Created By: rjung on April 5, 2010
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White Man's Burden

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Do We Have This, Needs a Better Title, Needs a Better Description, and Rolling Updates.

(Trope inspired by discussion in this thread)

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 for the unfortunate victim.

This is a sister trope to Magical Negro, but is not a direct inversion of it. While a Magic Negro is depicted as a supporting character to the protagonist, the rescuer is the protagonist in a White Man's Burden story. Also, many Magic Negros are depicted with supernatural or otherworldly abilities, but the samaritan in White Man's Burden will always be an ordinary person, the easier for the audience to identify with.

While there is some Truth in Television to this trope, there are also some Unfortunate Implications involved. Given the racial makeup of the characters, the unspoken subtext of these stories is that minorities need a Caucasian hero to save them from destitute and despair. Also, the mentor in a White Man's Burden story is almost always shown struggling to make things better, suggesting that the subject of their rescue should be grateful for their efforts.

Works in this trope are very frequently created as Oscar Bait. Can easily induce Narm, Glurge, and/or an Anvilicious Broken Aesop in the hands of a poor creator.

Contrast with Mighty Whitey, where a white person joins a foreign culture and soon becomes the most proficient member in it.


Examples:

  • 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.
  • Hancock begins with a washed-up (black) superhero who gets a personality and image makeover due to the generosity of a white man he rescued.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird has this, as part of its overall anti-racism message.
  • Dangerous Minds - Michelle Pfeiffer teaches minority students in an inner city school.
  • Renaissance Man - Danny Devito teaches minority deadbeats in the armed forces.
  • Hard Ball - Keanu Reaves teaches baseball to inner-city kids.
  • Parodied in an SNL called "Nice White Lady," imitating all the stories of nice white teacher ladies who help inner-city kids turn their lives around.
  • In Freedom Writers, Erin Gruwell does this for a whole class of minorities.
  • 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" or some other sugary moral.
  • 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!"
  • Schindler's List
Community Feedback Replies: 29
  • April 1, 2010
    jfpbookworm
    • Dangerous Minds - Michelle Pfeiffer teaches minority students in an inner city school.
    • Renaissance Man - Danny Devito teaches minority deadbeats in the armed forces.
    • Hard Ball - Keanu Reaves teaches baseball to inner-city kids.
  • April 1, 2010
    rjung
    Some people have interpreted Rudyard Kipling's poem "The White Man's Burden" as espousing such a view (while others think it's a satirical Take That about imperialism).
  • April 1, 2010
    RhymeBeat
    A Magical Negro really doesn't always mean that the black person is "magic" (though this is often true of Magical Native American). This trope is just an inversion of Magical Negro.
  • April 1, 2010
    callsignecho
    • Parodied in an SNL called "Nice White Lady," imitating all the stories of nice white teacher ladies who help inner-city kids turn their lives around.

    I don't think this has much to do with Magical Negro at all.
  • April 1, 2010
    Chabal2
    Mention Rudyard Kipling in there somewhere, as he's the one best known for the expression of "white man's burden". Sadly, this was one of the reasons Europeans used to justify their colonies: "We're bringing them Western culture and education, because it's obviously superior to theirs".
  • April 1, 2010
    rjung
    @Rhyme Beat: I don't think this is a straight racial inversion of Magical Negro, since the role of the "savior" character in each is different. I agree that Magical Negro doesn't always involve supernatural abilities (though it does tend to occur fairly frequently), so I rewrote the description a bit. Feel free to suggest wording changes.
  • April 2, 2010
    Kazyan1
    In Freedom Writers, Ms. G does this for a whole class of minorities.
  • April 2, 2010
    Ajardoor
  • April 3, 2010
    Mimimurlough
    could you say that this isn't an inversion of Magical Negro or a Mighty Whitey because the aforementioned tropes have the influence being more or less effortless, while White Mans Burden explicitly shows the mentor struggling, thus emphasizing how grateful the blck person should be? Or have I gotten it wrong?
  • April 3, 2010
    DragonQuestZ
    Not sure about The Blind Side, since that's a true story. Also To Kill A Mockingbird is more about justice than this trope.
  • April 3, 2010
    Sackett
  • April 3, 2010
    joeyjojo
    Glurge whines talks about this in the introduction.
  • April 3, 2010
    rjung
    @Ajardoor: No, Mighty Whitey is about a white person joining a new culture and quickly becoming the most skilled at it. White Mans Burden is about a white character as a "rescuer" to a down-on-his-luck minority, and improving their life through sheer devotion and determination. Ever notice you never see a work with a well-to-do black character selflessly helping some disadvantaged white guy...

    @Mimimurlough: I think you got a good point there.

    @DragonQuestZ: Yeah, there's definitely some Truth In Television involved. Doesn't mean it's not tropeable, though.

    @joeyjojo: What's Glurge?

  • April 4, 2010
    Arivne
    @rjung: I assume that joeyjojo meant the trope page Glurge.
  • April 4, 2010
    Tezcat
    Finding Forrester - White man inspires Black kid to write. White man also learns about 'the true value of friendship' or some other sugary moral.
  • April 4, 2010
    joeyjojo
    yes i did thanks
  • April 4, 2010
    Unknown Troper
    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 and tells him "God Bless your guilty white ass!" For this reason, I'd call it "Guilty White Affirmative Ass".

  • April 4, 2010
    randomsurfer
    ^^but finds out about his and tells him

    Finds out about his what?
  • April 4, 2010
    joeyjojo
    i believe Hancock is either a Accidental Aesop or at least Sub Text. Hancock isn't "black" so much as Will Smith and Michael initially assumed he was an space man.
  • April 4, 2010
    GoatBoy
  • April 4, 2010
    rjung
    @joeyjojo: It's not the focus of Hancock, but it's a notable Sub Text -- give a black guy superpowers and he's still an incompetent super-hero, and only the efforts of the selfless white guy can get him to reform himself. There's no reason why the do-gooder in Hancock couldn't have been played by a Cliff Huxtable-style white-collar professional, after all.
  • April 5, 2010
    animeg3282
    Even if it's a true story, films like this tend to make the white 'helpers' the center, when the real story tends to be more complex.
  • April 5, 2010
    Unknown Troper
    Finding Forrester actually is closer to an inversion of Magical Negro since the black kid is the protagonist and the white mentor a somewhat mysterious benefactor.
  • April 5, 2010
    joeyjojo
    If so say so rjung. i'm not auguring there's Unfortunate Implications of casting a black man in the role of a bum superhero.

    You know this might not not be a Broken Aesop when taking at face value: 'white people can help minorities reach full their potential'. It's Aesop not a best messages to tell people but the story still supports it. The only way for it to be broken is for their white mentor not being needed or actually make things worst.
  • April 6, 2010
    Almafeta
    I'd like to defend this trope a little; it's a combination of a pro-philanthropy message (those with should help those without) and an anti-discrimination message. I think it's more of a case of Some Anvils Need To Be Dropped (with a touch of Dead Horse Trope) than a Broken Aesop.

    This was really popular about a century or two ago, as tales were crafted to promote philanthropic pursuits. Example par excallance: Charles Dickens.
  • April 6, 2010
    rjung
    I'm not actually interested in judging whether this trope is "good" or "bad" in any way -- after all, Tropes Are Tools. I'm simply noting the prevalence of the "white person helps disadvantaged minority" plot, which, as inspiring as it may be, also carries some Unfortunate Implications and Sub Text along the way. Just once in a while I'd like to see a story about a well-off minority helping out some destitute white guy, along with all the struggling and heroic efforts that goes along with it.
  • April 6, 2010
    MatthewTheRaven
    It only really gets problematic when the implication is that minorities should be oh so grateful that a white person deigned to help them solve the mess they made. On the reverse, the criticism of the trope sometimes verges into "White people should help minorities. They're only doing it out of guilt."
  • April 6, 2010
    Unknown Troper
    The film Reign Over Me inverts this trope.
  • April 6, 2010
    FFShinra
    Oh definately yes for this. A whole subgenre of drama films dedicated to this deserves its own trope.

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