This trope is about a plot where an ordinary white character meets an underprivileged character of color. 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 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 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 Anvilicious or Family-Unfriendly Aesop in the hands of a poor creator. Save Our Students plots frequently involve this trope. It can also involve White Guilt, especially if the person is helping out of a desire to not be Mistaken for Racist. In general, there tends to be a barely-hidden subtext of Condescending Compassion.
The origins of this trope goes back to the days when white people set about 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 intended by Kipling to remind America 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. and without any fantasies or pretenses that they are doing it for freedom. Rather Kipling insists you must take your duty with monk-like commitment and better the lives of people who will hate you and continue to hate you because they simply cannot know better. Sometimes the white people have genuinely good intentions but more deconstructive works will portray them as having ulterior motives, such as conquest and exploitation. And even when they don't have ulterior motives, they are often ethnocentric, thinking more about what would make white people happy (as if the natives are white, or could potentially be) rather than what constitutes happiness in the native culture.
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 culture of color, while White Man's Burden characters pull a person of color out of their native culture. Also contrast with Angry White Man, who resents non-Europeans - and often subconsciously believes himself to be inferior to them - rather than pitying them. Then there's Feeling Oppressed by Their Existence, which is when the people themselves are a burden to the white man.
This trope has (mostly) not much to do with the 1995 film White Man's Burden.
- A 2015 Coca-Cola ad was widely accused of this, in it a group of white teen hipsters are seen traveling to a remote indigenous Mexican village in order to "Bring them Christmas joy", there they start giving out Coke bottles to the sad-looking natives and then they build them a Christmas tree made of coke bottles in the middle of the town. Because of the outrage from several groups that advocate for the rights of indigenous people in Mexico the ad was immediately pulled and Coca-Cola issued an apology for it.
- The entire plot of Gate is essentially an inversion of this. The Empire, a morally bankrupt Fantasy Counterpart Culture of Rome, opens an otherworldly gate to Earth and attacks Japan, only to get utterly curb-stomped. The JSDF then goes through the gate and proceeds to lay waste to the technologically inferior nations army. Along the way, many citizens of the Empire begin to look up to the benevolent Japanese soldiers who are occupying their nation and making it better with their mere presence. The series typically goes out of it's way to portray the Japanese as far more tolerant, moral, and understanding than just about every other country on Earth, resulting in most people from the Empire wishing their culture were more like Japan's.
- 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.
- Even though the story behind Dallas Buyers Club is true, it is a hand-picked anecdote about a straight man helping to get HIV medication for a host of gay and trans individuals. It ignored the many similar stories of LGBT people around the United States at the same time doing the same hard word for their own mistreated community. Tellingly, the main protagonist is implicitly a straight man, yet his real life counterpart was bisexual.
- 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 the 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.
- Defied in The Butler. Richard Nixon, loitering around the kitchens, inquires about the salaries of the black staff and promises that under his Presidency, such wage disparities will be corrected. Of course, an egalitarian White House is not in the cards, at least not under Nixon's watch: the Southern Baptists sealed his election victory.
- 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 Reeves teaching baseball to inner-city kids.
- In Freedom Writers, Erin Gruwell does this for a whole class of minorities and a Token White.
- 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 September 11 terrorist attacks.
- The Last Samurai Inverted in that the movie is a case of counteracting the damaging influence of White Man's Burden.
- 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 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 James 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. In the novel, Skeeter's narration even explicitly says, "Being white, I feel it's my duty to help them." One of the housekeepers depicted in the film sued the author for stealing her life story.
- The Soloist is this trope, with Robert Downey, Jr. as a white journalist trying to help mentally 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.
- 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.
- 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. They feel that they are required to teach the natives how to give birth and how to wash their babies, and naturally, the heathen savages have to be converted.
- White Man's Burden: This film is about an alternate America with a Stereotype Flip where whites and blacks switch places in the social-economic ladder. It doesn't feature this trope (or rather, its inversion) particularly much since the well-off black deuteragonist Thaddeus regards lower class whites such as protagonist Louis with contempt and racial prejudice, but his wife does support a charity to help poor white youths from the inner cities.
- The Lives of a Bengal Lancer: Col. Stone's XO explains that Stone is the way he is because attention to duty above all else is the only way "a handful of men" can rule over 300 million natives in British India. This being a film made in Hollywood in the 1930s, the justice of Britain's rule over India isn't even questioned.
- Black Panther (2018) inverts this trope as Black Man's Burden being the main motivation of N'Jobu and his son Erik, as they became disillusioned to see the oppression of African-descended people outside of Wakanda and come to believe that the world under control of Wakanda would have been better off for everyone. The irony of the title and its origins are not lost on the characters In-Universe, as T'Challa points out Killmonger has become Not So Different from the colonists using that justification who he hates so much.
- Up the Down Staircase has an idealistic new teacher named Sylvia Barrett teaching at an inner-city New York school in the 1960s. Her students are multiracial however a good chunk are POC.
- 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 admits the colonized cultures' righteous anger 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 recent critics, in an ameliorative tradition, have tried to interpret it as a Stealth Parody, but Kipling was quite explicitly telling Americans, "It's your turn now, and this is what you're letting yourselves in for! Don't pretend you are spreading democracy or doing it for anything other white supremacy".
- 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 (10 Galleons a week and weekends off), and Dobby, insisting that he is unusual but not inelfin, talked him down to wages that are just short of slavery (One Galleon a week and one day off a month).
- It's especially odd since she seems to have no problem with the treatment of all the other sentient races the wizards are oppressing. The Goblins have outright rebelled against their second-class-citizen status several times while the Centaurs and Merfolk are forced into reservations, yet she seems completely ambivalent about their problems. Of course it's likely has to do with the fact that, as Hogwarts student, Hermione is directly benefiting from the house-elves' work. They make her food, they launder her clothes, they clean the dormitories she lives in. The treatment of goblins and centaurs and merfolk are more distant issues; this one is personal for her.
- Gellert Grindelwald had a very patronizing attitude toward Muggles, whom he wanted to conquer and rule "for the greater good," much like how European imperialists claimed to be conquering non-white societies for the non-white people's own good. Grindelwald managed to get Dumbledore on his side for a while, but Dumbledore eventually realized that Grindelwald was full of bull and stopped him.
- 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.
- Subverted in Sarny. Ex-slaves Sarny and her friend get taken in by a rich, white woman after The American Civil War. However it turns out Miss Laura is multiracial and very white passing. She hides her hair under a scarf.
- A rather twisted version is seen in the Lankhmar Ghouls from Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser; a race with naturally translucent flesh that causes them to look like skeletons, they consider this to be the physical proof of their belief that they are the paragons of civilization and enlightenment. Consequently, it's their sacred duty to uplift other sapient beings... by eating them, so their "muddy" flesh will be transmuted into superior crystal-clear flesh.
- Mercilessly taken down in Heart of Darkness. The protagonist initially believes that the colonial effort in Congo is uplifting the "savages". When he gets there, he finds that the "civilized" colonials are simply power-hungry mass murderers, enslaving and slaughtering the natives in an effort to rip as much wealth as they can out of Africa. This reaches its logical conclusion with Kurtz, an extremely intelligent and talented European who simply dropped all pretense of civilization and is more or less carrying out a genocide against the natives. Incidentally, while they're usually presented very stereotypically, many of the "savages" are more sensible and civilized than the white men.
- 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!"
- 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 two-part Doctor Who episode "Human Nature" / "The Family of Blood", 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 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.
- 30 Rock is actually a fairly interesting example as a recurring theme; Tracy tends to act irresponsibly and cause a lot of damage but accuse anyone of trying to reign him in of racism; a major part of the reason Liz assumes he is illiterate is because he doesn't bother to even read his lines off the cue cards, instead ad-libbing whatever comes to mind. Liz meanwhile is so paranoid enough about being racist (and at times naive on racial relations) that she can often can come off very condescending and racist to other characters. Overall, Liz does manage to reign in Tracy and even contribute to his development over the show's run, but it comes across as being due to their extended interaction as friends and colleagues rather than out of any sense of white guilt.
- Also parodied in the fictional films that Tracy proclaims to be an expert in starring in.
- Parodied in a Mitchell and Webb Look sketch about an episode of a fictitious show called Speedo. The episode is supposed to revolve around a rich white lawyer (the eponymous Speedo) who tries to help a young black kid accused of a murder he didn't commit, but becomes a Broken Aesop when the actor playing Speedo dies and the character is recast as another black guy... without changing any of the lines that acknowledge the supposed race barrier between them.
- 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 (a change from the books where Drogo was surprisingly gentle with her right from the start) to traveling across Essos liberating slave cities, this is essentially the running theme in her story.
- Daenerys is fast learning of the pitfalls this trope carries, as her "salvation" of the slaves is not going so well. In the books it's going much worse, because she was incredibly shortsighted about who she left in power behind her. The result is that one city resumed slavery the minute she walked away, while the other collapsed into civil wars and was ultimately reconquered by the slavers.
- 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.
- Suzanne's adoptive parents in Orange Is the New Black try hard to integrate her into their white cultural norms. It's possibly because of this insistence on ignoring her blackness that she grew up with deep-seeded psychological issues and ultimately wound up in jail.
- Community: Played for Laughs when the Dean and Pierce (both white) work to create a school mascot that has no racist or cultural implications at all. The "Greendale Human Being" ends up as a horrifyingly featureless person of indeterminate gender in a white bodysuit with an accidental Slasher Smile crudely drawn on.
Dean: Well, we've solved racism!
- The Charity Motivation Song "Do They Know It's Christmas?" by Band Aid has often been accused of this. Lyrics include "You ain't gotta feel guilt just selfless / Give a little help to the helpless / Do they know it's Christmastime at all?" (from the 2004 version of the song). Then there's the staggering Unfortunate Implications of the line, "Tonight, thank God it's them instead of you." (Bono, who sung that line, has said that even at the time he disliked it and only did it very reluctantly. Probably why in the 2014 remake of the song, the line Bono sung was changed to "Tonight, we're reaching out and touching you.")
- Space 1889 most white people believe in this (though Kipling's poem hasn't been published yet in 1889).
- The Aliens of Bleak World have this view of themselves, seeing humanity as a disenfranchised race they must experiment on for the greater good.
- Warhammer 40,000: The Tau see it as their duty to advance the Greater Good (all species working together for the, well, greater good of all), even if it means using mind control and sterilization camps to do it. It comes off as less controversial than most examples, as the other species (Vespid and Kroot) are known to keep their own customs (and the Kroot are known to do mercenary work for other species), the Tau genuinely provide better lives for their own, and of course, the fact that almost everyone else in the setting is either an Absolute Xenophobe, Always Chaotic Evil, or a Horde of Alien Locusts.
- In the Mrs Hawking play series: Thoroughly deconstructed in part IV: Gilded Cages, where young Victoria Stanton's attempt to ally with the struggles of her maid Malaika Shah have disastrous results.
- 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. He also has a very narrow definition of "white" which doesn't include, for instance, the Irish.
- Dragon Age: Inquisition: There's a bit of a Fantasy Counterpart Culture aspect to this with Morrigan, a human (Medieval European-equivalent) who takes it upon herself to revive the forgotten ancient magics and lore of the settings Enslaved Elves (Jew/Roma/Afro-Native American counterpart), who lost their lore due to humans conquering and enslaving them in the first place. While her intentions are good, the game makes it clear that she considers herself to be the only one who can revive ancient elven lore, since she doesn't believe any modern elves are capable of helping themselves. The narrative doesn't seem to disagree with her.
- Fire Emblem Awakening plays with this on a few occasions.
- 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).
- While it's race-inverted, this was the original goal of Gangrel. Because everyone on his continent was getting worried about Walhart above, Gangrel got the bright idea to match him strength-for-strength by forging his own empire to protect the land in the event of Walhart invading. However, while he started out with noble intentions, he couldn't keep his ambition in check, became a slave to it and ended up as exactly the same kind of tyrant Walhart was. In his supports, he tries to seek atonement but ultimately believes that he's crossed so many lines that he just can't go back.
- 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.
- The Cracked parody, A Trailer for Every Academy Award Winning Movie Ever has Wealthy, Successful Protagonist trying to teach a Latino student to believe in himself, being a lawyer for an African-American man, and fighting with the "Native American metaphor" against the "US military metaphor".
- After the controversy about the lack of non-white nominees at the 2016 Academy Awards, Super Deluxe made a parody trailer for an "Oscar contender" version of Straight Outta Compton that changed the film into a White Savior narrative with Jerry Heller as the protagonist.
- In Avatar: The Last Airbender, the Fire Nation's official reason for conquering and colonizing the rest of the world is to "share their greatness" with the rest of the world. Certainly, Fire Lords Azulon and Ozai don't care about that and they just want to be the supreme rulers of everything, but that was Fire Lord 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, something that Sozin also realized at the very end of his life, too late to change things.
- Similar to above, in Thunder Cats 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, Cartman teaches them how to successfully cheat on the tests. He also passes as Hispanic himself ("Cartmenez"), mainly by doing an atrocious accent.
Cartmenez: How can I reach these keeedz?!
- Steven Universe: For all their righteousness and willingness to protect Earth, the Crystal Gems don't think particularly highly of humans, often having a downright condescending attitude towards most of them. (Steven is an exception, of course). Part of this stems from the fact that Gems not only are inherently super strong, powerful and have several advantages over humans, but also because the main heroines haven't bothered to learn much more about mankind despite all the time they have stayed on Earth. Greg has often called them out on how the only human they seem to truly care for is Steven himself, albeit this is somewhat toned down for Amethyst, who has had a human friend named Vidalia and still maintains a healthy friendship with her.