The white man’s burden
- Published: 18 April 2010
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Who are we talking about when we hear the expression ‘the white man’s burden’? Which white people are we referring to? Does ‘man’ refer to both women and men, or are we just talking about men, and where does transgenderism and intersex come into this tidy spectrum? Valerie Mason-John unpacks the term and argues we should let go of the ‘burden’.
‘White man’s burden’ is an expression I’ve heard spoken many times but not ever thought to unpack it because I’m not white. But a comment on my blog made me reflect upon it and I realise that the burden has of course impacted on me. So let’s unpack these three words.
White: means pallid, pale, drawn out, ashen. Who on earth defines like this? Well, my skin can be defined ashen, especially if it has not been oiled for a day, but I don’t think we are talking about me.
Man: gentleman, bloke, dude, guy, chap, male, woman (antonym), to be in charge of.
Burden is easier to unpack than white. To be burdened is to be saddled, encumbered, troubled, yoked, weighed down, what a load to be BURDENED.
So who are we talking about when we hear the expression ‘the white man’s burden’? Which white people are we referring to? Does this include the Greek, Spanish, Turkish, Italian, Portuguese and many other nations who call themselves white?
Interestingly white becomes darker in these countries, and for some people, when they step into a country like England over night they can become black, or of colour because, white is so much fairer.
Does ‘man’ refer to both women and men, or are we just talking about men? And where does transgenderism and intersex come into this tidy spectrum? Or are we talking about the slavers only who committed genocide in the continents of Africa, America, Australia?
Isn’t this too predictable, too prescriptive? Why does one talk about the white man’s burden as if they are the only ones who have karmic force weighted upon their shoulders?
I prefer to speak about the World’s Burden and look at the atrocities human beings have committed throughout the world. Perhaps this is why the environment is turning against us – it’s had enough of our greed, delusion and hatred.
What do I mean by a world burden? Well, for example, Germany is responsible for the extermination of millions of Jews. This I believe is a burden upon the gentiles – upon the non-Jews of Germany.
They have been born into a race which has committed such atrocities that there has to be some karmic impact upon their psyches whether conscious of unconscious of it.
There are people alive whose grand parents would have been involved in the catastrophic slaughter and annihilation of Jewish people. I have met people whose grandparents were responsible for smuggling Jews out of Germany, some of whom were executed if caught.
So of course there must be a burden on this race of people not that non-Jews today are responsible for the massacres of Jews but their lives have been impacted; just as the Jewish person alive today whose grandparents or parents survived the gas chamber has been impacted.
Let’s visit another continent: Asia. In India we have a caste system where non-white people have committed atrocities and still commit atrocities upon the lowest caste people, the Dalits.
Sadly Indian culture has not moved into a place yet where it can admit the carnage and begin to feel some guilt for what they continue to submit part of their population to. The Burden has yet to come.
A couple of years ago the Prime Minister of Australia made a public apology for the treatment of the Aboriginal Australian, for the bloodshed and even extinction of some of the clans.
His country had been burdened with the lie Terra Nullius unoccupied territory. A whole nation built on the premise that white people were the first on Australian soil. Instead of heaping burden upon burden he apologised for the bloodshed by his ancestors.
Why apologise? He didn’t commit the murders, but he has benefited from the treatment of Aboriginal peoples; he has certain privileges being a white male in Australia. That’s why I believe he apologised because he became aware of his conditioning.
Throughout the world people have and still are subjecting people to slavery, colonisation, ethnic cleansing, and so forth. We are all walking around with some kind of Burden.
I have the burden of being African. Although I am of slave stock, there were Africans who sold people into slavery. Those slaves are now the free people of the Caribbean, Brazil and in other parts of the world.
There is a long standing conflict between the African and the Caribbean, which stems from the atrocities my ancestors committed. I apologise for their actions. I passed as Caribbean as a young person because I couldn’t bare to be ridiculed for being African. Now I stand tall, claim my space, and lighten my load.
But we don’t have to carry the burdens around. Burdens can shift, loads can become lighter, burdens can be transformed. Burdens imply guilt, and behind guilt is often toxic anger. Our burdens can be transformed by loving kindness. We are all interconnected. If we stepped into someone else’s shoes for a day we could never hate that person. There is no line between shades of people it is all a blur.
In the book A Course of Miracles it reads “A word is a symbol of a symbol and twice removed from reality.” Our words have fixed us, defined us, separate us, and polarised us.
There is the famous saying from the late June Jordan, “First you remember I’m black, second you forget I’m black.” We need to debunk our burdens. The biggest burden of all is being called a ‘white man’ you may still continue to say.
I could argue of course white people are burdened with the legacy of slavery and colonisation. One of my junior high school kids said to me earlier in his semester of 2010, “My people were slave owners, killed lots of people, of course I can’t argue with a First Nations person.” A young child of 13 already encumbered by his ancestors’ mistakes – what can this child do to lighten their load?
Well, white people have a choice to cling onto this fixed identity, or let it go. To be attached is to be deluded.
I’m not sure the colour White for skin has ever existed, or indeed the colour black. I’ve not met a person with pure white skin, not even in albino pigmentation of both black and white races. The closest to black is a blue or red deep dark brown.
And today the colour white is slipping away. Look out there in the world: we are moving into a century where the white skin will fade into a brown, and if the white man remains deluded in this century, he will be sporting a brown skin but insisting he is white. And why not? That’s what many of the Spanish, Portuguese and other races claim.
We must let go of the Burden. Yes of course remember history – and then forget the history. Acknowledge some of the privileges we gain from being born into the form we manifest. Let go of these privileges and racism and prejudices will begin to disappear.
Valerie Mason-John is an author, playwright, performer, professional anger management and self-awareness trainer. She was named a major new talent in fiction by the UK media after the publication of her debut novel Borrowed Body in 2005. She is one of the Black British Contemporary writers listed on the British Council official website and has worked as an international correspondent covering Australian Aboriginal land rights and black deaths in custody.
Valerie’s writing has appeared in various publications, including The Guardian, The Voice and Morning Star. She was the editor of Feminist Arts News (1992-1997), co-author of Lesbians Talk: Making Black Waves (1993), editor of Talking Black: Lesbians of African and Asian Descent Speak Out (1993), and the author of Detox Your Heart (2006) among other publications.