White People, Privilege, and the Harriet Tubman Twenty

White People, Privilege, and the Harriet Tubman Twenty

By Tina Steele of The Tina Situation

Disclaimer: When I say “white people,” I don’t mean all white people. I’m white, and I don’t think this way. My friends don’t think this way. But these white folks are out there. I’ve met them.

Recently the U.S. Treasury announced plans to replace Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill with Harriet Tubman, and a bunch of white people lost their minds.

As a woman and as an American, I’m so proud we’ll be seeing a female face on currency for the first time in a hundred years, but I’m overjoyed that we’ll be seeing a black female face. Andrew Jackson was a slave-holder and a white supremacist. Harriet Tubman was a former slave-turned-abolitionist, a spy for the US Army during the Civil War, and a humanitarian. That being said, it doesn’t even really matter how much more worthy of this honor Tubman is than Jackson. Replacing Jackson with any black person would be a step in the right direction, and the racist responses this announcement has elicited are exactly why.

White people don’t seem to realize that their image is everywhere in this country. They don’t ever have to think about it. I didn’t always realize it, either.

When I was in my early twenties, I went to an out-of-town wedding with a friend. I didn’t know the couple getting married, but Ryan was a groomsman. Ryan’s friend and his bride were black, as were 99% of the people in attendance. That weekend in Kankakee, Illinois was the first time I experienced feeling like an outsider because of my race.

As friendly and welcoming as everyone was towards me, I was constantly aware of my otherness. I felt like every time someone looked at me, they saw a white girl, first and foremost. What kind of preconceived ideas did they have about me? Did they resent my being there? Was I intruding? That weekend was an epiphany for me: This is something non-white people live every day. I’m guessing most white people never get to experience this, but I wish they did.

There are white people who say that black people should get over the past already. Slavery was a long time ago. We have a black president now. We live in a post-racial society.


To the white people who are freaking out about Harriet Tubman being put on the twenty-dollar bill, imagine if every bill in your wallet had a black person’s face on it. Forget about Harriet Tubman; imagine your ten-dollar bill is Marcus Garvey. Your twenty is W.E.B. Du Bois. Your hundred? Malcolm X. (I’m worried that these examples of famous black nationalists may be lost on the white folks who received a substandard education during Black History Month, but I included them anyway.) Try to imagine that every magazine at the dentist’s office is Jet or Ebony. Every channel on your television is BET except for one. Idris Elba is James Bond.

Not only is the currency in our wallets and the portraits hung in the White House overwhelmingly dominated by white faces, but many of those celebrated white people owned slaves. They denied basic human rights to an entire race of people. Can you even try to imagine living in a country where the men who tortured your people were celebrated? How do you just “get over” slavery when you have to look at the face of a slaveholder every time you buy something off the dollar menu at McDonald’s?

The fact that white people are so threatened by the inclusion of a woman of color on our currency is mind-boggling to me. Finally acknowledging people who have been marginalized for centuries and giving them a little representation – what is threatening about that? How does that take away from what you have?

It’s this same cluelessness that causes white people to complain about Black History Month. “Why isn’t there a White History Month?”

Are you kidding me?

We already have White History Month EVERY SINGLE MONTH.

Personally, I would love it if we didn’t need a Black History Month. That would mean that we are actually discussing the contributions of black people all year long rather than just playing Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech and talking about George Washington Carver’s many uses for the peanut during the shortest month of the year. Believe me, there’s a lot more to talk about, and twenty-eight days isn’t enough.

It’s been 20 years since I attended that wedding in Kankakee. I live in Atlanta now, and there are times when I’m one of the few white people in the room, but I know I really have no idea how it feels to be treated like a minority. I’ve never turned on a television or flipped through a magazine without seeing a single face that could be part of my family. Everywhere I look, even in my wallet, I can see people who look like me. Everyone in this country deserves to have that.

I hope that by the time the Harriet Tubman twenty and other redesigned currency is introduced into circulation, white people will have gotten over themselves a little. (Although I’m not counting on it.) If you are still this upset in ten years about seeing Harriet Tubman’s face when you open your wallet to buy your confederate flag, you can send those twenties to me. I’ll donate them to the NAACP.


About the Author

Tina Steele is a former business analyst turned freelance writer who lives in Atlanta with her eternally patient husband, Bryan. Growing up in Michigan, she was an awkward adolescent who was tormented just enough to give her a sense of humor but not enough to make her homicidal. She has a finely tuned bullshit detector and a love of swearing – both of which are on display at her blog, The Tina Situation. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.