What does “the White Man’s Burden” mean?

The phrase “the White Man’s Burden” is, syllable for syllable, probably the most iconic thing ever written in the English-language history of racism. But what does it mean?

In short, it means gaslighting. The concept of gaslighting has moved into discussions of racism from the field of relationship psychology. Fittingly, the term is adapted from a play, Gas Light, set in late Victorian England. The British Empire in the late decades of Queen Victoria’s reign (1837–1901) was a powerhouse of gaslighting the likes of which the world has rarely seen. One of its gifts to the world was the slogan, “White Man’s Burden.”

I make it the subject of the first post on this site for two reasons. First, the name of this site, “The Puzzle,” refers to the most accomplished racialist gaslighter in the history of the English language: Rudyard Kipling. Kipling made a career of spinning cruelty as compassion. His 1909 poem “The Puzzler” is a tribute to the art of quiet malice. Ten years earlier, Kipling coined the phrase “White Man’s Burden” to celebrate the false compassion of empire. In short, Kipling helped to craft white supremacy as a politics of deception.

Second, the denial of racism within the dominant cultures of the North Atlantic still hews to the old ways. The deception that framed white supremacist politics in their heyday also covered for their later development – and for their retreat. Today, as new coats of paint are applied to an old racial order, the words of Frantz Fanon echo as loudly as ever. “At this stage,” he said in 1956, “racism no longer dares appear without disguise. It is unsure of itself. In an ever greater number of circumstances the racist takes to cover. He who claimed to ‘sense,’ to ‘see through’ others, finds himself to be a target, looked at, judged. The racist’s purpose has become a purpose haunted by bad conscience.”1Frantz Fanon, “Racism and culture,” in Toward the African Revolution, translated by Haakon Chevalier (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 36.

Since the new forms of deception extend from the older ones, it is imperative to look at – and even to judge – the dominant traditions that have refined white lies over the course of generations. Hence the photo above. Fittingly, it was shot in Haiti.

Earlier this year, Fanon’s daughter, the anti-racist scholar Mireille Fanon Mendes France, noted that the triumph and tragedy of Haiti continue to symbolize this world crisis. It was Haiti that introduced the abolition of slavery into North Atlantic politics. Ever since, its punishment by North Atlantic powers has been unrelenting. As Mendes France observes, Haiti is still treated with ruthlessness by states that ride roughshod over people’s rights as if “to teach them, at their expense.”2Mireille Fanon Mendes France, “Can we listen to the voice of the Haitian people?,” Black Agenda Report (March 17, 2021), as reproduced from the Frantz Fanon Foundation <https://fondation-frantzfanon.com/>. Little wonder that the English phrase that will teach them a lesson has taken on such a menacing ring.

So the problem persists. But the basic question – what does “the White Man’s Burden” mean? – is still tangled up in lies. These are white lies; and in standard imperial English, “white lies” are innocent lies. All told, however, their innocence is a provocative ruse. The old tangle still needs to be pulled apart. On this site, I propose taking ahold of Kipling’s legacy as if it were an exposed piece of thread.

The “White Man’s Burden” of the Ku Klux Klan

We can start with the Ku Klux Klan.

The single most accomplished Klan publicist of all time, Thomas Dixon, was a big Kipling fan. Dixon spent the early years of the twentieth century promoting Klan hatreds in a series of popular books. He entitled the first of these books in a double homage to Kipling, The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden (1902). While Dixon’s subtitle declared the selflessness of white-power politics, his title echoed one of Kipling’s tales of anti-Black racism.

These lies carried power and prestige. After the abolition of slavery in the United States, the terror squads of the Klan did not work in isolation. Their violence was the cutting edge of the white backlash, to be sure. But it had wider support. The horror of lynchings, then, was inseparable from the wider US assault on Black people after emancipation. This assault on Black life now stands exposed as “one of the most stupendous efforts the world ever saw to discredit human beings, an effort involving universities, history, science, social life and religion.”3W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 (New York: Free Press, 1992), 727. Dixon helped to push it forward, doing his best to boost the morale and public reputation of Klan lynchers.

Dixon’s title, The Leopard’s Spots, took its cue from one of Kipling’s children’s stories, “How the Leopard got its spots” (1901).4I owe clarification of this sequencing to Will Kaufman, The Civil War in American Culture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006). For twelve decades, this story has served as a tool of racist acculturation for any teachers or parents willing to resort to it.

The moral of the story is that dark skin is an irremediable, even a contagious, human fault. Kipling seized upon a phrase that was translated as follows in the King James Bible: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard change his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.”5 Jeremiah 13:23, from England, The Holy Bible: The Authorized or King James Version (first published in 1611), 921. For a critical reading of this translation and trope, see Randall C. Bailey, “Beyond Identification: The use of Africans in Old Testament poetry and narratives,” in Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, edited by Cain Hope Felder (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 165–184. Kipling used this imagery to instill a hateful sense of anti-Blackness in the minds of all children who could be made to read along or listen.

Once upon a time, Kipling begins, “everybody started fair.” We will return to this word, fair. Then came darkness. Kipling tells children that darkness came to the leopard when “the Ethiopian put five fingers together . . . and pressed them all over the Leopard, and wherever the five fingers touched they left little black marks.”6Rudyard Kipling, “How the Leopard got its spots,” in Just So Stories (London: Penguin, 2000 [1902]), 49–58. This is from Kipling’s Just So Stories. My copy, reprinted in 2000 by Penguin, features a leopard’s tail dangling provocatively across the cover.

Especially in light of Dixon’s use of the leopard theme in Klan publicity, this cover design is – at the bare, benefit-of-the-doubt minimum – a display of epochal bad taste.

In Klan terms, one can see why Dixon so appreciated Kipling. The supposed threat of “race-mixing” or “miscegenation” was a favorite lynchers’ theme. Kipling’s story played into it.

Once again, however, the full title of Dixon’s book was The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden. And where Kipling really excelled was in the transition from the theme of the title of Dixon’s book to the theme of its subtitle, that is, from anti-Blackness to romantic white innocence.

This brings us back to the word “fair.” Modern England owed much of its prosperity to its exploitation of Africans.7The exploitation of Africans and their overseas descendants was a fulcrum of English and then British economic development throughout the modern period. This is not news: Eric Williams, who went on to serve as the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, established this point as early as 1944 in a landmark study <https://archive.org/details/capitalismslaver0000unse>. A fuller review of the record can now be found in Joseph E. Inikori, Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England: A Study in International Trade and Economic Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). English dictionary-writers were thus eager to make the virtues of whiteness a matter of definition. So in standard imperial English, “fair” was a moral as well as a physical description. “Light as opposed to dark,” the Oxford English Dictionary explained, was one of the word’s meanings. But for the OED, to be fair was not only to be free of physical spots – “Clean, unsoiled, unstained” – but also to be clean in “character, conduct, reputation: Free from moral stain, spotless, unblemished.”8Henry Bradley, A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, Vol. IV, edited by James A.H. Murray (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901), 26. This story was told by generations of well-financed experts in barrels of high-quality ink.

Now, Kipling celebrated the English racialist as a “Puzzler” in tribute to this history of deception. But here we encounter a mild contradiction. On the one hand, Kipling celebrated racial mastery as the property of Englishmen above all others. He never tired of this theme: “the English – ah, the English! – they are quite a race apart.” On the other hand, Kipling layered Englishness into a wider white supremacy. Racism is always a pack of lies – but its contradictions are not random.

Kipling’s supreme lie was that white-power politics were a generous service to non-Europeans targeted by white attacks. This is the key point. The equation of whiteness with selflessness, and of imperialism with charity, was the central theme of Kipling’s gaslighting. But for a moment, let us pick apart the more basic theme, “whiteness” . . .

. . . or not. In his classic bit about the “Romanian cracker,” Chris Rock expressed a hilarious dismissal of the niceties internal to whiteness; “we don’t got time to dice white people up into little groups.”9Chris Rock, Bigger & Blacker, HBO, 1999 https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2hwd07, 45:11. I get that, and I ask those who share this sentiment to please skip the next section.

Details on Kipling’s supreme lie – white-power-as-charity – can be found below, under the heading “Don’t run. We are your friends.” But for those with the patience, let us first look for a moment at the specifically English or Anglo-Saxonist racism around which white nationalism developed.

White nationalism and the “Anglo-Saxon’s burden”

Paul Martin, Jr., featured in the photo above, modeled the “White Man’s Burden” with a sense of heritage. It was autumn 2004, and this Canadian prime minister was visiting Haiti to confirm Canada’s support for the overthrow of Haiti’s elected government and the repression of Haiti’s main mass-based political party. Enter the Globe and Mail, the principal newspaper of central Canadian capital.

Kipling could not have written it better. The Globe did not mention the name of the girl featured in its photo, whom it identified only as “a resident of the Timkatec orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.” But it found a way to present Martin’s cynical power politics as charity. Proud, prime ministerial fingers are shown directing a Haitian forearm to wave a Canadian flag for the camera.

“Bigre, mes chers collèges (comme on dit), je vous ôte mon chapeau (mon chapeau d’anthropophage, bien entendu).”10 Aimé Césaire, Discours sur le colonialisme (Paris: Présence Africaine, 2004), 30. Or, “By Jove, my dear colleagues (as they say), I take off my hat to you (a cannibal’s hate, of course).” In one or the other language, this is from Césaire’s inimitable and affordably sold Discourse on Colonialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 48: <https://monthlyreview.org/product/discourse_on_colonialism/>.

With Martin, all ambiguity is removed. This is not Johnny-come-lately whiteness but the thing itself, in all of its vintage prestige. But let us step back for a moment. Just who and what is “white”?

In earlier centuries, some claimed that Englishmen possessed this title almost alone. “The number of purely white people in the world is proportionably very small,” Benjamin Franklin wrote from Pennsylvania, in the days when it was still under British control. Franklin continued:

All Africa is black or tawny; Asia chiefly tawny; America (exclusive of the newcomers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians, and Swedes are generally of what we call a swarthy complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who, with the English, make the principal body of white people on the face of the earth. I could wish their numbers were increased.11As quoted in Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Harvard, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1998), 40.

So for this racial storyteller, some of the Germans – the “Saxons” – made the cut, as did the English, who according to modern racial lore were “Anglo-Saxons.” But that was about it.

The question of whether any very poor person could be considered fully white lingered for centuries. By the late nineteenth century, a leading French racialist, Gustave Le Bon, could also apply racist ideas of natural hierarchy to gender. Le Bon wrote that even among the “superior races” of his imagination, “as among the Parisians, there are a large number of women whose brains are closer in size to those of gorillas than to the most developed male brains.”12As quoted in Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), 136. See also Nancy Leys Stepan, “Race and Gender: The role of analogy in science,” Isis 77, no. 2 (1986), 261–277. It was old wine in new bottles.

It was also the basic story of racism: the recasting of old oppressive hierarchies in new naturalized forms. “The vulgar, primitive, over-simple racism,” observed Fanon, “purported to find in biology – the Scriptures have proved insufficient – the material basis of the doctrine.”13Fanon, “Racism and culture,” 32. Ergo, European Christendom was the best, and its rich better than its poor, and its men better than its women, etc., etc. Own enough universities and such self-serving prattle can be made to sound pretty. Plus ça change.

Meanwhile, the US led the way toward white nationalism. Toward the end of Benjamin Franklin’s life, the US break with Britain meant that British nationality was no longer in play. Congress invited all “free white persons” to become US nationals. A whiteness including various European nationalities emerged, defined against an Indigenous and Black foil. Generations of racialist experts argued that to include more white people was to broaden the basis for white racial power over others. John Van Evrie, a Canadian-born white supremacist, was especially enthusiastic about this point.

After abolition, Van Evrie cheered on Klan violence from New York. He summarized his argument in an 1870 book entitled, White Supremacy and Negro Subordination: Or, Negroes a Subordinate Race, and (So-Called) Slavery its Normal Condition. What Orwell never taught us was that slavery = freedom is above all a white lie, even if English patriots prefer to call it a red one.

For Van Evrie, “can’t we all just get along” was a battle cry for white-power hatreds. He wrote: “The Englishman believes that the English are alone truly Christian and civilized; the Frenchman honestly believes that La Belle France is at the head of modern civilization; even the advanced and liberal American Democrat thinks, and perhaps correctly, that the Americans alone are truly civilized.”14J.H. Van Evrie, White Supremacy and Negro Subordination: Or, Negroes a Subordinate Race and (So-Called) Slavery its Normal Condition (New York: Van Evrie, Horton & Co., 1870), 67. Van Evrie’s message was that all white-on-white rivalry or violence was wasted energy, better poured into the unified violence of anti-Black and imperial politics.

So anti-Black and imperial violence defined the “White Man’s Burden.” But whiteness needed first to be made in order to be used as a weapon. In Kipling’s work, readers will thus find a dual commitment to white power and to Anglo-Saxon power. This logic was explicit. It was spelled out in Kipling’s day by the most influential US racial theorist of the period, William Z. Ripley.

Visiting Britain in 1908, Ripley told his hosts that Kipling’s “burden” should really be split into two, especially in North America. Yes, Ripley insisted, it was great for the British to plunder India, for the Klan to gallop across Dixie, and for the US army to devastate the Philippines. But white nationalism needed special attention. Ripley said:

You have your ‘white man’s burden’ to bear in India; we have ours to bear with the American negro and the Filipinos. But an even greater responsibility with us and with your Canadian fellow-citizens is that of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’s burden’ – to so nourish, uplift and inspire all these immigrant peoples of Europe, that in due course of time . . . the torch of Anglo-Saxon civilization and ideals, born by our fathers from England to America, shall yet burn as bright and clear in the New World, as your fires have continued to illuminate the old.15William Z. Ripley, “The European population of the United States,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (38 (1908), 240.

Like all white supremacist theory, this was nonsense, but it was nonsense with a logic. Ripley was spelling out a program that combined the primacy of British conservative social norms – and the English language – with the pan-European demographic and striking force sought by Van Evrie.

Those who do not care about Canada should now really skip to the next section. But strictly speaking, while Ripley bracketed Canada together with the US, the situation here was a little different. In this case, there was no break with the British Empire: a specifically British dominance endured. Until the 1940s, there was not even a specifically Canadian citizenship. Canadians were officially classed as British subjects. Relatedly, in celebration of this imperial connection, British Protestant sectarian groups like the Orange Order retained power at the expense of white nationalism as such. Not until after World War II was Canada’s British imperial connection painted over.

This brings us to Paul Martin, Sr., father to the twenty-first century Canadian prime minister. In 1946, it was Martin, Sr. who introduced the Citizenship Act for Canada. Thenceforth, Martin declared with white ecumenism, Canadians would be more than British nationals. Martin said: “No matter where we come from or what our origins, French, English, Scandinavian, Scottish, Ukrainian, Irish or whatever else, one thing at least we can all be, and that is Canadians.”16As quoted in Sunera Thobani, Exalted Subjects: Studies in the Making of Race and Nation in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 89. In this telling, the story of British or dual British–French nationality gave way to a story of composite Canadian whiteness.

In a master stroke of hypocrisy, this record was then removed from the field of popular education and debate. Organized confusion is the upshot. Granted, since the 1970s, layers of multiculturalist paint have been applied to the old Canadian social structure. But specialists agree that the appearance is altogether misleading. It now falls to a few academics to joke at the expense of those of us who were kept in the dark about Canada’s imperial foundations. One quips: “To paraphrase Kipling, ‘What should they know of Canada who only Canada know?’”17C.P. Champion, The Strange Demise of British Canada: The Liberals and Canadian Nationalism, 1964–1968 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010), 34.

It will take work to free these quips from specialists and develop a popular anti-racist discussion grounded in the historical record – as distinct from amnesiac national branding. What is meanwhile plain is that the strongest local traditions of gaslighting could not have developed in a few decades, or even in a few generations. They are as vintage as a Rosedale wine cellar. As C.L.R. James warned: “That calm confidence in its capacity to deceive is a mark of the mature ruling class.”18C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 294.

“Don’t run. We are your friends”

Finally, we return to Rudyard Kipling, erstwhile Saxondom’s gaslighter-in-chief. So long as his mockery remains obscure, the roots of contemporary racist gaslighting are likewise hidden.

Hollywood put Kipling’s politics to film in its 1996 spoof, Mars Attacks! The film features a Martian invasion of earth. The invaders claim with a poker face that they come in peace. It is the plainest lie. But the confusion it causes on the part of earthlings is too convenient for the Martians to abandon. So even as the invaders raid and kill, they stick to the script. In one scene, satirized Martian shock troops storm a US street, firing their weapons while professing their innocence: “Don’t run. We are your friends.”

Eight decades before the spoof, Kipling’s take on this story was played out in India. It was then, in 1919, that the British Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer fired 1,650 rounds of live ammunition – by his own estimate – at Indian demonstrators who had dared to gather in public in their own country against British wishes. To think that British rule in India was ending, Dyer explained, was to be guilty, and the sentence against the crowd was open massacre. “I fired and continued to fire,” he boasted. “If more troops had been at hand the casualties would have been greater in proportion.”

Crucially, Dyer maintained that this massacre was an act of friendship to India – as British rule always was – and that Indians “ought to be thankful to me for doing it.” Kipling could only nod at his pupil’s wisdom: “He did his duty as he saw it.”19As quoted in Derek Sayer, “British reaction to the Amritsar massacre, 1919–1920,” Past & Present 131 (1991), 146 & 158. The tradition of Kipling and Dyer was a tradition in which first-person compassion was asserted as an article of faith, all facts be damned.

What was empire, so the story went, if not a gift to those it conquered? Kipling joked about this ruse in an early poem entitled “Et Dona Ferentes,” from the proverb, “Beware Greeks bearing gifts.” Kipling made it clear to his readers that even the fiercest exploitation and hate should be made to sound kind, or at least kept quiet. In the idealized racist of Kipling’s poetry, “the hard, pent rage ate inward,” before striking out with sharp violence and then disappearing without a harsh word. Such was the mastery of the imperial figure whom Kipling idealized as the Puzzler: “When his lips are schooled to meekness, when his back is bowed to blows – / Well the keen aas-vogels know it – well the waiting jackal knows.”

In sum, Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” was an ode to the waiting jackal.

Kipling was a product of the British imperial community that ruled India, which had been wrapping the gift of empire in Dyer’s manner for generations. Empowered by its Atlantic exploits, Britain first broke through resistance to its advance in India in the eighteenth century. What followed was the plainest plunder. In the words of one English historian, “No eighteenth-century nabob, as the plunderers of India were called, pretended that he laboured for the benefit of the Indians. He laboured in order to become a millionaire.”20A.J.P. Taylor, “Conquerors and profiteers,” in Essays in English History (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), 30. Over time, the means became more subtle, but the profits continued to flow. By 1932, a British author could forget Kipling’s script and spell it out in dollars and cents. “It has been computed,” he wrote, “that every fifth man in Great Britain is dependent, either directly or indirectly, on our Indian connection for his livelihood.”

The Big Lie that British rule was a gift to India was a familiar and miserable joke. Never has wealth flowed from one country to another as wealth flowed from Britain to India during the colonial period. The scope of what happened is suggested by statistics published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In 1700, on the eve of British expansion, India contributed nearly a quarter of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) against three percent for Britain. By 1870 India’s share had been cut in half while Britain’s had tripled.21For more detail, see Aditya Mukherjee, “How colonial India made modern Britain,” Economic and Political Weekly 45, no. 50 (2010), 73–82. By late Victorian times, Indians were dying of famine while British wealth poured into universities that celebrated white fairness as an article of faith.

Kipling argued that the lessons of British India generalized: white power the world over should be wrapped as a gift from Europe to the rest of the world. This was the meaning of his poem, “The White Man’s Burden.” Kipling coached his readers to stick to the script, à la Mars Attacks! Proclaim white-power selflessness, Kipling told his readers; whatever the facts, say it again and again: “By open speech and simple, / An Hundred times made plain, / To seek another’s profit, / And work another’s gain.”

In the Canadian North-West as in India, colonized people were reeling from famines that the British authorities had ruthlessly exploited. Pretend, Kipling mocked, that empire comes to the colonized with no attacks and no malice, just bundles of food and medicine: “Take up the White Man’s burden – / The savage wars of peace – / Fill full the mouth of famine / And bid the sickness cease.”

Kipling aimed to define colonial oppression out of existence – white power equals charity equals white power – and in this way to make anti-colonial resistance to oppression a logical impossibility. One can resist oppression. But one cannot resist charity. To resist charity is not resistance at all: it is ingratitude, insolence. In anti-colonial resistance, Kipling therefore coached, racists should refuse to see anything but “The blame of those ye better, / The hate of these ye guard.”

But why would the bearers of empire’s gifts be blamed in the first place? Why would racists receive anything but thanks for, say, the friendship they would show in Jallianwala Bagh, or in Canadian residential schools? Kipling answered with six syllables of carefully crafted hate. He declared that colonized people were “Half-devil and half-child.” The phrase is sharpened to purpose like a knife’s edge. On the one hand, it restates the case for imperial tutelage: if colonized people are racially immature, so the story goes, then they must, in empire’s manner, be taught a lesson. On the other hand, the charge of demonic immaturity makes room for righteous hate even within empire’s educational mission. The result is a self-righteousness fitted to a cruelty both pious and profitable.

By the early twentieth century, Britain’s Lord Cromer could only smile. Cromer sat on an enormous family fortune from the trade in enslaved Africans. Then, without returning a dime, he helped to lead the Scramble for Africa. And after all of this, he felt confident demanding not only the continued European exploitation of Africans, but also their thanks. “Even the Central African savage,” Cromer quipped, “may eventually learn to chant a hymn in honour of Astraea Redux, as represented by the British official who denies him gin but gives him justice.” The mockery is astounding.

After Dyer, pushing Anglo-Indian friendship to its classical conclusions; after Cromer, marketing false humanitarianism as profitable (see the link immediately above); and after Kipling, with his pride in the “waiting jackal” – after all of this, language that sounds nice on its surface has lost the benefit of the doubt. Hateful words can be terrible. But silence can say just as much. All this time later, there is still good reason to heed Kipling’s warning: “oh, beware my country, when my country grows polite!

Canada in Haiti: A retraction

I conclude with a retraction.

Some time ago, I wrote that Canadian policy in Haiti combined professed good intentions with oppressive policies. I began one article, now a decade old: “Over the course of the past decade, Canada’s leading officials and most prestigious commentators have learned how to approach Haiti in the spirit of cynical power politics and racist condescension (or worse) while maintaining a posture of national self-flattery.”

At the time, I was unfamiliar with the precedents: the claim that this dates to the first decade of this century is wrong. It is much older. In fact, empire’s twenty-first century arguments on Haiti were anticipated even by that distant imperial icon, Henry Dundas, whose legacy looms so large in the public architecture of Toronto. I will return to this continuity in future posts.

Notwithstanding the error, that brief article does unpack the context for the Haiti photo featured above. I therefore reproduce it in full on the next page.