all about the harriets, baby!

Cheesy title, I know, but I really couldn’t resist. If you’ve been following the news you’ll already know that I’m referring to all the talk that there’s been about Harriet Tubman possibly being the new face of the twenty dollar bill.

For those of you who don’t know, all of this started with a group called Women on 20s, when they opened up an online petition to replace Andrew Jackson as the current face on the $20 bill. It went viral and supporters of the campaign were given the opportunity to vote on which woman they would like to see on the twenty if they were to have the choice. After two rounds of voting (which included candidates such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, and Susan B. Anthony), it was Harriet Tubman who came out on top.

The campaign itself has no real legal authority. They cannot do anything to change the face of the twenty by themselves, so their main goal was to get the petition to Jack Lew, the current Secretary of the Treasury, who does have the power to make their vision a reality should their appeal to him be successful.

Recently, however (and by recently, I mean last week), USA Today dropped the news that apparently all of this social buzz wasn’t for nothing. According to this article, the Treasury Department has officially announced that a woman will appear on the ten dollar bill (not the twenty) beginning in 2020. Much like with the original Women on 20s campaign, the public is being asked exactly which woman’s face they would prefer to see on the bill. Jack Lew says that he is going to “spend a lot of time this summer listening to people” and the article says that a decision could come by this fall, even though it will take five years for the bill to even begin circulation.

The talk surrounding the topic of a woman’s face being on paper bills had definitely wound down quite a bit since its initial announcement, but from the very beginning—when it had evolved from a discussion of which woman should be on the bill into a discussion of whether a particular woman (Harriet Tubman)’s face should be on the bill or not—it has brought about some seriously mixed feelings. It was those original feelings, those original debates, that caught my attention.

On one side, there were those who thought it was a great thing that Harriet Tubman was the woman chosen for the Women on 20s campaign: black people are always happy to have representation as we get it so infrequently, and since American bills have always been printed with the faces of old (also slave owning) white men on the front, a woman (a black woman in particular) would be quite a big change. The people on this side of the argument were saying that it would be an honor for Harriet Tubman to be displayed this way. They believed that since money is such a large part of our society, it could only mean good things to have a black woman be the face of such a widely circulated bill.

However, on the other side of this argument there were those who, if this change were to happen, would see it as more of a negative thing. These were the people who believed that doing such a thing would be undermining Harriet Tumban’s legacy, that it would be reducing all of the things she’d done to nothing more than simple currency, used to fuel the capitalist machine that Harriet Tubman fought so hard against.

As for me? I suppose that I would say I’m skeptical.

As it looks right now, Jack Lew isn’t exactly taking the Women on 20s campaign’s suggestion to put Harriet Tubman on the bill; he is asking the public for all new suggestions and apparently the “planning began even before he arrived at Treasury in 2013,” so there is no guarantee that the woman they pick will be Harriet Tubman, but if it were to happen, I don’t think I’d be particularly upset.

In theory, the whole thing seems like a good idea. The Women on 20s campaign seems to have pure intentions–on their website they say that they want this movement to be thought of as “a chant for women’s equality and value”–and since the plans for this have supposedly been in the works for so long, it appears that serious thought is being put into it, so why not? I do not, however, want this so called “honor” to be seen as a magic band-aid, or a quick-fix, for several of the social issues that are so obviously and so deeply rooted in this society.

If Harriet Tubman’s face gets put on the ten dollar bill, I do not want people to say, “We’re not racist! Look! There’s a black person on our money! This is a post-racial society!” If Harriet Tubman’s face gets put on the ten dollar bill, I do not want someone to say, “Oh, well, sexism isn’t really a thing anymore. Women are equal now, there’s one on our money. What more do you feminists want?”

Having a black woman’s face on the ten dollar bill will not fix racial profiling. It will not restore any of the lives so wrongfully taken by the police or ruined by racially driven police brutality. It will not stop violence against women. It will not fix the wage gap, or break the glass ceiling. It will not shut up any of the activists (including myself) who are fighting to get these issues, and others like them, noticed and corrected.

Having a black woman’s face on the ten dollar bill will simply be that: a black woman on the ten dollar bill.

Just because being printed on money is seen as an honoring thing to some does not mean that it is to all. Just because it looks like progress and masquerades as equality, does not mean that it is.

Equality, in terms of both race and gender, goes much deeper than representation; it goes much deeper than simply displaying a black woman’s face on currency. There are so many people who are clamoring about how much of an honor it is, and how great it will be for women’s rights and people (women) of color, but we have already had women on our currency—Sacagawea, Susan B. Anthony, and Martha Washington have all been featured on dollar coins—and it has ultimately not done much. Why would that change now? Because it’s a black woman? Because it’s a bill and not a coin? What makes this so different?

Honestly, the answer is nothing.

Now, none of this is to say that Harriet Tubman being on the ten dollar bill would mean nothing. It is simply to say that it would not mean everything. 

To accept it as everything—as the “be-all-end-all,” as the culmination or product of all of the work that the people fighting for equality have been putting their everything into—would not only be wrong, but it would also be dangerous. It would be the kind of thing that would lull people into into being content with what we are given instead of striving for what we actually need.

Avan Jogia said it best:

Although it may seem like a big deal (and I feel that it is important to note that those who are telling African-Americans that this is a big deal/honor are mostly white people, who have no real right to tell us what we should or shouldn’t be honored by, or how we should or shouldn’t feel about things that concern us), it may look like a big deal and, if it were to happen, it may even feel like a big deal for a while, this is not true. It would only be a small notch on a much larger scale.

And it would honestly be terrible for us to become complacent, to become satisfied with small tokens that only look like change but have no actual, lasting affect, when the reality is that an action like this one would only be a perceived change for women and African Americans. It would make us feel equal, like we were finally getting somewhere, but it would not be actual equality.

If it does come to pass and this action is accepted as anything, it should be accepted as a single step forward, a nudge in the right direction, and we should keep in mind that we still have much further to go than this.