The white man’s burden, they called it. With good reason, I think. The phrase carries just the right blend of arrogant confidence and poor-me self-pity needed to pull off the role of the sad, persecuted white man – condemned by fate and his innate worthiness to the task of raising everyone else to the white man’s level of civilisation. “Oh, you might say the black man is persecuted, that he has a heavy burden*, but he’ll never know true suffering – the white man’s burden,” it seems to imply. “The dread responsibility of being chosen by God himself to educate and discipline the lesser races like a loving but strict father weighs on us heavily.”
Okay, I bet that’s the paragraph that gets printed out of context in my obituary, but I bring it up as a reminder that some of my ancestors actually thought like that. It’s all very well for me to lay on the satire with a trowel, but guys like Kipling and Rhodes, and countless others really did talk that way. They mistook their superiority in technology, infrastructure and political centralisation for proof that their entire culture was morally superior to all others, even in the face of rampant child exploitation, Irish ethnic cleansing and Kitchener’s concentration camps as evidence to the contrary.
The new white man’s burden is much simpler: it’s simply an acknowledgement of just how fortunate he is, with a moral duty to repay the universe for that good fortune somehow.
And having decided that the white man – and specifically, the white Englishman – was the paragon of the human race, they spread out around the globe to share their virtues with the natives. That was barely 100 years ago, and young white men have been raised to think they’re God’s gift to the planet ever since. Which can be handy – whenever I’m called conceited, I blame my great-grandparents.
Nowadays, the white man’s burden means something else. At least, it does in my head. Any white South African with half a brain can appreciate and admit his own privilege. If he has the smallest shred of self-awareness, he should know just how lucky he is, and realise what built-in extras he’s enjoyed from birth. The new white man’s burden isn’t guilt or shame for the actions of his forebears – how would guilt or shame be of any practical use, and who takes responsibility for stuff they had no hand in, anyway? No, the new white man’s burden is much simpler: it’s simply an acknowledgement of just how fortunate he is, with a moral duty to repay the universe for that good fortune somehow.
Is that just a lazy restatement of the plot of Pay It Forward? If it is, add “lacks originality” to my sins, but I still think it’s true.
That’s the philosophy, the niggling remnant of my Catholic education (all other trappings of which have been long since thrown off), that sees me fostering kids and paying others’ school fees. I’m not trying to score brownie points in the hereafter; nor am I particularly drawn to the do-gooder lifestyle. It’s simply a case of children in need on the one hand, and me with the means to help them out on the other: we were made for each other. You do the job you find in front of you.
What I like about my version of the white man’s burden is that it doesn’t apply only to the white man. It’s really the “fortunate people’s” burden, isn’t it? Anyone who gets off to a good start in life should realise that they do so with the help and support of others; help and support that’s given for its own sake, without prospect of repayment. Hopefully, more of us will learn that material and spiritual wealth is like manure – it does the most good when you spread it around.
* Namely, the white man...