I’m not glad that this has happened in this moment, but I’m glad that people are having to face the double standard. We’ve been saying that it’s been a double standard for the past two months now, but now we’re seeing it in real time with White people misusing disability language and being unapologetic about it,” said Vilissa Thompson, a licensed master social worker with a degree in psychology, and the creator of Ramp Your Voice, a blog and organization that centers the experiences of disabled people, especially Black women, girls and femmes.

“We see the coddling, the apologetics, the dismissiveness of it. These are two different reactions between Lizzo and Beyoncé, and this group, and the main difference is that two of these individuals are Black and the rest of the people are White. When White folks get disability wrong, they are given passes, they are not expected to make corrections, there is not as strong a call and a demand for that as when Black people do it.”

Thompson is also a disability rights speaker, facilitator and consultant who has osteogenesis imperfecta (commonly known as brittle bone disease) and is also a little woman who uses a wheelchair, and is hard of hearing. Moya Bailey is an associate professor in the department of communication at Northwestern University and has written about ableism and ableism in pop culture, including contributions to “Blackness and Disability” and her chapter in “Everyday Women’s and Gender Studies,” titled “The Illest: Disability as Metaphor in Hip Hop Music.” They each took some time to talk about ableism in popular culture, its impact on the lived experiences of disabled people, and the racialized responses to missteps in interactions with the disability community. (These interviews have been edited for length and clarity. For a longer version of this discussion, visit sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-lisa-deaderick-staff.html.)

Q: Over the weekend, another conversation about ableist music was in progress around the differences in the response to Lizzo and Beyoncé, criticized for using the word “spaz,” versus the response to Big Time Rush single and their single, “Paralyzed,” in which they are so stunned by the beauty of a girl they’ve seen, they’re rendered “paralyzed” and go so far as to stutter some of the lyrics. To start, can you help people understand what ableist language is?

Bailey: Ableist language is the use of words and phrases that show a bias toward people who have disabilities and ableist language is apparent in the use of certain slurs. There’s a way that “spaz” is understood as a slur, a negative way of talking about disabled people. This language is problematic because it ends up shaping, subtly and not so subtly, how we imagine disabled people. When we use this language in jest, or when we use it as a way to talk about somebody or something that is a problem, then we are suggesting that people who have these characteristics or traits have something wrong with them. [We are suggesting] that they are, themselves, somehow deficient in some way in relationship to “the rest of us.” That is really part of the issue, that ableist language really ends up impacting disabled people because it shapes able-bodied perceptions of these groups and can lead to the sort of whittling away of their autonomy and their agency because it reinforces ideas that people already have, that disabled people are somehow second-class citizens.

Q: What kind of harm does the use of this language in popular culture, particularly by very famous individuals and groups, create for people with disabilities who are going about their everyday lives?

Bailey: It’s one of those things where it’s a cumulative impact that actually helps perpetuate and sustain the ableism that exists in society. While it may seem innocuous to have one reference, when it’s spread through pop culture it definitely reaches a lot more people. Then, there’s a way that people use this language and don’t actually understand the impact. We’ve seen this also with people really moving to have folks stop using the language “crazy” or “insane” as a way to talk about something being just ridiculous, etc., because when you use that language it stigmatizes people with mental health disabilities and it definitely creates a situation where people don’t stop to think about how that language then impacts people’s perceptions of people who have mental health disabilities. It then impacts the way that they’re able to go through their lives because there is this stigma then attached that they are “crazy” or “insane.”

Q: Some online conversations have argued that the offensive word in Lizzo’s and Beyoncé’s songs evolved away from its traditional definition into one that is more innocuous, and shouldn’t have been criticized when understood in that context. In general, what do you think people are misunderstanding when they push back against being corrected about their use of ableist language?

Bailey: I think one thing that can be said here is that I do think, and this is what I talk about in “The Illest,” that there’s a way that Black people have used “spaz” in this hyphy language that I mentioned in “going dumb” and “getting crazy” to talk about a freedom of movement that is usually connected to dance and being really loose and free on the dance floor. Even though I think the artists had no intention and wasn’t connecting it to the slur, wasn’t thinking about it in that way, because of that origin that still permeates the way the word is received because the word is not just received within the context of the Black community. As we saw, it was mostly White disabled folks in the U.K. who really took an issue to this language as Lizzo and Beyoncé used it. I think that really says something about how in-group and out-group impacts our understanding.

Q: In this latest occurrence with Big Time Rush, some Black disability activists have said they see a double standard in the response from White disability activists who they say were swift and insistent in their correction of Lizzo and Beyoncé, two Black women, but the ableism perpetuated by a group of White men hasn’t received the same level of dismay. What do you make of this argument?

Bailey: I do think that there’s a way that misogynoir [misogyny directed specifically toward Black women] has to be named here, as well, and that it is the Black women who bear the brunt of this correction. It isn’t happening in the same way to White artists and it isn’t happening in the same way to Black male artists. As an example, and not wanting him to receive the same backlash that both Lizzo and Beyoncé experienced, but Usher recently had a very popular, viral NPR Tiny Desk concert. During his Tiny Desk, he performed “My Way,” which has a slur for little people that he’s dropped unchecked for the last 25 years. That Tiny Desk was very popular, watched by a lot of people because of the meme that came out of it, so I don’t think that people missed that, but there wasn’t the same outcry about Usher’s use of that term, especially 25 years later. So, I do think that there’s a way that Black women are often the ones who receive this and I have to say that that is because of misogynoir that Black women are disproportionately experiencing negative reactions in our popular culture.

Thompson: To give a bit of background, when I’ve been having these discussions, I’ve been intentional not to talk about the word that was used because that’s not my disability, so that’s not my lane. I’ve really been focusing more on the community, the engagement hub, because Black people with cerebral palsy can really talk about the use of that word and connection to that particular disability way more than I can.

I’m not shocked at all at the hypocrisy that is layered with the double standard. We see this all the time with Black folks, whether they’re disabled or not, whether they have connection to the disabled community or not, when they stumble with disability, there’s always this level of outrage. This is always the case when Black people get something wrong with disability — they’re not given the chance to correct. I think that’s a very disheartening reality because Black people have a higher prevalence of disability in this country than many groups, so when we look at disability as a whole and who’s disabled, it is typically us. That lack of community engagement and connection really impacts Black femme people in a very strong way because we always have to say, myself included, that we don’t have a home to really feel safe in. In the Black community, we do deal with the ableism that exists. In the disabled community, we deal with the racism, the anti-Blackness and misogynoir, so there is no safe place to be as a Black disabled person.

In our disabled community, we are not doing a great job of creating bridges between groups and that has led to issues such as what language to use, to not be at the forefront of many people’s consciousness. It has been the burden of disabled people of color, like myself, to educate both the broader society and our intracommunity when it comes to the Black community. In my capacity as a trainer and consultant with a lot of big-name organizations, when I give my trainings about ableist language, many people have no clue about what words are outdated. It’s not because they want to be offensive, they just don’t know. When I look at these moments, I’m looking at them through my social worker lens and a principle in social work is to meet people where they are. If we do that, we have to realize that their lack of knowledge when it comes to ableist language isn’t intentional, so how do we do a better job, as activists, of bringing people in who want to do better?

It was very frustrating seeing the correction that both Lizzo and Beyoncé have done, and then the shock that was felt in the community that they would make the correction so promptly. In the work that I do, the people who bring me into these spaces are Black women and femmes, so it was not surprising to me to see two Black women make the correction that was needed so that people are not offended or hurt, and that the work can be fully inclusive. Black women are always looking to create safe spaces for us all. That’s why it really boggles my mind that we have this rhetoric of, “Trust Black women, believe Black women, allow Black women to lead,” but you don’t trust or believe us to do the right thing. With both Lizzo and Beyoncé we know that misogynoir is prevalent for both of them with the way that White people — disabled or not — engage with them when they do something that the public may not like. It’s just one of those things where Black women carry the burden of always having to be perfect and that’s such an unfair reality to deal with. Particularly for someone like Lizzo, who is all about positivity; she has the Yitty line [a clothing line with inclusive sizing], a reality show which everyone has raved about for how positive and affirming it is, so why wouldn’t you expect her to respond to the reaction and then make the correction? And then to act all surprised that Black people can know when we mess up and do right. You don’t see us as human to be able to make mistakes and then correct mistakes. That stripping of our humanity, for me, feels very prevalent here in how the disabled community engages with Black people and with Black disabled folks. They live in their own world and they forget that just because they’re disabled doesn’t mean that their Whiteness is nullable; their Whiteness is very prevalent as a disabled person, getting them access to resources and support more easily. People will pay attention to them more than anyone else [in the community]. And, I want to be clear that even though I know we are focusing on White disabled folks, non-Black people of color are problematic, too. Non-Black disabled folks are just as guilty with Black people who stumble with disability and their very anti-Black engagement with that, and that’s something that we have to be more intentional about calling out, as well.

Q: How does this perceived double standard affect the ways that people understand ableism and ableist language?

Bailey: I think it makes Black people understandably reticent to take ableism seriously. If it’s that only when Black artists are the ones who are being called out, then it makes it seem like, what’s the big deal with ableism, and is this not also racism operating? And, in this case specifically, misogynoir because we’re not seeing this happen to other artists, I do think that that can make people less likely to take it seriously. Additionally, it’s hard to kind of see what the real issues are in terms of this language and the culture that it perpetuates because it’s not understood within a context in which it’s being used. That language of “spaz” has, in the Black community, been used in the context of dance. That doesn’t mean that Black people who have some of the disability characteristics that would end up having that label applied to them, don’t also find fault with it, so it’s not as if the use is not harmful just because it’s being used in another context. It’s still there despite the way that it might be transformed in this other way, but I do think that we have to have the people who are most impacted be at the forefront of the conversation. What we didn’t hear immediately were Black disabled people speaking up with a critique of Lizzo and Beyoncé, and I think that’s something that we should be paying attention to when we think about how language is used and how people are taking it up. We have a sense of how Black disabled folks are taking this in. What are the issues that are concerning to them? What I’ve seen from Black disabled Twitter is that there are more pressing concerns when it comes to ableism than the way that Lizzo and Beyoncé use this language, and that the stuttering and the use of paralysis in this other song has equal, if not greater impact, because of how it actually mocks a particular impairment affect. I think that those questions become clearer when Black disabled voices are centered.

Thompson: It draws away from the real conversation about how we need to understand that the language that we may use, that may be in our everyday vocabulary, can be problematic. We need to understand why it is our responsibility to be aware and to figure out that a certain word is an issue, and that we need to use alternatives and then begin to incorporate those alternatives in our vocabulary and lexicon. It’s not easy to unlearn these ableist terms because they’re just so ingrained in our everyday vocabulary. Even when I started to do this work, there were things I had to learn and I’m still learning every day about language, not just when it comes to disability issues, but when it comes to queer spaces and other groups. Understanding what words are harmful in these spaces, the history of those words, and then what are the words that we should avoid altogether and to update our vocabulary, is part of this. We have to realize that language is always evolving. The ways in which we describe ourselves today, and five to 10 years from now, may look very different. Once we’re aware that things need to be updated, it’s our responsibility to do so. Some of the interactions I have with people when I’m training, when they realize some words are offensive, they feel embarrassment about not knowing. It’s OK to be embarrassed that you don’t know certain words. There’s been so much evolution in the ways that we look at these issues, particularly over the past 20 years, it’s OK if we’re a little behind in certain areas. It’s OK to be embarrassed that you didn’t realize something is offensive, but it’s not OK to be stuck there.


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