Sunday, 25 October 2009

The new white man's burden

The white man's burden was an excuse, an ideology, to justify imperialism in its time. It is also a poem by Rudiyard Kipling which can be viewed here.

Basically, the white man's burden was the obligation the white man had, to "civilize" the so-called "black continent", the darkest Africy (colonies in other places were also included in the civilizing mission).

Today, I feel that there is a new kind of white man's burden at work. It is mostly found in the language used by well-meaning white people. And even if it is well-meaning, it doesn't mean that it is harmless.

What I am referring to, is the following: Some people/ groups who are involved with and enthusiastic about charity work directed at African countries (or other development countries), have a tendency of referring to these countries of "less fortunate" people as more or less helpless, if not for the help that we, in the rich and educated Europe, can offer them. This language signalizes that these countries are unable to help themselves, have no agency of their own, etc etc. We are faced with a stereotyped African.

Keep in mind that African countries have, all on their own, been able to remove the chains of oppression, the shackles put onto them, by colonialism. They freed themselves. South Africa has raised people like Nelson Mandela, and he can symbolize the agency and power that all people have the potential of having. Not just Europeans who happen to have internet access or rich parents.

I am not arguing against charity work or trying to discourage anyone from trying to help others. What I have a problem with, is the patronizing language, the image of the "African" we are selling, or have bought into. What we should rather focus on, instead of thinking of them as helpless if it weren't for our help, is of empowerment. What we can contribute to, is empowerment.

I also have to ask myself if we use this language, the language of the "helpless African", to somehow make ourselves feel better about helping. If it is a motivating factor, if people will give more, if they believe they are helping someone who is unable to help themselves. I also wonder if the white man's burden TODAY, is the burden of what the white man did in the past. If we are constantly suffering from a guilty conscious of imperialism, and is trying to make up for it.


supafresh said...

This could not have been articulated better! nice one ;)

Sukkerspinn said...

I think you're right on spot in your last paragraph there. Regarding the charity-issue. Waking the "motherly" feeling in us by showing pictures of african children on TV will definitely contribute to our guilty conscuous, with the result of more $ donated.
Personally, though, when I give it more than a second of thought, I think it's not only a good idea, but that I'd also find it more satisfying myself to know I contributed to teaching a man how to fish, rather than supplying him with one every day. Perhaps that's what the new campaigns and charity-commercials should be about...

Happy to have you back home, hunnybunny :)