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Banknotes should Feature more Ethnic Diversity

Categories : Cash is a symbol of national sovereignty, Cash is available to all users
July 31, 2020
Tags : Banknote/Note, Coins, Diversity, Social Inclusion
Around the globe, protestors have been marching in response to the death of George Floyd in the US and against systemic and institutional racism. It is high time for banknotes to display more ethnic diversity.
Guillaume Lepecq

This post is also available in: Spanish

Harriet Tubman’s presence on the $20 delayed

In April 2016, US Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew announced plans for the new $20, $10 and $5 notes. The new $20 would feature the portrait of Harriet Tubman. “We anticipate that final concept designs for the new $20, $10, and $5 notes will all be unveiled in 2020 in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.” wrote Secretary Lew in an open letter.

In addition to Harriet Tubman on the $20 note, Lew announced plans for the reverse of the $5 to honour events that helped to shape US history and democracy and prominent individuals involved in those events, including Marian Anderson, and Martin Luther King Jr. The redesign of the $20 note would mark the first time a black woman would grace US currency. Symbolically, Tubman, a former slave, would also replace slave-owning President Andrew Jackson.

Harriet Tubman (1822 – 1913) was an American abolitionist and political activist. Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and subsequently made some 13 missions to rescue approximately 70 slaves, including family and friends. During the Civil War, Tubman worked for the Union Army, first as a cook and nurse, and then as an armed scout and spy, becoming the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war. After the war, she became active in the women’s suffrage movement until illness overtook her, and she was admitted to a home for elderly African Americans that she had helped to establish years earlier. After her death in 1913, she became an icon of courage and freedom.

Marian Anderson (February 27, 1897 – April 8, 1993) was a singer of classical music and spirituals. She became an important figure in the struggle of black artists against racial prejudice. In 1939, she was denied permission to sing in Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. With the aid of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Anderson performed a critically acclaimed open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, before a crowd of more than 75,000 people. Anderson became the first black person, to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on January 7, 1955. Anderson worked as a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and as a “goodwill ambassadress” for the United States Department of State, giving concerts all over the world. She participated in the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

In May 2019, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced that the Harriet Tubman $20 bill redesign would not enter circulation before 2028, at the earliest. Testifying before Congress, Secretary Mnuchin said that the new note would be delayed for technical reasons as the development of new secretary features would make the deadline impossible to meet. The New York Times reported that in 2016, Mr. Trump had called the design change “pure political correctness” and suggested that Tubman could be featured on a far less common denomination, like the $2 bill.

Canada honours human rights activist Viola Desmond

In Canada, Governor Stephen S. Poloz, Minister of Finance Bill Morneau and Minister of Status of Women Patty Hajdu announced in December 2016 that Viola Desmond, an icon of the human rights and freedoms movement would be featured on a new $10 banknote. She is the first Canadian woman featured on a regularly circulating Bank of Canada note. The note was unveiled in March 2018.

Viola Desmond portrait from Canadian banknote


Viola Desmond was a civil rights activist and businesswoman. She defiantly refused to leave a whites-only area of a movie theatre in 1946 and was subsequently jailed, convicted and fined. Her court case was one of the first known legal challenges against racial segregation brought forth by a Black woman in Canada. In 2010, Desmond was granted a posthumous pardon, the first to be granted in Canada. The State also apologised for prosecuting her for tax evasion and acknowledged she was rightfully resisting racial discrimination.

New Zealand celebrates Statesman Sir Apirana Ngata

In May 2016, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand released the latest $50 note in honour of Sir Apirana Ngata.


Apirana Turupa Ngata a portrait from New Zealand banknote

Sir Apirana Ngata (1874 – 1950) was a prominent Statesman and played a significant role in the revival of Māori people and culture during the early years of the twentieth century. He was the first Māori to graduate from a New Zealand university, and an elected Member of Parliament for 38 years.

Australia applauds author David Unaipon

In Australia, the new $50 banknote was released into general circulation on 18 October 2018 featuring David Unaipon.

Portrait of David Unaipon closeup – Australian 50 dollar bill fragment

David Unaipon (1872–1967) was an author, activist, inventor, musician and preacher among others. He was especially interested in recording the myths of Australian Aborigines, and he travelled through southern Australia collecting these stories, becoming the first Australian Aboriginal writer to be published. Unaipon also demonstrated eagerness to understand science and to contribute new inventions. He studied aerodynamics and foresaw the eventuality of the helicopter, basing his experiments on the boomerang. In 1909, he patented an improved mechanical device for shearing sheep. He was also involved in defending Aboriginal rights and was arrested for attempting to provide a separate territory for Aboriginals in central and northern Australia.

UK coins to feature Black and Ethnic Minority representatives

In the UK, the Bank of England has been redesigning the entire banknote series with the £50 denomination scheduled to enter circulation towards the end of 2021. The selection of the character to be featured on the note followed a six-week public nomination period which received 227,299 nominations covering 989 eligible characters celebrating the field of science. During the process, a announced was launched in favour of more ethnic diversity on banknotes;  a petition gathered over 150,000 signatures and a bill was presented in Parliament. However, in July 2019, the Bank of England announced that Alan Turing would be portrayed on the note. Turing is a mathematician and war hero, known for cracking German cryptography during WWII. He pioneered in the development of early computers and artificial intelligence.

However, the campaign has now shifted its attention towards coins. Chancellor Rishi Sunak is considering proposals to honour influential black and ethnic minority people on coins and has asked the Royal Mint to come up with new designs. Mary Seacole, a military nurse during the Crimean war and World War Two secret agent Noor Inayat Khan are being considered.

Featuring more ethnic diversity on banknotes will not solve the social and political issues of racial discrimination and injustice. However, failing to do so is a constant reminder of the challenges that lie ahead.

This post is also available in: Spanish