Wednesday, March 21, 2012

RE: The White Man's Burden & Kony 2012

In the weeks since the Kony 2012's viral launch the expression “White Man's Burden” has been thrown around quite a bit. The expression has generally been used badly, so I've written a short guide to help us better understand the expression and where it comes from.

The White Man's Burden is an expression that comes from an 1899 poem of the same name. The poem was written by Ruyard Kipling. If you don't recognize his name he's the same author who brought us The Jungle Book. While the book version didn't contain Disney's famous “I wanna be like you” song, Mowgi's story in the novel and in the film are very similar. The story goes that Mowgli, a feral jungle “half devil and half child” who was raised by wolves finally found redemption once he left the jungle for civilization. If you're not picking up on the symbolism I'll just say that Kipling had some racially biased opinions about who was and was not civilized.

The Jungle Book has a lot in common with The White Man's Burden. Both works depict non-whites as a poor souls in need of a civilizing outside influence. Kipling proposed in The White Man's Burden that it was the responsibility of “civilized” white men to “fix and reform” the “savage” colored peoples of the world; the arrogance of his proposal is astounding. Sadly many people thought Kipling had the right idea and they used their whiteness and alleged moral superiority to excuse the exploitation of Africans, Indians, Native Americans and countless other peoples. C.S. Lewis calls this sort of morally motivated oppression the “worst sort of tyranny.”

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. -C.S. Lewis

So “The White Man's Burden” in a nutshell is the flawed idea that white person's supposed superiority gives them both the responsibility and authority to take leadership and resources away from anyone who is not white. This ideology couples tightly with the tyrannical idea that non-white persons are unfit to govern themselves. “The White Man's Burden” is an abominable propaganda tool that is used to excuse exploitation and oppression. This isn't what I've seen from Invisible Children.

I personally haven't seen this idea represented in Invisible Children's videos or literature. The founders of the organization, and many of it's volunteers, are white. The citizens of Uganda are largely black. As long as Invisible Children isn't attempting to take power or resources away from Ugandans then I don't care in the slightest what color any of them are. The core problem with The White Man's Burden poem is not that it promotes people of one race helping people of another race, its problem is the awful idea that one race can be inherently superior to another.

There need be nothing racist about a white person supporting a program that assists black persons, just as there need be nothing racist about a black person supporting a program that assists white persons. Race may not be an issue. I would take issue with anyone who refused to help their neighbor because of their neighbor's race, and I may even take issue with someone demanding to help their neighbor because of their neighbor's race. Those actions are racially motivated. Invisible Children's work doesn't appear to be racially motivated. They talk about children and they talk about soldiers, but not race. Invisible Children promotes people helping other people; more specifically they promote students helping other students. It is hard for me to see that as racist.

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