Belfast Telegraph

Tokenism or not, we must take a note of non-whites

Editor's Viewpoint

My mother taught English in an inner-city school in the 1980s. Halfway through a lesson on Shakespeare, one of her pupils, a black boy, asked her: "Why should we listen to you?"

Taken aback, she replied that Shakespeare was the greatest British storyteller whose plays were as relevant today as they were then.

"Yes," said the boy, "but why should we listen to you?" – meaning her personally, a white middle-class woman, talking about a white middle-aged man.

My mother said: "Okay, so who would you rather have as a teacher?" The lad, clearly thinking of the new signing Liverpool had just made, said cheekily: "John Barnes."

So my Mum called Liverpool FC and asked if Barnes would come and take her class. And he did.

"Listen to Miss," Barnes told the schoolchildren. He also told them why Shakespeare mattered to them, even though he was a white middle-aged man in a long line of white, middle-aged men who dominate our history.

I thought of what Barnes said this week when Sir Mervyn King, the outgoing governor of the Bank of England, tried to fend off criticism about the lack of a woman on the back of a banknote, once Winston Churchill replaces Elizabeth Fry on the fiver.

King insisted that Jane Austen was "waiting in the wings" to be on a note, perhaps on the back of a £10.

But, if we want to show the world that we are a truly progressive nation, we should have a black, or Asian, Briton on a banknote.

We have a terrible history of imperialism, but it also has a story to be proud of.

Mary Seacole, a Jamaican-born nurse whose work in the Crimean war surely deserves as much recognition as Florence Nightingale, would be an excellent candidate.

There are not many black or Asian British figures in history who are household names.

But, then, how many people have heard of Sir John Houblon, the former Bank of England governor on the current £50 note?

Some say choosing a non-white face for a banknote would be tokenism. But we could be waiting a long time for a black or Asian prime minister to be elected.

If tokenism is what it takes, then so be it. Put Mary Seacole on the back of a £10 note and let her become a household name.

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