Political Correctness

Beyoncé, Under Fire for Using an 'Ableist Slur,' Chooses Self-Censorship

"Spazzing on that ass" does nothing whatsoever to harm people with cerebral palsy.


"I'm Ike Turner, turn up baby, no, I don't play/Now eat the cake, Anna Mae," rapped Jay-Z on Beyoncé's 2013 hit "Drunk in Love." It was a reference to Ike and Tina Turner's abusive relationship, and to the memorable diner scene from the 1993 biopic, What's Love Got to Do With It, in which a jealous Ike smashes cake into Tina's face.

It's a clever line. It also arguably makes light of an abusive marriage. But that's not the phrase that Beyoncé has decided to scrub from her discography. She's striking "spazzing on that ass," from her new track, "Heated."

According to a certain subset of disability activists, any use of the word spaz or its derivatives is marginalizing. "Disabled people's experiences are not fodder for song lyrics. This must stop," tweeted the disability rights organization Scope. "When Beyoncé dropped the same ableist slur as Lizzo on her new album, my heart sank," reads the headline of a Guardian article by the activist Hannah Diviney, who wrote that she has "no desire to overshadow" Beyoncé's "lived experience of being a black woman…but that doesn't excuse her use of ableist language." Beyoncé's publicity team quickly responded to the heat, saying she'd be changing that line and removing the word from the song, just as fellow artist Lizzo did two months ago when she came under similar scrutiny, led by some of the same activists.

But "disabled people's experiences" are not being used as fodder for song lyrics. "Spazzing on that ass" does not reference a person with cerebral palsy having spasticity—muscle stiffness that hinders mobility. In parts of the Anglosphere, the word spaz is seen as a terrible slur; in America, where Beyoncé is from, it refers to freaking out, to moving crazily, to becoming overly excited, or, possibly, to something failing to function properly. You can see how that meaning evolved from the slur, and you can see why that would aggravate some listeners. But like "paddy wagon" before it, the word has lost those connotations for many people who use it. If these activists are really concerned about the harm the word does, which seems more harmful: constantly reminding people of the term's origins, or letting it continue to drift away from its original connotations?

Beyoncé and her publicity team are well within her rights to make a calculation about how to best curry favor with her audience. Like Lizzo before her, who conceded to the activists and cut the same word from an already-released song, Beyoncé may feel the shortest line to profits is to cultivate a sensitive, conscientious image. She has always been keen on an empowerment-lite aesthetic, choosing to dance in front of the lit-up word "FEMINIST" and sampling the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speech "We Should All Be Feminists" on her song "Flawless."

But it's pathetic to give these activists this veto power. Rap tends to use words in ways people actually talk, not the platonic ideal of how people should talk if they want to be maximally sensitive. Beyoncé comes from that tradition, and her earlier work—like that shameless reference to Ike and Tina—is in line with that. It's possible that Beyoncé was legitimately unaware of the term's origin, and that she actually cares that her words might offend some disabled people. The more plausible explanation is that she has an image to uphold and has chosen the path of least resistance, bending when needed to merit the good publicity to which she has become accustomed. Regardless, her decision suggests that perhaps she didn't mean what she initially said; that words can be substituted on demand; that she has little attachment to the art she released.

You can sometimes judge how much a word is actually considered a slur by how publications choose to handle mentions of the term. The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post, and USA Today have all clearly named the word in their writeups of the saga. But just last week, USA Today covered a whole controversy involving the word midget without ever actually saying the word, using all kinds of euphemistic contortions to get around mentioning it. In the Times' coverage of science writer Donald McNeil's firing—for clarifying whether a student was talking about the word nigger when discussing an instance of racist language—the paper wouldn't say what the actual word was, eschewing full context in favor of stilted descriptions.

The fact that so many places spell out the word spaz, even at a time when many papers' editorial standards allow for euphemizing, is decent evidence that it's not perceived as a terrible term in the U.S. It's a word with multiple meanings, all dependent on context, long disconnected from the origins. And it's hard to see how anyone's plight is materially helped by getting artists to excise it on demand.