The Royal Mint and the Chancellor have recently announced a new 50p coin design that is to be released. The ‘We Too Built Britain ’ committee wanted to design a coin that represents and acknowledges Black and Brown people’s contributions to building Britain. I commend this idea, because their contributions to Britain’s wealth and power has been side-lined for too long.
The fact that Rishi, one of the most senior politicians in Britain, commissioned and approved the coin is also encouraging. Perhaps due to his own heritage, this investment is something that should be encouraged and welcomed. Some may think that funding could have perhaps been focused in more productive areas, such as putting money into a curriculum that would focus and teach Black and Brown history, rather than the typical history we find in schools. However, a coin was chosen. Whilst a coin may seem insignificant, a 50p coin is common currency that most people have in their possession.
Putting famous faces or important messages on currency has been a feature of British culture for some time. On our notes at the moment you will find Jane Austen and Winston Churchill. In 2007, a ‘celebration’ of the abolition of slavery was organised. The Royal Mint released a coin to commemorate the notable year (which can be seen below).
From this, we can interpret that the British government takes pride in its currency and uses it for political means and to celebrate British history.
Receiving support from the government signals a move to recognise the former empire’s massive contributions (if not foundations) to the Britain we know today.
However, when it comes to Britain recognising their true history, it is never that simple.
The committee, who worked alongside the Royal Mint, decided on the coin ‘Diversity Built Britain’. Initially when I saw the Tweet announcing the coin, I was happy that the government was officially recognising that White people were not the only race to contribute to Britain’s wealth or power. However, during my time studying history, some of my favourite lecturer’s reinforced the concept that for Historians, terminology is important. The words that are chosen, are chosen for a reason and can represent a political act. For me, ‘diversity’ denotes inclusivity and equality. If this campaign, and therefore the coin, is acknowledging Black and Brown people’s contribution throughout history, then I feel their use of terminology has let them down. I think ‘We Too Built Britain’ would have been a much more suitable phrase to put onto the coin.
Diversity, and the positive connotations that come with the word, suggests that the climate was amicable to all those involved. This really was not the case and the history supports that. The racial science and White superiority that was associated with slavery and empire prevented any equality or diversity to be implemented in society. The series of race riots and the colour bar (segregation) that was present throughout the 20th century are just a few examples of periods in history where diversity was not present. There have been Black people in Britain for centuries (see my previous blog post for more information on this) so, there has been racial mixing for hundreds of years. But, to say that diversity built Britain does an injustice to the suffering and hardship that Black and Brown peoples and their nations faced for centuries, and arguably still do.
I feel that ‘We Too Built Britain’ would have worked much better on the coin because of its motivation to gain recognition for the countries’ whose resources were used to build Britain as well as their people’s physical labour. Some may disagree with me and see the coin as a positive move and the terminology as not a problem. However, for me this isn’t the case. Generally, people hear diversity in terms of ‘equality and diversity’ within the workplace or within education. Companies use this phrasing as a way to ensure and reinforce respect and acceptance to all people, no matter what their background is. It is also used to ensure no discrimination takes place. It is this reason why the coins’ phrasing doesn’t sit well with me. It creates a narrative of inclusion and acceptance in British history towards its empire and Commonwealth citizens. Whilst the resources and wealth were accepted, the same can’t be said for the people (on the whole).
Writing a blog post on a coin may seem trivial, but I see it as another attempt made by the government that is disappointing. Another attempt that is half hearted to protect Britain’s pride of being the civiliser. This could have been an opportunity for Britain to acknowledge the true version of history, yet they fell short again.