Is it appropriate to wish people a Happy Black History Month? My first instinct is yes – after all we wish people a happy Pride Month and both functions serve similar roles for different communities. At the same time, by rebranding Black History Month as something warm and fuzzy, we risk stripping it of its political significance. After all, the mere existence of Black History month is inherently political. In a world where Civil Rights activists are accused of “reverse racism” (?) for simply acknowledging that Black Lives Matter, having an entire month to recognize the contributions of African Americans throughout history is downright radical. It’s also important because while ethnic minorities may enjoy equal rights under the constitution, our collective failure to address the legacy of racism has serious repercussions that permeate every facet of society even today.
The words “neutral” and “impartial” get thrown around in political circles like a badge of honour, but impartiality and neutrality in the face of adversity often become a casual endorsement of the status quo. It’s not good enough to trash your apartment and claim no responsibility for the fall-out because you’re no longer actively making a mess. Stopping the mess is just the beginning. You also have to clean it up. The mess you made affects everyone in the vicinity and you’re deluding yourself if you think it will clean itself. So it goes with racism. Contrary to what your shady uncle screamed over Thanksgiving dinner, racism didn’t end because a black man was elected to the White House. So many microaggressions against people of colour persist and if those go unchallenged you can’t act surprised when angry white men with Tiki Torches scream racial slurs in the street, or when the President of the United States bestows a Presidential Medal of Freedom on Rush Limbaugh. 
Yes, *that* Rush Limbaugh.
For those who skipped the State of the Union address the President’s speech went thusly:
“Rush Limbaugh: Thank you for your decades of tireless devotion to our country. Rush, in recognition of all that you have done for our Nation, the millions of people a day that you speak to and inspire, and all of the incredible work that you have done for charity, I am proud to announce tonight that you will be receiving our country’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I will now ask the First Lady of the United States to please stand and present you with the honor. Rush, Kathryn, Congratulations!”President Trump’s State of the Union address (emphasis added): February 2, 2020
Now, it’s true that Limbaugh has made significant contributions to charity but you’d be hard-pressed to find a public figure who hasn’t. Stephen King – one of the most successful contemporary American authors – has arguably reached far more people with his writing and still donates about four million dollars per year to charity. David Geffen made the Forbes Top 50 Givers list and gave more money to charity in 2018 than Rush Limbaugh did throughout his entire career. As far as I know, neither man is being considered for a Presidential Medal of Honour and these are only two contenders that I found in a cursory Google search. To be clear, Limbaugh’s failure to win at the numbers game doesn’t necessarily mean his charitable contributions don’t matter. Individuals should give according to their ability and most people will never even see four million dollars, leave alone donate that amount to charity and continue to lead a comfortable life. However, Limbaugh himself is hardly hurting for cash. He earned $84.5 million in 2018 and is the now the second highest paid radio host on air. This is not to diminish the significance of his contributions but it would suggest that Limbaugh’s win has more to do with his radio show than his charitable contributions, so let’s talk about his messaging.
Conservatives often complain about how Liberals throw around the ‘racist’ label in response to criticism. Even some liberal activists have argued that insults are counter-productive and do little to address ongoing racial inequality. This may be true, but I’m so sick of catering to fragile white, conservative, snowflakes that throw a tantrum every time they are held accountable for their words and actions.
If you don’t want to be labelled ‘racist’, stop being racist. Rush Limbaugh is racist.
Throughout his career as a radio broadcaster he has made multiple statements about ethnic minorities that even mainstream Republicans would find pretty cringe-inducing. Most famously, he told a listener to “remove that bone from her nose” when he claimed he could not understand what she was saying. He allegedly felt badly about this incident but even if that’s true, expressions of remorse ring hollow unless accompanied by a change in behaviour and Limbaugh didn’t change. He claimed that “the NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons”. He used a slavery-era African-American pronunciation of “master” to make a pun on a governor’s last name. Finally, he was an unrelenting champion of the debunked birther conspiracy, which repeatedly claimed that Barack Obama, America’s first black president, was ineligible for the position despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
President Trump’s address was littered with references to “inclusivity” and this shouldn’t come as a surprise. He frequently self-identifies as “the least racist person you know” to combat his weirdly cozy relationship with white supremacy (though to be fair the president’s vocabulary consists of about 42 words in total, so he’s always “the most/least [accusation-of-the-day] you know”). However, much like Limbaugh cannot apologize for a racist slur against a listener and then act like nothing happened, Trump cannot abuse migrant children, tell minority congress womyn to “go home”, and put a Presidential Medal of Freedom around Rush Limbaugh’s neck and simultaneously be “the least racist person you know”. Words are meaningless when they fail to accurately represent your actions so once again, Mr. President, if you don’t want to be labelled ‘racist’, stop being racist.
Now, I am not trying to suggest that President Trump or Rush Limbaugh are accurate representations of the American everyman – I think even his supporters might argue that’s setting the bar a little low. What I am arguing is failing to call out micro-aggressions against people of colour create space for people like Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh to flourish. That’s why it’s so important to call out words or behaviour that marginalize vulnerable communities before they embolden people like Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump. And I’m not just talking about political office. It’s at work, it’s around the dinner table, it’s even at the BAFTA awards, which brings me to Joaquin Phoenix.
Yes, that Joaquin Phoenix
I was reading the news last week and saw that Phoenix made waves at the BAFTAs with an unorthodox acceptance speech. It’s funny, earlier that day I was making bets with my friends that he was most likely to go totally off-script during his five minutes at the podium until the Affleck brothers apologetically dragged him off stage. Nothing inappropriate, just ‘tastefully rogue’, like disavowing his award, disavowing the ceremony and pledging allegiance to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. What I didn’t expect was a thoughtful, intelligent criticism of white privilege permeating the film industry in its entirety. His speech went thusly:
“I feel very honoured and privileged to be here tonight. The Baftas have already been very supportive of my career and I’m deeply appreciative. But I have to say that I also feel conflicted, because so many of my fellow actors that are deserving don’t have that same privilege.
“I think that we send a very clear message to people of colour that you’re not welcome here. I think that’s the message that we’re sending to people that have contributed so much to our medium and our industry and in ways that we benefit from.
“I don’t think anybody wants a handout or preferential treatment – although that’s what we give ourselves every year. People just want to be acknowledged, appreciated and respected for their work.
“This is not a self-righteous condemnation because I’m ashamed to say that I’m part of the problem. I have not done everything in my power to ensure that the sets I was on are inclusive.
“But I think it’s more than just having sets that are multi-cultural. We have to do really the hard work to truly understand systemic racism.
“I think it is the obligation of the people that have created and perpetuate and benefit from a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it. So that’s on us.”Joaquin Phoenix: BAFTA Awards – February 2020
And that’s it. He didn’t name-drop a person of colour and smugly pat himself on the back for having out-liberaled the entertainment industry. He didn’t deflect the problem and say that tiki torches may be racist but BREXIT was worse. Finger-pointing and humble-bragging may assuage our guilty consciences but they do little to address the problem at hand. A better approach would be to call out injustice as soon as we witness it wherever we find it so that the mere idea of a President Trump or a Presidential Medal on Rush Limbaugh become unthinkable relics of the past. If we wait for the President to put a medal on an outspoken racist before we speak out against discrimination then we waited too long.
It’s Black History Month. I’ve got a copy of Girl, Women, Other on standby that I look forward to powering through as soon as I finish my January book. But learning of Limbaugh’s win has also reminded me of the importance of examining my inner circle for structures or patterns of behaviour that keep systemic racism alive. I don’t want to find anything but the sad truth is I probably will, because there aren’t too many safe spaces untouched by the horrors of racial discrimination. If I find something, the next hurdle will be finding a means of dismantling it. Because the sad truth is there probably isn’t an impartial, neutral ground that we can all retreat to when political movements feel too real, only a choice to sustain a system or try and break it down.
 Just because I feel like it will come up, I would like to take a few minutes to express my condolences to Mr. Limbaugh and his family over his recent cancer diagnosis. To say I am disappointed in his antics as a radio host is an understatement, however I take no pleasure in the knowledge that he is sick. I do not believe in karma, or divine restitution, or any other theory which posits that cancer is nature’s police force and that Limbaugh “got what he deserved”. I truly hope he heals and devotes the rest of his life to being a better man.