White Man's Burden

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Jump to navigation Jump to search
"Is this one of those movies where the rich, benevolent white family teaches the black kid stuff like how to use a fork?"
Internet commenter about The Blind Side

This trope is about a plot where an ordinary white person meets an underprivileged minority character, takes pity on the other character's plight, then selflessly volunteers to become a tutor, mentor, or caretaker to make things better.

This is a sister trope to Magical Negro, but is not a direct inversion of it. While a Magical Negro is depicted as a supporting character to the protagonist, the rescuer is the protagonist in a White Man's Burden story. The white character is the one who gets all the Character Development while the minority character's main purpose will be to advance that character development. The focus of a WMB plot will be on the white character's saintliness rather than the minority character's journey. And while many Magic Negros are depicted with supernatural or otherworldly abilities, the Samaritan in a White Man's Burden story will almost always be an ordinary person, to make it easier for the audience to identify with.

White Man's Burden movies are frequently created as Oscar Bait. Can easily induce Narm, Glurge, Tastes Like Diabetes, and/or an Anvilicious Broken Aesop or Warped Aesop in the hands of a poor creator. Save Our Students plots frequently involve this trope.

Compare and contrast with Mighty Whitey, where a white person joins a foreign culture and soon becomes the most proficient member in it. The main difference is that Mighty Whitey characters join the non-white culture, while White Man's Burden characters pull non-whites out of the non-white culture.

Obviously the reaction to this trope can be just as problematic as the application of the trope itself: if white characters don't help poor and disadvantaged black people, they're seen as uncaring and selfish; if white characters do help poor and disadvantaged black people, they're being condescending and self-centered. This duality can sometimes happen even within the same movie.

This trope has nothing to do with the 1995 film White Man's Burden.

No Real Life Examples, Please

Examples of White Man's Burden include:


  • The Blind Side has a privileged white housewife who takes pity on a Big Scary Black Man and helps him become a professional football player. It's Based on a True Story (and the project was partly mentored by said pro football player).
  • Dangerous Minds: Michelle Pfeiffer teaches minority students in an inner city school, Based on a True Story.
  • In Renaissance Man, Danny Devito teaches a class of mostly minority deadbeats in the armed forces.
  • Hard Ball has Keanu Reaves teaching baseball to inner-city kids.
  • In Freedom Writers, Erin Gruwell does this for a whole class of minorities and a Token White.
  • Finding Forrester has the white William Forrester inspire the black Jamal Wallace to write, and along the way Forrester learns about "the true value of friendship" and thinking for oneself.
    • This is subverted however. Prior to his interaction with Forrester, Jamal was already portrayed as being intelligent and even accepted to a prestigious private school (though on sports scholarship.) Forrester just happened to be the first person to actually challenge and critique Jamal's writing. At the same time, Jamal is able to coax Forrester out of being a recluse, making it more of a symbiotic relationship between the two.
  • Somewhat inverted in Reign Over Me, where Alan Johnson (played by Don Cheadle) helps his former college roommate (Adam Sandler) cope with the losses he suffered in the September11 terrorist attacks.
  • Glory, another based-on-a-true-story film about the white officer commanding the first black regiment of the Union Army during the American Civil War.
  • The Last Samurai is a case of counteracting the damaging influence of White Man's Burden... from the point of view of a Mighty Whitey.
  • Tears of the Sun, where a squad of White American SEALS (with the exception of one Token Black) save a bunch of Nigerian refugees from evil Nigerian militants.
  • The Birth of a Nation plays this to some extent really horribly, with Austin Stoneman’s mulatto protégé Silas.
  • The Substitute is an action movie take on the "white teacher challenges the inner-city kids." He's actually a mercenary who's investigating the attack on his teacher girlfriend, but along the way he manages to knock some sense into his class and helps take down the black principal's drug ring.
  • The Principal has Jim Belushi taking on the gangs to clean up an inner-city high school.
  • Done with a variation in Glory Road—instead of a single underdog minority, it's an all-black starting lineup.
  • Gran Torino features Clint Eastwood's character as a bigoted racist who slowly gains compassion for the Hmongs moving into his neighborhood, then he starts taking Thao under his wing and eventually saves him from the local gang.
  • The Help, based on a novel, features Skeeter helping black maids get recognition for their hard work.
  • The Soloist is this trope, with Robert Downey, Jr. as a white journalist trying to help metally ill, homeless black musical genius Ayers (Jamie Foxx). Despite having an Oscar Bait feel to it, the film handles the trope pretty well, especially because of its Bittersweet Ending.


  • To Kill a Mockingbird has Atticus Finch sticking up for a wrongly accused black man, just as he sticks up for any just cause. Played with, in that Atticus fails, and his client ends up getting shot dead by the police in prison.
  • The Trope Namer is the 1899 poem "The White Man's Burden" by Rudyard Kipling, the gist of which is that it's the responsibility of white Western nations to colonize the rest of the world and rule over it until it fully "develops", i.e. assimilates. The poem actually anticipates the colonized cultures' lack of gratitude for this "service", but portrays it as the cost of doing the right thing. He also states that white cultures have become more advanced by luck, rather than racial superiority. Some critics interpet it as a Stealth Parody, but overall it's a highly controversial poem.
    • Kipling was quite explicitly telling Americans, "It's your turn now, and this is what you're letting yourselves in for. And we too will be watching and criticizing you!"
    • While the term "White" is unfortunate (it could on any given occasion be a brown or black man's burden), the concept is less pernicious then it sounds. One possible interpretation of the poem is "You break it you bought it". Britain and the United States had already made the conquests that gave them the new territory they ruled over whatever moral questions one might have about the process. They had now to deal with running the government as justly and wisely as possibly once they got there.
  • The Soloist is about a white journalist who finds and befriends a black homeless man, who turns out to be a former musical prodigy before developing schizophrenia.
  • Robert Sheckley's short story "Human Man's Burden" is a parody of this trope, using robots instead of some non-white ethnicity.
  • Hermione's house-elf liberation subplot in Harry Potter is basically this. Somewhat unusually for this trope, it's portrayed in-universe as a bad thing, and she gets called on it by practically everyone. Even an attentive reader can notice the inherent hypocrisy of her cause: launching a house-elf freedom campaign on her own for the benefit of other elves without so much as asking for their help, forcing them into unwanted freedom. She also bases her entire view of house-elves on Dobby, whose views on freedom, payment and clothing are quite different than the average elf. She also completely misses the point about why house-elves are unhappy (their working conditions, not the work itself or lack of pay).
    • Dobby himself mentions that when Dumbledore hired him he tried to give Dobby the same pay and benefits as an average human working schlub, and Dobby, insisting that he is unusual but not inelfin, talked him down to wages that are just short of slavery.
      • He also mentions that he's now the only one that will clean the Griffindor girls' rooms, because Hermione has been hiding clothing in various places trying to trick house elves into picking them up and being freed. That's right... on some level Hermione understands that the elves don't want her "help", but she knows better and by God she's going to make them take it.
  • Played absolutely straight in Kathryn Hulme's The Nun's Story, where the Belgian missionary nuns see themselves as part of a greater civilizing force in the Congo.

Live-Action TV

  • Parodied in a Mad TV sketch called "Nice White Lady", imitating all the stories of nice white teacher ladies who help inner-city kids turn their lives around.
  • Lampshaded in the Frasier episode "Dr. Mary". Frasier hires an African-American call-screener who takes over his show by calling herself "Dr. Mary", spouting ghetto-psychology; but he's afraid to say anything because she's black and came from an underprivileged background. Eventually she gets her own show spouting more ghetto-psychology, but finds out about his guilt and tells him, "God bless your guilty white ass!"
  • On 3rd Rock from the Sun, when Dick discovered white guilt, he tried to be this to Nina. When Nina asked him if he was going to be the enlightened white man showing her the way, he missed the sarcasm and replied "You know me so well!"
  • The premise of Diff'rent Strokes is a wealthy white man taking in two black inner city kids. "Now the world don't move to the beat of just one drum..."
  • In Harry's Law, a white liberal lawyer, tired of the kind of work that made her rich, decides to set up in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood. She and her white colleagues fix these poor black folks' problems.
  • In the Doctor Who episode 'Human Nature' the Doctor is turned into a human, and given the memories of 1913 school teacher John Smith. This includes Values Dissonance for the time period, unfortunately enough for his black companion Martha Jones, who is pretending to be his servant. He takes it as his duty to help this poor black lady; when she starts saying that he's not human, but an alien, and they're being attacked, his reaction is to teach her that this is "what we call a story". She slaps him for that.
  • Like many race-related tropes, this is deconstructed brutally in The Wire. Roland Pryzbelewski, a cop-turned-teacher and Atoner, tries to invoke this trope with a bright but troubled student named Dukwan, washing his clothes for him and letting him into the school early to use the locker room showers. Eventually, however, Prez is forced to reconcile the fact that, as a teacher in inner-city Baltimore, he can't try to fix every damaged individual in his classes, and by the season finale he regretfully observes Dukwan's descent into addiction.

Web Original

Western Animation

  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender, this is the Fire Nation's official reason for conquering and colonizing the rest of the world: they want to "share their greatness" with the rest of the world. Certainly, Ozai doesn't care about that and just wants to be the supreme ruler of everything, but that was Firelord Sozin's reason for beginning the war in the first place. Eventually, Zuko realizes 1) that this "sharing" philosophy is a total lie—the Fire Nation is not sharing anything but fear and suffering and 2) how wrong this philosophy is by itself.