This question came up in a debate over this question: What exactly is the concept (or main idea) of "The White Man's Burden" in Imperialism?

Two relatively high rep people on the site tried to answer the question with either direct, or indirect references to Kipling's poem, "Take up the white man's burden." This attracted criticism and downvotes for "not answering the question."

But one commenter had this opinion (which I endorse):

"It is bizarre to answer the question without referring to the poem... It would be like discussing the phrase "government of the people, by the people, for the people" as if there had never been a Gettysburg Address and Lincoln had never lived."

I believe that an extremely sophisticated questioner could use a quote independently of its original context by defining "his version" of the quote. But the OP did not fall into this category. He was a first time user, who appeared to be "fishing" for an answer.

I almost wanted to edit the question by inserting a link to the poem in the question. Should I have done this? I decided instead to lead by example and cite the poem in the answer, answering what I believe was the OP's "implicit" question. Was I wrong to do this?

Could the question have been answered a "better" way? Or was the issue was that the question was bad?

  • 1
    The quote from my comment that you include in this question (could you please edit it so it stands out in a quote block?) pretty much sums up my position. Your answer wasn't bad but it also wasn't great: too brief, did not situate the poem in the context of its time, did not pursue a timeline of how the notion of the White Man's Burden influenced discourse and how it changed afterward if it lingered (and what were its historical antecedents). The question was slapdash and vague. A link to the poem would improve it somewhat but OP really needs to pinpoint what s/he wants to know. Sep 22, 2013 at 0:18

3 Answers 3


A link to the poem would be an appropriate edit IMO. But that won't make the question relevant to History. The question needs to cite or ask about historians who refer to the concept. A better question would be:

"Kipling in his poem refers to 'the White Mans Burden' (citation for poem). Have historians dealt with such a concept? How do they explain it?

Although such a question could be construed as a request for references.

But your answer was down-voted not because you referred to the poem, but because it did not answer the question as stated. The question did not ask for the origin of the term, but what it meant - your answer failed to address that. The other answer was downvoted not because it had something to do with the poem, but because it gave no references or substantiation.

An appropriate answer to the question would along the lines of:

The origin for the term is Kipling's poem (citation) and historians A and B explain that it means "X", while historians Y and Z disagree with the entire notion. Etc...

  • So the problem with my answer was that it presented only one (Kipling) side, and not alternative possibilities. Then I need to think about whether to improve or delete the answer.
    – Tom Au
    Sep 21, 2013 at 18:13
  • 2
    No. Again: the problem with your answer is that it did not answer the question! The question asks for an explanation, you offer NONE - merely a reference to the poem. In my answer here I explain how an answer should look. Lennart took that route somewhat but failed to present any references.
    – user2590
    Sep 21, 2013 at 18:15
  • I might add references when get more time. I thought the question would get closed, and I also thought the answer was uncontroversial. I still do, in fact. :-) Sep 22, 2013 at 2:44
  • @LennartRegebro - I thought your answer was right on point - not at all controversial. It's just that you didn't cite anything, and it's a subject with many available references.
    – user2590
    Sep 22, 2013 at 5:33

Some concepts have on a life of their own, quite apart from the origin of our name for them.

For example, while we might criticize an answer to a question about the doctrine of "Unconditional Surrender" that didn't mention General Grant or the Civil war, I'd be surprised if most of our answers about a question on Jingoism bothered to mention the beer-hall song the term came from (even though it illustrates the concept rather well).

To my mind the phrase "White Man's burden" is rather more on the side of Jingoism. While a poem may have originated the term, it describes a certain attitude of the times that was already around and would have been around just the same had the term never been invented. IMHO describing that properly is much more important than the trivia of the term's etymology.



"The white mans burden" is both a concept, and a poem. I personally didn't even know it was a poem until I answered the question, but as a concept I'm well aware of it and has encountered it in many discussions about racism and imperialism.

The question was explicitly about the concept, and not about the poem. I answered it as such, especially considering this is not a site for discussing poems.

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