First Lizzo and now Beyoncé have come under fire for their use of the word “spazz” in their songs. The word is an ableist slur, a discriminatory phrase against people with disabilities, characterizing them as inferior to the non-disabled. The term derives from the word “spastic,” referring to spastic cerebral palsy, a disability that affects a person’s ability to control their muscles.
However, “spazz” is also a term used as a slang term in the Black community, meaning to “go crazy.” Admittedly, I’ve used the term in my younger days to express that sentiment, interchangeably with the phrase “wilding out.”
While I no longer use the phrase, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I learned where the term derived from. So, I can honestly say that I had no thought of the disabled community when using it, though I may have continued with the proliferation of the use of an ableist slur.
I say “may have” because there were other words and phrases used by my friends — including the R-word — that we knew were wrong to say, even if we were unaware of the language explaining why they were wrong. And while both the R-word and “spazz” are ableist slurs that are harmful, context must be applied to properly assess the use of such words.
Words have meaning; language can be used to do many things, such as inform, misinform, vilify, deify, empower, dishearten, build or destroy. But with language, there is also context, and context does matter when interpreting meaning from language, as well as assessing its impact.
This isn’t to excuse language deemed harmful, rather, in the case of Lizzo and Beyoncé (using such terms within their art), this is to contextualize language deemed harmful by those attempting to police it.
And it is not lost on me that this is a case of Black language, spoken by Black women, being policed.
Black language — the linguistic use of words and phrases, and the meaning thereof, by Black people — is policed while at the same time appropriated. As an educator, I’ve witnessed the policing of Black language, the African American Vernacular English (the sound and meaning of specified words and phrases), in the classroom. And like the mainstream, I’ve seen Black language appropriated by the very teachers who police it.
I’ve spoken with some of those teachers, primarily white teachers, about their use of such words and phrases and how their usage hits within a white institutional space that is school. But gaining context mattered when having those conversations. With context, I was in a position to assess if any harm was done.
I’ve also flipped it around when addressing colleagues who police Black language or the Black use of language, like Black students who use the N-word in conversation.
Certainly, the N-word is offensive to Black people and is not appropriate language in a non-Black space. Traditionally, schools are not Black spaces unless they are Black schools, yet Black students carve out Black spaces for themselves, where they may use the N-word in conversation. But use of the N-word between two Black students most likely has a different context versus the original intention of the word; its use here is within a governance context — who those students are to each other.
In other words, the context doesn’t fit the crime. This is why use of the N-word is not policed in hip-hop as it once was. Whether it should be is another discussion for another day.
When assessing the harmful or inappropriate use of words by artists, we should ask ourselves if the context fits the crime of offending. This isn’t to say that artists should be allowed to say whatever they wish, but works of art are often created to elicit a reaction — offending is one such reaction. It is true that at times you must be profane to be profound.
However, both Lizzo and Beyoncé have shared that offending the physically impaired community was not their intent.
I understand the need for some to use their Twitter fingers to call out problematic language. But to do so without recognition of context to properly wrestle with what’s been said — particularly where Black artists are concerned — is intellectually lazy. Maybe those critiquing the artist do so in the absence of context for what they’ve called out. If so, they should do as they’ve advised and educate themselves.
If nothing else, anyone offended by lyrics they’ve heard has every right to skip the song that offends them and/or no longer support the artists who sang, said or rhymed them.
Kudos to Lizzo and Beyoncé for their willingness to change their language to not offend. I think that it was wise to do, from a business and human standpoint. But what precedent does this set? One may say that it is holding artists to a higher standard, but is it not policing art, Black art at that?
It is not the obligation of Black artists to explain or apologize for Black language or the expression of their own Blackness to the critiques of those who refuse to engage with the context of their speech due to ignorance or envy.
Again, you can simply choose not to consume or support that which offends.
Yet, at the same time, the work of an artist is on full display and they do have an obligation to be mindful of their platform and to critically and carefully wield the power that platform provides them, in addition to an obligation to the mission of their art.
Art should be used to lift people up — to encourage and empower people — especially the oppressed among us, and it is fair game to call out those who use art for the opposite purpose. Lizzo and Beyoncé are known for using their art to inspire. But they, or any artist, aren’t above reproach — particularly those we challenge to be better because of their influence and because we love them.
Therefore, moving forward, let us assess and critique the speech of artists in love and with context. If we want artists to have compassion and empathy when crafting their art, we must afford them the same when assessing it.
Rann Miller is the director of anti-bias and DEI initiatives, as well as a high school social studies teacher in Southern New Jersey. He’s also a freelance writer and founder of the Urban Education Mixtape, supporting urban educators and parents of students in urban schools. He is the author of the upcoming book, ‘Resistance Stories from Black History for Kids,’ with an anticipated release date of February 2023. You can follow him on Twitter @UrbanEdDJ.