ALICIA WALLACE: Lizzo’s handling of her mistake is an example to learn from


Alicia Wallace

One of the most interesting artists of this generation is Lizzo. Some fans were enjoying her music on YouTube long before she made it big. Her music has always been fun, uplifting and relatable. She is unapologetically herself. Her Instagram is loaded with photos and videos where she makes it clear that being fat is not a character flaw or a source of shame for her. She has intentionally hired dancers with different body types, refusing to conform to the typical aesthetic of live performances and music videos.

Her music and her personality make people feel good and encourage people to love themselves as they are. This week, she added accountability to her public offerings.

Lizzo’s new album, Special, will be released next month. Single GRRRLS was released on Friday and there was immediate backlash. The song is about friendship between women, having each other’s back from defending one another to celebrating each other’s wins.

In the first verse, Lizzo sang, “Hold my bag, do you see this [expletive]? I’m a spaz.” That last word is the cause of the backlash. People with disabilities pointed out that “spaz” is a derogatory term that stems from the medical condition spastic diplegia. This critique sparked conversation about the word, its use, and whether or not it is ever okay to use such language. Some argued the word is used differently in certain parts of the world, and a different meaning is understood and implied. Others noted it is important to listen when people say specific words are harmful and help to perpetuate negative ideas about certain communities.

Lizzo responded quickly with a new version of the song, removing the harmful language. The lyrics are now, “Hold my bag, do you see this [expletive]? Hold me back.” In an Instagram post, she said: “I never want to promote derogatory language.” She continued, “As a fat black woman in America, I’ve had many hurtful words used against me[…] As an influential artist, I’m dedicated to being part of the change I’ve been waiting to see in the world.”

The new version of the song has been well-received. On social media, people are pointing to Lizzo’s swift action as a great example of accountability. She recognized that she did something wrong and, although she was not aware of it at the time, it was her responsibility to make the correction and reduce harm. One tweet said: “Lizzo just displayed how to fix your mistakes with grace. She did the right thing when being met with deserved criticism, and I hope other artists take note.”

There is truly a lesson to be learned from Lizzo’s mistake, the criticism and her response. People do and say harmful things for a wide range of reasons. Sometimes, harm is the intent. Sometimes, there is lack of care or indifference. In some cases, however, people do not have sufficient information. Unfortunately, there isn’t always someone around who knows better and can encourage better actions before harm is caused.

It is important for us to be educate each other, listen to each other, and move toward solutions. Criticism is not bad, and it is not a reason to run away. It is often an opportunity to learn a lesson that can be applied again and again. When a person is offended by correction or resistant to new information, people providing criticism are seen as the enemy. We would all be much better off if we accept that we do not know everything and treat mistakes and criticism as opportunities for growth.

Even in their criticism, many members of the disability community provided helpful information. They did not simply say GRRRLS was offensive, or that the use of a derogatory word was unacceptable. They made connections. They specifically noted the word may be used differently in certain parts of the world, shared the context they have for the word and named the condition it references. They are, by no means, responsible for educating anyone, much less people who have caused them harm, yet many people with disabilities saw the value in explaining all of this for Lizzo and the thousands of people paying attention to the conversation.

The way we offer criticism matters. When we give it, it is helpful to be clear, with ourselves, that the goal is to affect change as opposed to only expressing disappointment or rage.

When we receive criticism, we can respond in many ways. They generally boil down to defensiveness and repair. When we are defensive, we center ourselves and our own perspectives, and sometimes we try to make ourselves the victim, framing critics as unkind or unfair. When we focus on repair, we listen to understand, expand our own knowledge, and find ways to reduce harm and demonstrate commitment to doing better.

In Lizzo’s response, for example, she did not centre her lack of knowledge on the term or the medical condition or use it as an excuse. She understood people were hurt by the lyrics and, within three days, change those lyrics and released the new version. Of course, some will complain she did include a particular element in her statement, does not have enough competent team members who could catch issues like that one, or a number of other specific items they would expect.

There will also be, as there have been before, people who will get away with intentional and unintentional harm for various reasons. None of this takes away from this moment. A mistake was made and people were hurt. People explain the harm caused. The person responsible took action. That’s accountability, and we need more of it.


1 CEDAW Convention Speaker Series, Article 4 with Gaynel Curry. This series is hosted by Equality Bahamas to provide information on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, one article at a time. Experts from all over the world explain one article, including interpretation, expectations of States, and recommendations made by the CEDAW Committee to The Bahamas. Patricia Schulz was the guest speaker at the first session, focused on discrimination and policy measures, and the recording is available at tiny.cc/ cedaw1recording. At the second session, Esther Eghobamien-Mshelia presented on human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the recording is available at tiny.cc/cedaw3recording. This session, focused on special measures, will be held on Saturday, June 18 at 10am. Register at tiny. cc/cedaw4 to join the discussion on Zoom. We are sure to talk about political quotas, how and where they have been successful, and what they may look like in The Bahamas.

2 Being Serena. This five-part documentary series gives a look at Serena Williams’ life. Interviews are interspersed with footage of her life. In the interviews, she is candid, and the footage gives the feeling of being in the room and observing events. In the first episode, she talks about dreaming that she was pregnant, finding out that she was pregnant, and playing at the 2017 Australian Open. In less than 25 minutes, there are glimpses of her pregnancy and preparation for the arrival of her baby, and it ends dramatically with the decision to have a C-section — complicated by her history of blood clots and the knowledge that any surgery is life-threatening for her — because her baby was in distress. The drama continues in the second episode where she had the baby, but later had difficulty breathing. Knowing her medical history, she advocated for herself, insisting on a specific test to find the issue. It is an emotional rollercoaster. One of the interesting things Serena says is that fear is one of the things that drives her, and that statement brings tremendous perspective.


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