White Man’s Burden

One of the only things that stuck in my mind from the many Social Studies courses of my public education was the concept of “White Man’s Burden.” My understanding of this concept is that the White Western culture sees itself as the superior race. With this superiority and privilege it carries the burden of showing the rest of the non-White, non-Western world the error of its ways and introducing them—often forcefully—to the “correct” way of living and thinking.

This was a common ideology and practice in the late nineteenth century, with the “liberation” of Third World areas such as the West Indies, Hawai’i, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. (A great political cartoon depicting this concept, from 1899, can be found at http://www.boondocksnet.com/ai/kipling/detroit.html)

Nowadays, such an ideology is archaic and decidedly politically incorrect. Our military invasions that arise not from an immediate threat to our security are said to arise from the necessity, as the world’s only superpower, to keep peace and promote human rights internationally.

This may be true on the one hand, but I believe that, on the other hand, our “humanitarian” efforts across the globe come ultimately from the ideology of White Man’s Burden: that we must educate the less fortunate of the world (which is everyone who’s way of life differs from ours). This thought pattern on the part of those leading such military endeavors may be permissive and unconscious rather than deliberate and conscious; either way, in this day and age such ideals are simply not acceptable to say aloud, especially as a justification for foreign policy. Therefore, the administration must support its foreign interests with claims of international peace, humanitarian aid, and ridding the world of “terrorism.”

In the first chapter of World Politics into the Twenty-First Century, Lamborn and Lepgold state that “modern world politics is very much a product of European political and economic expansion. The history of that expansion inescapably entangles questions of culture and religion with questions of economic and political power” (21). Is this entanglement a result of culture and religion being inextricably linked to economics and politics as to naturally impose the former when trying to innocently introduce the latter? Or is it a result of White Man’s Burden—the practice of not only encouraging the world to become linked through tantamount economic and political power, but subversively replacing culture, religion, ideals, ideologies, and ways of life that differ from the White Western world with those of our own? Indeed, when we consider opposition groups “led by people determined to reduce the influence of Western culture, religion, and politics on their way of life” (21), the latter idea doesn’t seem very ludicrous.

21 Debated offers a specific, current example of this theory in the U.S.’s relations with Kosovo in the late 1990’s. In Clinton’s radio address on March 27, 1999, he stated one goal of the invasion “that has always been in our national interest—a peaceful, united, democratic Europe.” The use of the term “democratic” reeks of White Man’s Burden: the assumption that democracy is the right way, and that everything else is wrong. It leads us to believe that the lack of democracy is what causes conflict in these clearly ignorant and backward cultures. And that, to restore and ensure world order, democracy is the answer for peace and unity, and that there is nothing to be debated. Such assumptions permeate our country’s mentality, in the masses through the media, and are a dangerous way to go about attempting to understand another person or group’s way of life which may differ from our own.

Whether or not the intention of the ideology of White Man’s Burden is as pervasive as these arguments suggest is yet to be known. Personally, I am too cynical to think any other way; but I hope that, either way, we will one day know for sure.

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