Question of the Month:

"White Man's Burden"

November 2009

Q:  A speaker came to (our) campus this semester to discuss world poverty. His major point was that America and Europe, because of their great wealth, had the responsibility to lead the worldwide fight against poverty. Most of the audience agreed with that, but he angered some in the audience when he referred to this responsibility as the "White Man's Burden." Should the people in the audience have gotten angry?

-- Jasmine Mitchell - Bloomington, Indiana

A:  To answer your question I will need to take your attention back more than a century. In 1899, Rudyard Kipling, a famed English poet, had his poem "The White Man's Burden" published in McClure's, a monthly magazine popular at the turn of the 20th century. The poem found online at www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/Kipling.html and subtitled "The United States and the Philippine Islands," was an appeal to the United States to assume the task of developing the Philippines, a country recently won in the Spanish-American War. Of course, "developing" a nation won in war looks a lot like empire-building, a fact that did not trouble Kipling, who respected the British Empire to the point of hero worship.

The first stanza of the Kipling poem reads:

Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.
Kipling's poem is unabashedly ethnocentric. It reflects a worldview that sees and treats non-European people and cultures as primitive and childlike. Kipling's poem is a patronizing charge urging White people to help develop (read: civilize) the people of color found in the Philippine Islands and other "inferior" cultures. For Kipling, the brave philanthropic conquerors – whether from the British Empire or the fledgling American Empire – would provide the dominated people with food, medicine, and Western ways of living. The vanquished would have stability and peace, and would eventually morph into dark clones of their supposedly benevolent vanquishers. Though, in the third stanza, Kipling conceded that the experiment – owing to "sloth and heathen folly – might not work:
Take up the White Man's burden--
The savage wars of peace--
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.
Although my doctorate is in sociology and not literary analysis, I believe that the word burden in the poem has multiple meanings, including the responsibilities of empire-building, generally; the burden of developing and governing a specific people; and, the vanquished people themselves. In Kipling's worldview, these would all be real burdens to be carried on the shoulders of superior White civilizations. For Kipling and like-minded others, this worldview was not jingoistic imperialism; rather, it was the natural order of things.

Words matter. Words are more than sound signs; they are carriers of meanings. To say, as the speaker did at your campus "White Man's Burden, "is to tap into centuries-old notions about racial and cultural differences. Even today the phrase retains the idea of the presumed responsibility of White people to care for and impart Western culture to nonwhite people; though, the concept does not usually extend to justifying colonizing other cultures. It nonetheless remains a condescending view of non-Western national cultural and economic traditions. Given this, I understand why some members of a present-day audience would object to its use.

But please keep in mind, some things are bigger than others. Whereas I might have disapproved of the speaker's use of the phrase, I believe that the bigger concern should be our need to focus on strategies for addressing world poverty. Almost 2 million children die each year for want of a glass of clean water and adequate sanitation.1 More than a billion people in the world are hungry and do not have the resources to satiate that hunger.2 If today is like yesterday and the day before that, almost 16,000 children will die from hunger-related causes. That's one child every five seconds!3 In 2005, almost 1.4 billion people lived below the international poverty line, earning less than $1.25 per day.4 Almost half the world – over three billion people – live on less than $2.50 a day.5 These statistics are bad and they will be made worse by the worldwide economic crisis.

The implicit messages in Kipling's poem – that Western cultures are morally and culturally superior to non-Western cultures, that they have an obligation to spread Western traditions, and inferior nations and peoples will benefit from being subsumed into White empires – are deeply troubling for me. These 19th century feed-the-heathens messages are best left in the past. Philanthropy wrapped in notions of cultural superiority is not true altruism. We must let go of the perceptions of others as "Half-devil and half-child."

That said, I want to make a point clearly: We should help poor nations and poor people! This help should be collaborative and led or guided by the people in those nations. If we have technology that they believe is useful we should share those tools. We should share our resources, and do so not because we want the beneficiaries to walk like, talk like, act like, pray like, and govern like we do. We should help not because we are "better," but because we may have the good fortune of having more economic means or food, educational, or other resources. Helping others is simply the right thing to do. Helping others is not a burden for White men or any other group, but is an opportunity for all men and women, irrespective of hue.

I am grateful for all the work that is being done to decrease abject poverty in South Asian, sub-Sahari Africa, the United States, and in every country. There are thousands of people who have made their life's work the improvement of the lives of poor people. These people should be applauded. Unfortunately, much of the poverty that chokes this world is a product of institutionalized patterns of inequality. It will take decades, maybe centuries, to address these patterns. In the meantime, I applaud the fact that you, others in the audience, and the speaker took the time to dialogue about poverty. Please continue that dialogue. When we look at poverty throughout the world, there is a tendency to believe that our actions can not matter. One way to make sense of this is to direct some of your advocacy toward local people. Trust me when I tell you that there are people in your town who go to bed hungry.


1 "Beyond Scarcity: Power, poverty and the global water supply," Human Development Report 2006, http://74.125.95.132/search?q=cache:raz95MW8-5QJ:www.hdr.undp.org/hdr2006/+united+nations+poverty+report&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us, accessed October 14, 2009.

2 State of Food Insecurity in the World, 2008 FAO."Food Security Statistics". www.fao.org/es/ess/faostat/foodsecurity/index_en.htm.

3 Black, Robert, Morris, Saul, & Jennifer Bryce. "Where and Why Are 10 Million Children Dying Every Year?" The Lancet 361:2226-2234. 2003.

4 Global Purchasing Power Parities and Real Expenditures. The World Bank. 2005 International Comparison Program. August 2008.

5 Shah, Anup, "Poverty Facts and Stats," http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats, accessed October 4, 2009.

November 2009 response by David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum

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