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"'The White Man's Burden' and Its Critics"

Jim Zwick is an American Studies scholar and author of Confronting Imperialism: Essays on Mark Twain and the Anti-Imperialist League and Mark Twain's Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War, as well as numerous book chapters and journal and magazine articles about the Anti-Imperialist League and Mark Twain's anti-imperialist writings. Here he provides an overview of the concept of "the white man's burden" and the context in which Kipling's poem originated. He also discusses some of the many anti-imperialist parodies and responses that followed it.

"The White Man's Burden" and Its Critics

By Jim Zwick

Published in McClure's Magazine in February of 1899, Rudyard Kipling's poem, "The White Man's Burden," appeared at a critical moment in the debate about imperialism within the United States. The Philippine-American War began on February 4 and two days later the U.S. Senate ratified the Treaty of Paris that officially ended the Spanish-American War, ceded Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United States, and placed Cuba under U.S. control. Although Kipling's poem mixed exhortation to empire with sober warnings of the costs involved, imperialists within the United States latched onto the phrase "white man's burden" as a euphemism for imperialism that seemed to justify the policy as a noble enterprise. Anti-imperialists quickly responded with parodies of the poem. They focused on the new warfare in the Philippines, the hypocrisy of claiming moral sanction for a policy they argued originated from greed for military power and commercial markets, continuing racial and gender inequality at home, and the special "burden" of imperialism to the working people of the United States. The poem was not quickly forgotten. In 1901, after two years of devastating warfare in the Philippines, Mark Twain remarked: "The White Man's Burden has been sung. Who will sing the Brown Man's?" In December of 1903, C. E. D. Phelps used a parody of the poem to criticize the U.S. acquisition of the Panama Canal Zone. The "white man's burden" concept was also revived in later discussions of U.S. interventions in the Americas and during World War I.

Source | Jim Zwick, "The White Man's Burden and Its Critics," ND.
Creator | Jim Zwick
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | Jim Zwick, “"'The White Man's Burden' and Its Critics",” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 2, 2023,

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