The White Man’s Burden and Social Darwinism

Hello everyone!

In this post I bring to you, the much discussed idea of the “white man’s burden”. I came across this concept while studying American Literature in college and I was completely intrigued to learn of the collective psyche of a whole community that not only accepted but also normalised domination.

An old woman in Pipli, Odisha using an ancestral art form to earn her livelihood.

The phrase was first coined by Rudyard Kipling, when he penned down his famous poem titled “An Address to the United States”, in 1899. During that time, the United States went into a war with Spain, as a gesture to protect the Cuban sovereignty. However, the underlying motive was largely different from the superficial intention. Soon enough, USA not only gained control of the Cuban Government, but also gained significant shares in Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Kipling’s intention is much debated by scholars in the literary field. They argue that his poetry had a two-pronged messaging, where on one hand, it was a dig at the United States for leaving aside their then isolationist policy and attempting to gain power in World Politics. On the other hand, several are of the opinion that the poet wanted to associate a philanthropic intention to this control. It was a way for the white men, considered more advanced in culture, education and social positioning to enlighten and awaken the indigenous cultural groups, since their ways of life were considered backward and often, uncivilized.

Her complaint- there is no respect for this art anymore, people prefer refined items of clothing/ accessories.

This always reminds me of Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”, especially when the entire cultural system of Okonkwo’s village literally fell apart with the presence and flourish of the missionaries who had a different set of agenda, arising out of their disregard for the indigenous black tribes. If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend you do! It’s definitely an eye opener on culture and the White Man’s Burden.

This feeling of supremacy likely emerged from a feeling of Social Darwinism. According to classical sociologist Herbert Spencer, just like Darwin’s theory elucidates the law of natural selection , where the fittest organism survives, in a society too, the people who have the highest cultural and social capital end up with all the resources to climb up the social ladder. The people in the lower rungs are made to accept the code of conduct, norms and rituals of the socially fittest, since they have negligible say in the system. As we have seen in the previous posts, once these cultural codes are accepted and normalised, they manage to stay for a long time, perpetrating the same ideals, rituals and behaviour for generations. Spencer argued that continual government interruption to ensure social welfare is actually a harmful practice, since it disrupts the natural social selection mechanism, and prevents people from gaining social mobility naturally.

If this has intrigued you and you want to learn more, hit the embedded links in the post, and delve into a curious world of powerplay. Comment below to let me know how did you like it, and stay tuned for more interesting concepts coming up soon!

2 thoughts on “The White Man’s Burden and Social Darwinism

  1. Anonymous August 24, 2020 / 12:44 am

    Such an interesting read. Looking forward to more! ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

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