Lizzo offers a lesson for us all
OPINION: She reflected, learned and had enough grace to respect her critics and address their concerns.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
The legend of Lizzo has grown even greater. She’s a beloved, body-positive, life-affirming pop star who makes us feel better about ourselves. She’s a star who serves the people rather than asking the people to worship her like she’s royalty. In her music, she serves us self-esteem and self-love. Her recent smash “About Damn Time” had us all singing along “I’m way too fine to be this stressed” and “I got a feeling I’m gon’ be alright.” She loves building us up.
But a recent single hurt a lot of people’s feelings. Her song “Grrrls,” which feels like a girl-power anthem, included the word “spaz,” which she meant harmlessly, as in losing control. But of course, even in that context, it’s an offensive term for people with spastic diplegia, a type of cerebral palsy. A lot of people with disabilities were hurt that Lizzo used the word, which has been flung at them with the intention of demeaning or silencing them. What was Lizzo going to do?
She did not know when she wrote the song that the word would be hurtful to some. She didn’t intend for the word to be derogatory. But nowadays, we know that impact is more important than intention—just saying I didn’t intend for something to happen isn’t an excuse. We also know that it’s important to be mindful of everyone’s feelings even if there’s just a minority of the world that’s triggered.
Lizzo could’ve said some version of “I didn’t know” or “don’t be so sensitive,” but instead she rose to the occasion, which fits who she is in the public sphere. She responded to the critique with humility. She released a thoughtful Instagram post. She listened and she related to the concern—“As a fat Black woman,” she wrote on Instagram, “I’ve had many hurtful words used against me.” She reflected and she learned and she had enough grace to respect her critics and address their issues. She had released the song on Friday but by Monday, she had changed it, erasing the offensive word and setting a powerful example.
This is not necessarily a model for all situations. Art should sometimes often make people uncomfortable. But it should do so intentionally and with an eye toward fomenting justice rather than perpetuating the struggles of a marginalized group.
If Lizzo, or someone like her, made a song denouncing Karens as a group who are weaponizing white privilege and thus putting Black people in danger that could be powerful. It could also make a lot of people uncomfortable. They might complain. But that’s OK—calling them out would be like speaking truth to power. It would be an important message that I would urge her to hold on to in spite of upset voices.
Lizzo used a word that’s been sloshing around in many people’s vocabulary for a long time without realizing its power to offend. But when the word’s power was brought to her attention, she listened and she adjusted. An old world is falling away now, a world where slurs and actions that offend are being called out and people are being pushed to be thoughtful of those in marginalized communities. People who care about helping the world grow more inclusive will be responsive when they are taught that a word or an action is offensive. People who say “You’re being too sensitive” or “it’s just the work mob” are part of the problem. I’m proud of how Lizzo handled this, and I hope we all can follow her example if we make a mistake and listen and learn and adjust because it’s important to be sensitive to the needs of others.
Touré hosts the podcast “Touré Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books.
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