This trope is about a plot where an ordinary, ethnically-European (white) person meets an underprivileged non-ethnic-Euro character. Taking pity on the other character's plight, they selflessly volunteer themselves as the other's 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 Magic 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 this 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 AnviliciousBroken Aesop or Family-Unfriendly Aesop in the hands of a poor creator. Save Our Students plots frequently involve this trope.
A common deconstructive variant of this trope involves white people conquering non-white people and eliminating their culture under the pretext of helping them. This comes from the Trope Namer, Rudyard Kipling's poem "White Man's Burden," which is generally read as a justification for Western imperialism but was in fact the exact opposite - an exhortation for the United States to leave the Philippines (which it had just won from Spain) a better place than it found it, with no expectation of profiting from it. Sometimes the white people have genuinely good intentions but more deconstructive works will portray the white people as having ulterior motives, such as conquest and exploitation.
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.
This trope has nothing to do with the 1995 film White Man's Burden.
open/close all folders
The New 52 reintroduction of Wally West has came under fire for this, due to Wally getting a Race Lift to make him half-black, but also being given a highly angst-filled life and making him a troubled delinquent who Barry Allen tries to reach out for and help as a favour to his friend Iris. Wally is almost made completely unrecognizable as his previous self, and the story, with his previous, more fun personality and positive relationship with Barry and the Flash now gone, leading to accusations of racism.
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; the project was partly mentored by said pro football player who did not approve of the end product, especially in the way the family "taught" him how to play football, which he declares is something he came into their lives already great at.
Dangerous Minds: Michelle Pfeiffer teaches minority students in an inner city school, Based on a True Story, though the real life version included a significant number of white students.
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.
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 due to his standardized test scores. 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 mutualistic relationship between the two.
The Ryan Gosling film Half Nelson is a Deconstruction of this self-congratulatory genre. The hip white teacher (Gosling) turns out to be a drug addict and massive hypocrite, which only serves to alienate his black protege and push her into the arms of the neighborhood drug dealer (Anthony Mackie).
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 Birth of a Nation plays this to some extent really horribly, with Austin Stoneman's mulatto protégé Silas. The writer of the original The Klansman novel, Thomas Dixon, believed that mixed-race people inherited the worst stereotypical personality traits of both races, so Austin Stoneman's treatment of Silas as an equal human being only fueled Silas' dark side.
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.
The Help, based on a novel, features Skeeter helping black maids get recognition for their hard work.
Shooter zig-zags this trope: the Big Bad sincerely states that White Man's Burden (in its original sense, see entry about Kipling's poem) was one of his main motivations and then he shows that even the best motivation is not mutually exclusive with blatantly unethical behavior.
Played with in 42; while the movie focuses on Jackie Robinson's efforts, Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey is never far behind, either to support Robinson or to destroy all objections to Robinson's integration into Major League Baseball.
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 interpret 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!"
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 and the Goblet of Fire is basically this. It's portrayed in-universe as a bad thing, and she gets called on it by practically everyone. Even an inattentive 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, as house-elves normally like to be enslaved and freedom is looked down upon. The house elves themselves find her crusade and methods (such as hiding clothing under trash so they will be freed upon picking it up) to be an insult to their race.
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.
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.
Referenced in the Hoka short stories, where the idea has been revived in the future as "spaceman's burden", the idea that humanity is obliged to Uplift any primitive species they come across and convert them to facsimiles of human culture. The protagonist's experiences with the results of introducing human culture to the eponymous overly-imaginative teddy bears indicates to him that this might not be the best idea (or actually possible) given physiological and fundamental psychological differences.
The Tortall Universe series Daughter of the Lioness has white Aly masterminding a revolution of Asian people. Some even go so far as to say she serves no real point to the story, and is stealing what should by all rights be the story of her friend Dove. In-universe, the luarin (white) royals and nobles have this view about the native raka as a partial justification for subjugating them, even though the raka had a well-established culture, architecture, and royal line previous to the invasion.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: During a funeral for Arnold's grandmother, a wealthy white collector of Indian art makes an appearance to return a powwow dance outfit he claims belonged to her. Though his manner of speech is polite, his tone is very condescending, calling the man who previously offered him the outfit a "thief" and referring to Arnold's mother as "dearest daughter". It is made quite obvious that he expects the Indians to be grateful to him for returning the outfit, but they instead turn him down politely.
Parodied in a MADtv 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!"
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 Duquan "Dukie", 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 Dukie's descent into addiction.
Parodied in an episode of 30 Rock, where after a misunderstanding, Liz comes to believe that Tracy is illiterate. She bends over backwards trying to make things easier for Tracy, and at the end of the show it's revealed that Tracy can read just fine and has been screwing with Liz for his own amusement. When she asks why, he points out that her smug white savior attitude is itself quite racist.
Also parodied in the fictional films that Tracy proclaims to be an expert in starring in.
The Season 3 finale of Game of Thrones has come under fire for this, with the final scene showing Daenerys crowd-surfing over a bunch of black and brown slaves she just liberated as they lovingly chant "Mother!" at her. Considering that she's currently on a conquering spree across Essos and has just taken their city, these former slaves may just be savvy enough to realise that free or not, this benevolent conqueror with the large army and dragons at her command is still going to be their "master" at the end of the day. This is also something of a case of Real Life Writes the Plot, as the scene was filmed in Morocco and white extras (as were seen in the book's equivalent scene) simply weren't available.
Note that in the books, the slaves are by no means uniformly brown. Some are even Valyrian in looks—silver-haired and purple-eyed, like Daenerys herself.
This applies to Daenerys's story in general even without this scene. From teaching her initially savage rapist husband to be a gentle lover with her Western values to travelling across Essos liberating slave cities, this is essentially the running theme in her story.
The pilot of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. features a team of (mostly) white government types trying to help working class Angry Black Man, because he was screwed over by his white manager. Later episodes are better about avoiding this.
Space 1889 most white people believe in this (though Kipling's poem hasn't been published yet in 1889).
Zachary Hale Comstock of BioShock Infinite is a believer of this, and takes it well past the point of Unfortunate Implications and into outright rationalization of slavery, detesting Abraham Lincoln for emancipating blacks from what he percieves as their "rightful place". He believes that, as the only animal born free, it is the white man's duty to shepherd and nurture all other races.
This is more or less what Walhart wants to do on a global scale. Since his Valmese Empire is the strongest and most advanced nation on the land, he wants to make everyone a part of it so that they can share in its prosperity... by conquering the shit out of them. By the time he's introduced to the plot, he's already conquered one land (full of Fantasy Counterpart Culture French and Japanese) and is moving on to the one the heroes are from (which consist mostly of Fantasy Counterpart Culture European, Arabic, and Black people).
Homestuck: the Beforan society, in which the higher-caste trolls were expected to take care of the lower-caste trolls, has hints of this trope, with Kankri actually mentioning "blue blood's burden" by name. Cronus in particular seems to think he should be rewarded just for stooping to treat the lower castes as equals.
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.
Though the comic tie-in The Promise plays it oddly straight: one of the original Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom has now become fully assimilated with citizens of both countries living together peacefully and numerous romantic relationships between them, leading to children who are proud of having both countries in their heritage. But you'll still never see a Fire Nation citizen shining the shoes of someone from the Earth Kingdom, something that is blithely glossed over and never brought up again.
The trope is tossed back and forth in the comic really. While there is some inequality, the leader of the Fire Nation recognises that the inequality isn't good and would prefer it fixed. Yet its also pointed out that while he disagrees with it on principle, it's true that the war, as horrible as it was, did legitimately improve some things. The people of the joint colony are living better lives than they would have been a hundred years ago, which to him justifies an unequal social ladder that could at least be fixed with time.
Similar to above, in ThunderCats (2011), the Cats believe that they were the ones who defeated Mumm-Ra and brought order to the land, and now preserve that order through their strength. While they were right about one Cat defeating Mumm-Ra, the rest is just an excuse to oppress the other races of Third Earth, and in the end it ends up getting Thundera destroyed once Mumm-Ra returns and recruits the lizard race to his side.
South Park lampoons the Dangerous Minds example (alongside a more recent example with a Hispanic man as the teacher) in "Eek! A Penis!" by, instead of actually teaching those students math, he teaches them how to successfully cheat on the tests.