In the poem "The White Man's Burden" by Rudyard Kipling, what is the actual "burden" that white men are plagued with?

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We can look at this poem and your question in two ways. From Kipling's point of view, the White Man is plagued with the responsibility to "civilize" other peoples and then receive scorn for that. The other races, in this view, are but savage children and those of European races...

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We can look at this poem and your question in two ways. From Kipling's point of view, the White Man is plagued with the responsibility to "civilize" other peoples and then receive scorn for that. The other races, in this view, are but savage children and those of European races have the responsibility to save them from themselves. Kipling writes that it will be hard work. Many will suffer and die in order to accomplish it and be criticized by others for their effort. However, he sees it as the duty of the white race to share their ways, even if by force, with the people who he saw as ignorant and wanting of civilized influence.

Another way to view this poem and your question is from a more distant perspective. White Men, like Kipling, appear to be burdened with a grandiose sense of self-righteousness. Feelings of racial superiority are very much a condition which the imperialists of Kipling's time were plagued with. These notions compelled many to travel to distant lands and practically and literally enslave other races in the name of civilization. This imperializing view was in many ways a plague. While it did lead to massive economic benefits for the imperialists, it also resulted in a great loss of life and toil for the imperialists themselves. Kipling even acknowledges that by attempting to serve other races, they will "mark them with your dead!"

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Rudyard Kipling originally wrote the poem "The White Man's Burden" for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in June of 1897. However, he eventually wrote another poem for that occasion, and "The White Man's Burden," with the full title of "The White Man's Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands," was first published in 1899 shortly after the Spanish-American War and at the start of the Philippine-American War.

The poem extols the necessity of imperialism and empire. In Kipling's view, the white man's burden is the moral imperative for the white races of the world to conquer and subdue the non-white races. Kipling makes it clear in the poem that he considers white people to be better than the people whose lands they colonize. The conquered people, as Kipling sees them, are "half-devil and half-child" full of "sloth and human folly." Because of this, he urges the government and military of the United States to take up the burden, which means job or responsibility, of overseeing and controlling the non-white people they conquer for their own good.

President Theodore Roosevelt, who favored American expansionism and approved the annexation of the Philippines, responded enthusiastically to the poem. Not everyone responded so positively, however. Senator Benjamin Tillman used passages from the poem to demonstrate his opposition to the treaty with Spain that would bring about the annexation of the Philippines by the United States. The famous writer Mark Twain wrote an anti-imperialism essay called "To the Person Sitting in Darkness." Many African-Americans saw the subjugation of the non-white people of the Philippines as a parallel to racism at home in the form of Jim Crow laws and other legal and social oppression.

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In this poem, which is extremely racist by modern standards, the "burden" the white man is plagued with is the task of caring for native people in lands that the white men have colonized. This task, it is implied, takes a particular nobility of spirit and an ethic of self-sacrifice because the natives are so "ungrateful."

The narrator, who is addressing the white colonizers, characterizes the colonized populations as inferior, writing of them as:

Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child

The burdens the white men then have to carry include the "threat of terror," working without complaint for the colonized people's gain and profit, and experiencing one's hopes dashed by the sloth and foolishness of the people one is trying to help. The colonizers also must bear the burden of being blamed and hated by those to whom they feel they are superior.

The poem shows no awareness that native people might rightfully resent the colonizers for coming into their country. The colonizers impose their culture on the native population while exploiting their resources and then expect them to be grateful when the white men take it upon themselves to "raise" the native people from the position of inferiority they've been subjected to as a result of colonialism.

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According to the poem, the actual burden that white people are plagued with is the non-white people that they have conquered and the need to care for these non-white, inferior peoples.

What Kipling is saying is that when a white country colonizes, it has all these people who are "half devil and half child."  It must, therefore, care for the those people the same way that a parent must care for its children.

Parenting clearly involves sacrifice and so, says Kipling, does colonization.  White people will have to go out to all these primitive places where they have to do without civilized comforts and work hard (in "heavy harness") to take care of all these inferior people who need to be helped because they are not advanced enough to take care of themselves.

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