Take up The White Man’s Burden: “The blessings of civilization and progress to barbaric non-Western, non-Christian, non-white people”


“Take up the White Man’s burden— Send forth the best ye breed— Go bind your sons to exile, to serve your captives’ need; To wait in heavy harness, On fluttered folk and wild— Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child.”

Cultural Imperialism 

What is the white man’s burden nowadays? What is the mission of the white, Christian, Western man in a world made up of an infinite tapestry of cultures, traditions, religions, languages and beliefs? Why the white man is always right, and the rest is wrong? Why do democracies always have to be right even if they are not? 

We are products of an imperial neo-colonial world, where the understanding of our societies is based on Western ideals and beliefs imposed on the rest of the global population. For centuries, particularly from the 15th century to the 20th century, the mission of civilisation marked the history of our society following a long period of colonialism in which global superpowers justified themselves with the civilising mission. If we travel back in time, religions also legitimised long periods of power, imposing beliefs along with inquisition under the thought that societies that practised Western religions (catholicism) were the “civilised ones”, yet how civilised were the executions of those who committed heresy? 

Biases of Perception 

During the era of colonialism, those who were non-western, non-Christian, non-white people were barbaric societies waiting for the help of a foreign Western power to bring the blessings of civilisation, technology and culture to their territory. For ethnocentric white societies, “the barbaric” were waiting to be saved through trade, growth, industrialisation and Western values.

Sadly, today, decades after a long colonial period and an era of decolonisation, there are still societies where this type of hegemonic imperial thinking predominates. In an era of globalisation, international trade, connectivity, and technology, you would expect the global community to become more educated and exposed to all cultures and regions of the world. Yet, our world is plagued by biases of perception towards former colonies and non-western territories. 

Culture: a “Network of artificial Instincts”

(Y.N. Harari)

Modernisation theory has failed to provide a valid framework to analyse countries’ development and economic growth. It’s a theory widely accepted by most scholars yet one of the most Western-centered. It defines development as an oversimplification of social change through the standards of Western capitalist systems; undermining the value of culture and traditions. It is relevant to understand that a particular model, successful in explaining the path of development for Europe and the United States at a specific time, is not applicable to the rest of the world at a different setting and stage on Earth. Is this the only development model where societies can succeed, or can societies develop an adaptative model to their culture?

Apart from modernisation theory on development, the story of socialism alongside liberalism has also failed to provide an efficient world system; liberal capitalist democracies have proven to be one of the best systems in existence. Nevertheless, it still needs to solve the wicked crisis of poverty and inequality, where 87 per cent of wealth is distributed among the wealthiest 10 per cent. Isn’t that alarming? 

Moreover, the Western story of “Aid” is dead. The economist Dambissa Moyo argues that countries receiving aid are much worse off, as aid perpetuates dynamics of corruption, dependency, and political influence and puts the aid giver in a position of superiority against the aid receiver. Is there a way to promote growth and development without neocolonial structures and unbalanced power? 

Apart from theories failing to explain the structures and behaviours of societies, new forms of government are on the rise, some of them rejecting the idea of a globalised system under the coexistence of a multicultural tapestry; far-right populism embraces nationalism, rejecting the story of a unified world, separating “us and them”, and promoting dynamics of national ethnocentrism.

However, the main problem is not the political system itself; it is the promotion of viewing the world through a broken lens that keeps society away from understanding other groups’ cultural practices in their cultural context. The separation between the West and the East keeps the world systematically divided into cultures and ideologies, classifying the “bad” and “good” in the global arena. 

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The Blessings of Western Civilizations; “Democracies”

Democracies are always right. In an era of global turmoil, the perception of societies under non-democratic governments is mainly negative; there is a bias of perception towards other cultural groups based on the political systems the country rules; nevertheless, what’s society’s fault for being under a flawed political system, is that the reason why for many, societies under non-western systems are barbaric and praying for western imperialists to save them?

Viewing the world through the lens of ethnocentrism is the main problem; “Ethnocentrism is a term applied to the cultural or ethnic bias in which an individual views the world from the perspective of his or her own group, establishing the in-group as archetypal and rating all other groups with reference to this ideal” (Oxford, 2023). Society uses its own culture as the centre and standard to evaluate and judge other cultural norms, values or beliefs, causing an inability to understand cultures that are different from their own and creating judgements against other cultural groups with inherent superiority.

These judgements happen at the community and global levels, with power dynamics being discriminatory against other cultural groups. In the political arena, wrongful actions perpetuated by democracies or Western powers tend to be justified just for the sake of being ruled under a democratic or liberal government; Nevertheless, when a non-western, non-white, non-christian, non-democratic government commits a wrongful act, these are condemned and harshly punished by the global arena. Imperialism persists not only in community-level dynamics but also on the global stage.

Although the world is becoming increasingly globalised and interconnected, the global community lacks mutual understanding and empathy between different cultural groups; biases are perpetuated and promoted systematically in media, movies, literature and the news, emphasising all the good the West has done for the so-called “barbaric” behaviours of non-western groups of people, measuring cultural values and traditions with a Eurocentric standard. These behaviours of cultural ethnocentrism cause a social inability to adequately understand other cultural traditions and social dynamics in different regions of the world, making it the antigen of anthropology, bringing both a challenge and an area of study that overlaps with the theory of cultural relativity.

Final thoughts

It is relevant to ask ourselves where this behaviour is coming from. Society performs it without awareness, sometimes it is not the individual’s fault. Still, the social environment of individuals might be the reason for developing an unconscious cultural Eurocentric bias that ends up translating as behaviours of ethnocentrism, with the belief that the West is advanced and the rest lacks cultural values and civilisation.

The world urgently needs cross-cultural understanding to erase the systemic biases that keep our world apart. Indeed liberal democracies have developed the most efficient systems to achieve economic growth and higher levels of well-being; however, it has developed a collective Western consciousness of cultural ethnocentrism towards the less developed regions of the world, keeping alive structures of inherent superiority. 

Emanuel Mayagoitia
Emanuel Mayagoitia
Highly motivated International Relations student with a passion for global politics and a strong understanding of international relations theories. Strong research and analytical skills, with experience in policy analysis and cross-cultural communication. Seeking opportunities to apply skills and knowledge to real-world issues.

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