The White Man's Burden Questions and Answers
by Rudyard Kipling

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According to Kipling what was the white man's burden?

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Michael Koren eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In order to understand the meaning of Rudyard Kipling’s poem "The White Man’s Burden," it is important to understand the time frame in which this was written. The United States had just won a war with Spain and had gained control over several of Spain’s former colonies. The United States now had an opportunity to become an imperial power. This poem advocated that the United States should assume this responsibility.

The poem suggested that imperialistic countries had an obligation to show people they believed were inferior how to run a government, how to run a country, and how to live. These imperialistic countries, whose population was mainly white, needed to assume the responsibility of showing different groups of supposedly inferior people the right way to live. This was not going to be an easy job and might be met with resistance from the people these imperialistic nations were trying to "civilize." However, Kipling believed the United States needed to assume this...

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Kipling's poem "The White Man's Burden" is a contribution to the debate about the morality of colonization during the late 19th and early 20th century. The phrase "the white man's burden" attempts to justify the violence and harm of colonization by arguing that white men are inherently more civilized and superior than the people that Europeans and U.S. citizens colonized.

The poem argues that by colonizing other cultures, white men are in fact serving them, because they are exposing these colonized peoples to the more "civilized" cultures of European origin. Kipling writes that the white man must:

"Send forth the best ye breed—

Go send 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"

The burden of the white man, then, involves what Kipling saw as a sacrifice of white people, to "Send forth the best ye breed - send your sons to exile" so that these young white men, whom Kipling sees as superior to the people of the Philippines, would then "serve your captives' need."

Kipling's poem suggests that because the "white man" has superior moral and cultural sophistication, the "white man" must save the "half devil and half child" people of the Philippines from their assumed moral and development failings. Kipling reduces the very developed and sophisticated group of societies and cultures in the vast array of Philippine islands to "captives," who "need" the white man to save them.By writing that the people of the Philippines were "half-devil and half child," Kipling utilized an early tool of colonization, the de-humanizing of non-European peoples, to justify the colonization of the Philippines. 

Kipling's poem supports the argument of white superiority, while simultaneously placing the white man in the role of victim of his own superiority.  

"Take up the White Man’s burden—

And reap his old reward:

The blame of those ye better

The hate of those ye guard—"

The white man's burden, then, is to wield a superiority over others and to be burdened by this superiority. Such an argument ignores the incredible amount of power and wealth transferred to the European colonizers from the resources and labor of colonized peoples, and distorts the violence of colonization by suggesting that colonized peoples benefit from becoming the "new-caught, sullen peoples" of European colonization.   

Kipling consciously entered a conversation about the morality of colonization with his poem, "The White Man's Burden." Since it's publication, the ideas in the poem have been cited and utilized by both those who seek to explain and justify racial superiority as well as those seeking to change the legacies of harm and violence left by colonization and racism.