Blog Post 4: White Tears, White Tears

Hi all,

This week we shift gears to look at material of a different sort, namely Kunzru’s novel White Tears — at the same time as we move from smaller objects and texts to a longer narrative work, we’re also shifting our focus from material and aesthetic appropriation to how those kinds of processes play into cultural appropriation, and we’ll look at the essays by Malik and Bradford as reference points for the ongoing debate on these issues. While this is different material, we’ll still be concerned with some of the same overarching concerns — how Kunzru represents the aesthetic, philosophical, cultural, and sociopolitical stakes of appropriation, and how our ongoing questions of authorship and ownership play out in this different literary context.

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Since this is our first of a few days with this text, you should use this blog post to begin thinking about some of these issues: what’s Kunzru saying about questions of cultural appropriation? How does the form of the novel as a narrative text relate to that? What claims or responses to the issues in the articles does he seem to offer, or critique, or refuse? You’re free to take your thinking about this material in whatever direction strikes you as significant, as long as you quote and discuss material from the novel and at least one of the essays.

Reminder: Your writing should go in the comments section for this post — click on the link near the top of this post where it says “Leave a Comment.” It should be at least 300 words, and is due by midnight Tuesday, September 26. If you have any questions, let me know via email.

20 thoughts on “Blog Post 4: White Tears, White Tears”

  1. Through simply being a writer of a fiction novel, Hari Kunzru tries to walk the fine line between “cultural appropriation and the practice of writing characters with very different identities from [himself]” (Bradford 2). Kunzru is a 48 year old white British male who wrote a novel about twenty-something recent white graduates from a liberal arts college. Now, one is less likely to think that this choice of subject is cultural appropriation since it is one highly-privileged and powerful identity writing about another, but one may argue that his depictions of Seth and Carter (among his other characters who are both more and less “powerful” than the two mains) qualify as cultural appropriation. I think that would be ridiculous, since Kunzru clearly put in the “hard work to [write characters from minority or marginalized identities] well” from my perspective but there it is (Bradford 3).

    With that meta-level analysis out of the way, literally the text is ambiguous on which side it takes. On the one hand, the actual events of the matter seem to support Bradford’s side that cultural appropriation has (and should have) serious repercussions. In Carter’s pursuit of the original “Charlie Shaw”, he gets beaten up. There are physical consequences for his actions. On the other hand, since the narration is done by Seth, it is hard not to be sympathetic to Carter’s side; he potentially got beaten up for being in the wrong place in the wrong time with nothing to do with the fake-but-real song. In my view, the closest this book gets to out-and-out criticism of those who appropriate is the very comic figure of the white rapper that comes into Seth and Carter’s studio. The details of him are laughable: he comes in since he “was always giving quotes about feeling ‘humble’ or ‘in awe’ of one or other canonical black star. Now, he explained, it was time to take his humility a step further” (Kunzru 29). He even calls this album “My Past Lives”; this clearly-white, clearly-unconnected rapper feels so connected to these African American forefathers of funk that he has the audacity to claim he essentially is one of them. That’s the sort of cultural appropriation that Bradford thinks is super harmful (despite all the humbleness on behalf of the rapper) and presumably Kunzru thinks the same through his depiction. Kunzru draws lines of what is cultural appropriation in less-abstract ways than either Bradford or Malik. Regardless, I overall think his text reads more nuanced than “all use of another culture’s work is bad”, but it is not making either Carter or Seth out as saints. It will be interesting to see how this develops.

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  2. It seems to me, in my first impression of the novel, that Kunzru may be focusing largely on the consequences of cultural appropriation. Already there is a strong awareness of cultural appropriation in the novel: Seth and Carter have literally recorded an African American’s voice without his knowledge and lied about the track belonging to the legacy of African American blues for possible monetary gain. In fact, Carter even explicitly described their action in terms of ownership: “we made it, fools! We made that shit last week! So who’s the expert now? Who knows the tradition? We do! We own that shit!” (61).

    Carter’s worship of African American music and his yearning to be a part of it – shown in his obsessive record collecting – ultimately indicates an inaccessibility of that art to him. It is almost a reversal of the phenomenon Bradford writes in her article, “Elvis and other rock and roll musicians were undoubtedly influenced by black innovators, but over time the genre came to be regarded as a cultural product created, perfected by, and only accessible to whites.” Now Carter finds himself on the outside, unable to enter a culture of a music he so desperately wants to be a part of – so he attempts to enter it through appropriation.

    Obviously, I haven’t finished the novel yet, so I don’t know where its themes are going to end up, but I predict that this question of ownership of the record (especially with the mysterious shadow of a real-life Charlie Shaw) and cultural appropriation still have room to grow. Ultimately, Carter and Seth will not be able to take ownership of “Shaw’s” voice because they do not belong to Shaw’s culture and are trying to enter it by the very power dynamic that Johnson, quoted by Bradford, describes: “Power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group” and, further explained by Bradford, “what complicates the situation is that those who tend to see appropriation as exchange are often the ones who profit from it.”

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  3. In White Tears, “Charlie Shaw’s” song is yet another example of the type of appropriation that we have studied. What interests me particularly is first, their method of appropriation. Having studied audio documentary I know first hand that a lot of soundscaping and audio production relies on the appropriation of sounds found around the producer. In the same way that Seth walked around New York City, I walked around Skidmore’s campus recording the everyday sounds around me. I probably captured conversations, I recorded doors, footsteps, writing, nature, pretty much the every day sounds of just existing at Skidmore. I don’t think I ever would have thought of this as appropriation until our discussions.

    I am also interested in the product of Carter and Seth’s appropriation, and its authenticity. They made a reproduction that was so real that someone believed it was an original (or so it seems as of page 92). That makes me wonder if anyone has ever thought, without the knowledge that we have, that work like Duchamp’s or Prince’s was an original. It is safe to assume that likely no one would look at “The Fountain” in a gallery and think it was a real, functional urinal. It doesn’t serve it’s original purpose. However Carter and Seth’s song is functional – people can actually listen to it in the same way they would listen to an actual original song. Their actions are appropriation but they are also cultural appropriation. Susan Scafidi, as quoted by Kenan Malik, defines cultural appropriation as “‘taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission’” (Malik, 2). This is essentially what Carter and Seth did when they first, recorded a man singing surreptitiously, and then did again when they remastered it and put it online as their own (albeit under a pseudonym).

    Another moment in which I thought about appropriation was on page 80. Seth has just arrived in the hospital and is trying to talk to Leonie about Carter’s condition. Leonie asks Seth “Is it, I don’t know, part of Carter’s black thing?…Do you get up to this ghetto shit with him…”. Carter’s family is, for all intents and purposes, very “high society”. They come from a lot of money and clearly don’t approve of the less-than high society way in which Carter lives. This conversation is, to me, the start of what I think may be a recurring conversation about race and appropriation.

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  4. Kunzru’s novel deals with appropriation in a different way than we have seen before. It tackles the issues of cultural appropriation within the music industry. In short, the beginning of the book narrates the story of two 20-something white men who walk around recording what they hear, and remix it into records. Seth captured a recording of a black man singing, and the two went on to publish it. They made up a name for the man, and essentially invented a black man from the past. Blues originated in the south during the peak of slavery in American history, and the inventors of blues where members of the Black community living in a racist society. By claiming that the record Seth and Carter produced was authentic completely undermines the importance of the history of Blues music and is a clear example of cultural appropriation. Carter even exclaims, “These fuckers think this music was made in 1928, but actually we made it…So who’s the expert now? Who knows the tradition? We do! We own that shit!” (Kunzru, 61). Carter is stripping away the significance and historical value of authentic music and claiming it as something he can conquer and put his name on.

    Bradford brings light to this idea of cultural appropriation as a form of racism when he says, “When artists appropriate, they can profit from what they take, while the oppressed group gets nothing” (Bradford, 2). This phenomenon of stealing authentic ideas from marginalized groups and recreating them is far too common. Carter and Seth deliberately stole the spoken words from a Black man without his permission and claimed it as their own. Malik argues that, “Racism defined who became the cultural icon” (Malik, 3). A piece of original work does not get the attention it deserves unless the name attached to it is deemed “worthy” of recognition.

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  5. I’m not sure yet my thoughts on what Kunzru is saying about cultural appropriation because we haven’t finished the book yet. However, I do think it’s interesting that the novel as a text starts off with Seth stealing sound bites from those around him. Yes, stealing, because he admits, from the opening page how surreptitiously his act is committed. He wore “two little mics in my ears that looked like headphones, a portable recorder clipped to my belt under my shirt. It was discreet. No one ever noticed” (pg 3). And while Mr. Malik would disagree, based on the view point that “appropriation suggests theft…in the case of culture, however, what is called appropriation is not theft but messy interaction” (pg 2). That all sounds well and good, but who really benefits from that type of interaction?
    He mentions Elvis Presley being important to the development of rock and roll as a result of appropriation and we can see today the negative impact that has had on black people in the music industry. “Elvis and other rock and roll musicians were undoubtedly influenced by black innovators, but over time the genre came to be regarded as a cultural product created, perfected by, and only accessible to whites”(pg 3). By justifying Elvis Presley’s appropriation, it then rationalizes and licenses more people to steal others’ culture to the detriment of that culture. People hail Elvis as the King of Rock n Roll without paying attention to the predecessors who paved the way like Sister Rosetta Thorpe. In fact, before Elvis, the rock n roll performed by Black people was considered “nigger yelling”; also, let’s not forget the systematic oppression of unequal treatment.
    So while I’d agree that the melange of culture is good and healthy, in an environment where the originator becomes voiceless (not “Death of the Author”), there should be a demarcation between who can appropriate and what can be appropriated. Otherwise, it leads to just blatant stealing of intellectual property as evinced by the novel. As carter explicitly stated “we made it, fools! … We own that shit!” (61). Even though we as readers know that this was appropriated.

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  6. Even in the first few pages of White Tears, it is clear that the characters within the novel—in the realm that Kunzru has created—and the reader are faced with questions and comments about cultural appropriation. To give an example; “cool” is equated with “blond dreadlocks” having a “trust fund” and hiking “in Nepal” (6). Later on, we meet a character named Ade whose questions about police brutality are illegitimate because “he wore suede loafers and a Patek Philippe watch” (18). It does not take much to recognize these satirical comments and painfully true hipster clichés—the loft in Greenpoint, the warehouses in Bushwick, the vintage obsessions, the Mexican tattoo and the vintage Candy Apple red Ford Galaxie. It’s funny, yes, but then you realize you’ve really heard of people like that. Even worse, you know people like that. Being white and having blond dreadlocks is not cool and having a Mexican cultural symbol tattooed on your body is also not cool—it is appropriation. This is specifically “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission” including the “unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols” (Kenan Malik, NYT). However, as Kunzru presents it, music is different. It is something to be found, stumbled upon, listening to, loved, appreciated, and devoured. For me, this is what is most captivating about the issue of cultural appropriation in White Tears—I don’t know how to feel about it. The fact that all the music Seth and Carter listen to is by black artists and that it sounds better than anything “white people” could make. There is truth and violence in this statement. Seth and Carter are ignorant to the origins of this music and to why, perhaps, it sounds “better” than anything “made by white people”—there are origins to music that they don’t quite understand. Which, inherently, is deeply intertwined with cultural appropriation.

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  7. So far, White Tears has raised a number of questions surrounding the difference between homage and appropriation, epitomized in the meeting on pages 28 through 31. A white rapper comes to two white producers to discuss a new album in which they would sample from “African American music, from ragtime through fifties RnB to eighties boogie” (29). The rapper was “a sincere young man from Maine, who’d had a Billboard number one with a song about drug dealing and had recently…purchased a nice-looking beach house in St. Barts” (28). In other words, the rapper, whose own background differs starkly from that of most mainstream rappers, relied on stereotype and borrowed experience to write his idea of a number one rap song, and then has the audacity to call this self-indulgent act “humble,” and a “tribute” (29). He jokes that through his new remix album, he will be able to experience his “Past Lives,” courtesy of the two white producers who will facilitate this nirvana-like experience for him (29).

    If it’s not obvious at this point, I’m on Bradford’s side of the debate. And perhaps it’s my white guilt talking (I mean, of course it’s my white guilt talking), and I’m overly PC about it, but yes, I wholeheartedly agree with Bradford that homage and “cultural engagement” cross the line into cultural appropriation when someone’s legacy of oppression is brought into the conversation. The white rapper in the scene above crosses the line when he admits to “spending hours with [his] notebook, just honing [his] skills…[going to] parties way out in the hood,” as if “blackness” is something that can be taught or studied (31). It’s the same unfortunate idea as a white girl wearing a Native American headdress at Coachella. Something doesn’t become yours just because you’ve gone through the motions.

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  8. Because Kunzru uses a narrative to comment on cultural appropriation, we get to see the very human side of the appropriators, even if we don’t like them or what they are doing in the story. Even Seth, our protagonist (who we probably like a lot more than Carter) says, “I was basically trying to make it sound like Duke Ellington’s ‘Creole Love Call,’ without getting mixed up in a lot of complicated arrangements.” (52) The latter part of this quotation implies a messiness that Seth wants to avoid. This reminds me of Bradford’s quote, “Those who defend [cultural appropriation] don’t understand what it is, misrepresent it to muddy the conversation, or ignore its complexity—discarding any nuances and making it easy to dismiss both appropriation and those who object to it.”

    Even though Seth objects to the usage of the chess player’s vocals, he lets Carter claim it as their own. Carter raves, “It’s the best idea! These fuckers think this music was made in 1928, but actually we made it. We made it, fools! We made that shit last week! So who’s the expert now? Who knows the tradition? We do! We own that shit!” (61) If Seth really understood cultural appropriation, he would have punched his best friend in the face right there and then—I know I would have.

    The characters’ turning a blind eye could be summed up by the quote, “A man was shouting at me in the street and I wasn’t responding at all.” (54) All these signs tell Seth that appropriating the chess player’s voice is a bad idea; he knows it’s a bad idea, yet he still lets it happen. As Bradford closes his article, he states, “I believe that, instead of giving people excuses for why appropriation can’t be avoided (it can), or allowing them to think it’s no big deal (it is), it’s more important to help them become better artists whose creations contribute to cultural understanding and growth that benefits us all.” I can only hope that somebody helps Seth and Carter become better artists who understand the repercussions of cultural appropriation.

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  9. While Hari Kunzru is writing form the perspective of a white, English intellectual, I believe that he manages to remove his own biases from White Tears, and create an affective crucible wherein cultural appropriation is a necessary topic of discussion. From the very exposition of the novel, Kunzru creates a stark cultural binary: Seth and Carter, two well-off, white, liberal-arts graduates, are fascinated with a sound recording of a presumably homeless African-American. From here, Kunzru sets his narrative to wrestle with appropriated culture that’s entirely grotesque.
    After creating their own music studio by way of Carter’s enormous trust fund, Kunzru provides Seth and Carter with the tools they need to follow their passion and create the art they had bonded over while still in school. Through their obsession and pursuit of the blues sound-bite Seth recorded in Washington Square Park, Kunzru leads his characters to commit what K. Tempest Bradford would deem, an “indefensible” act of cultural appropriation. Bradford writes, “Don’t write characters from minority or marginalized identities if you are not going to put in the hard work to do it well and avoid cultural appropriation” (Cultural Appropriation Is, In Fact, Indefensible, 3). When this statement concerning the effort behind the art is extrapolated onto the plot of White Tears, Seth and Carter’s “creative music studio” becomes more of an ugly, artistic chop-shop. After finally piecing together the once-lost Washington Square lyrics with music, Kunzru writes the dialogue between Seth and Carter as:
    —It’s like—I don’t know what to say. I don’t like it.
    —But it sounds real, right?
    —Yes. It sounds real.
    —So go do your magic.
    Kunzru goes on:
    —What do you want me to do, anyway? Clean it up? It’s pretty clean already.
    —No! Make it dirty. Drown it in hiss. I want it to sound like a record that’s been sitting under someone’s porch for fifty years. (White Tears, 58).
    Here Kunzru is speaking to the type of essential artistic respect that Bradford describes. To Seth and Carter, it isn’t about the meaning behind the music (blues no less, which often explores the plight of African-Americans), but whether or not their facsimile can pass as being authentic. To this extent, Seth and Carter play right into what Bradford describes as a “power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group” (Cultural Appropriation Is, In Fact, Indefensible, 2). At a certain juncture Carter says on the topic of their appropriated work, “These fuckers think this music was made in 1928, but actually we made it! We made it, fools! We made that shit last week! So who’s the expert now? Who knows the tradition? We do! We own that shit!” (White Tears, 61). The level to which Carter self-congratulates himself as well as Seth over the ease at which they created their track speaks volumes to their blatant disregard of, and philistine approach to, the art that they hoped to create and the “tradition” Carter rants about. By way of a studio paid for entirely by Carter’s white-privilege, the two protagonists of White Tears completely appropriated the culture of someone whose own culture was as far removed from their own as possible.

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  10. Kunzru’s novel White Tears, dives into the concept of appropriating music as well as black culture. In reading both Malik and Bradford’s articles, I see how evident appropriation is in Seth and Carter’s experiences working in the music industry. Having studied artists like Iannis Xenakis and others who manipulate everyday soundscapes in music, I understand the art of using voices, cars and other noises in order to enhance a musical piece. Seth enjoys listening to every sound that consumes his day and creating complex compositions using software and editing out certain distractions that come from recording the streets. He views his work as an auditory history that can be replayed to stay present. “The present is dry, but add reverb and you can hear time reverse its flow, slipping on into the past, into echo and disaster” (Kunzru, 26). Seth is using these sounds from his walks and appropriating them into musical pieces that suit his musical interests. Carter and Seth appropriate tons of individuals in their recordings and publish it online where people are being exposed without consent.

    Bradford speaks against Malik’s defense of cultural appropriation and explains that “when artists appropriate, they can profit from what they take, while the oppressed group gets nothing” (Bradford, 2). This is exactly what Carter and Seth are doing – they are financially stable white males who are using other people’s content in order to profit for themselves and create a business. Yes, they are manipulating the sounds into another kind of piece, however, it is taking advantage of people on the streets who aren’t even aware they are somewhat being sold online. Bradford also speaks to Elvis and how he was “undoubtedly influenced by black innovators, but over time the genre came to be regarded as a cultural product created, perfected by, and only accessible to whites” (Bradford, 3). Just like many other cultural movements in America, music that was originally part of black culture was appropriated into a genre that defines American identity as a white experience. Carter introduced Seth to jazz by black musicians because “it was more intense and authentic than anything made by white people” (Kunzru, 9). There is a fine line in appreciating another culture and working with it in a respectable way and appropriating a culture in an offensively.

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  11. Of the pages we have read for today, the quote that resonated with me (get it?) came from Leonie, and while it was not in direct reference to cultural appropriation discourse, it can be (and was probably meant to be) applied to it. She says, “If you make the right gesture, the craft doesn’t matter” (34). This struck me because I think it can be interpreted as both a Malikian defense against cultural gatekeepers, who “claim” that white artists may not stray outside their race when creating art, and a reinforcement of Bradford’s claim that it is “not a given” that someone will appropriate the culture of the demographic featured in their work. To be honest, I would very much like to throw the debatably appropriative song that Carter and Seth create between Malik and Bradford, and watch them fight over it. Though I found myself scoffing at Malik’s article, and wholeheartedly agreeing with Bradford’s rebuttal, I feel as though I would argue that the characters of White Tears did not harm anyone with their song. Yes, I am stripping it of its context entirely. I disregard earlier chapters in which Carter wears dreadlocks, something I consider to be an objectively appropriative thing for a white American to do. And it is obvious that his getting beat to an inch of his life is connected to, and probably a punishment for, the “Charlie Shaw” song. But after reading the Bradford article, I think what the two characters did was well within the bounds of the appropriate measures it is necessary to take to create non-appropriative fiction. The most obvious piece of evidence in their favor is that they were doing just that: creating fiction. Neither of them knew that there was a real Charlie Shaw (unless I’m misinterpreting), they just wanted to attach a character to the evocative piece of music they had made. Not only that, but Carter has a complex knowledge of the kind of music the two are imitating, which may not be enough to say “so it’s ok that he’s making black music” but definitely indicates that he has a deep respect for it. Of course, the two did not ask permission of the man whom they recorded to use his voice for the song, and they were on their way to making a profit off of a black singer, who gains nothing. But I’ve been considering whether or not the act of using the man’s voice would be considered less inherently harmful if he was white, and they were claiming that the song was an unreleased track by John Lennon. I am not arguing that the situation surrounding its creation would remain the same, and do think the fact that the singer was black plays a significant role in the discussion here. However, I was struck by the severity of the “punishment” that Carter received near the end of the section. I imagine there is more at play than just “you appropriated black culture,” and I’m definitely interested to find out what that is. And, at the end of the day, my white opinion is not law and I would not be opposed to having my stance on the appropriative nature of the Charlie Shaw song changed.

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  12. Carter’s navigation between his conflicting identity and beliefs in Hari Kunzru’s novel provides a nuanced perspective of ownership and cultural appropriation. Seth, the narrator and other main character, introduces Carter Wallace as the charismatic, popular, and hip guy on campus. The two met and bonded in college over their interest in listening to and making music, with Carter stating his dedication to old music by black artists. He prided himself on his vast knowledge and collection of music in this field which he shared with Seth. However, Seth notes the sense of tension between their love of music by black people versus their own whiteness stating, “We worshipped music like Perry’s but we knew we didn’t own it, a fact we tried to ignore as far as possible, masking our disabling caucasity with a sort of professorial knowledge” (Kunzru 17). This statement adds to our class discussion in which we analyzed the ways an audience of a work can claim ownership; Seth asserting that an individual’s knowledge and appreciation of another’s music can allow them to feel a sense of ownership even without identifying fully with the artist.

    Carter professes his own idea of ownership later in the story, after the two are asked to help remix a popular white rapper’s music in the style of influential black music genres from previous generations. Seth is eager for an opportunity to leverage their career but Carter is offended, exclaiming, “This is our music, Seth. We live it. We feel it. He thinks he can just swan in and buy it off the shelf?” (Kunzru 31). Here, Carter believes his own dedication to finding and listening to specific and rare pieces of music allows him more authority in utilizing it in his own music. At the same time, this statement feels hypocritical as Carter’s own wealth, from his family’s very large and successful financial business, had been the driving force behind his ability to purchase music and equipment. In Bradford’s NPR article on the consequences of cultural appropriation, she discusses how “systematic oppression and segregation in America meant black musicians didn’t have access to the same opportunities for mainstream exposure, income, or success as white ones” (Bradford 3). Carter believes he has an understanding and ownership of this music because of his efforts alone, but his race and economic status has helped him avoid the hardships for exposure and access to resources faced by the many black artists whom he reveres.

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  13. I was struck by Seth and Carter’s embarrassment at their old faux-Rasta lifestyle. Seth says:We worshipped music like Perry’s but we knew we didn’t own it, a fact we tried to igonor as far as possible, masking our disabling caucasity with a sort of professorial knowledge: who played congas on the B-side, the precise definition of collie” (Kunzra 17). They have a certain hesitancy to fully admit their love of “black music”, and later Seth says “Before long we would look back on our college Rasta past with shame. Carter, who briefly owned a red-gold-and green beanie hat, lived in fear that pictures of him wearing it would turn up on Facebook” (Kunzra 18). However, they do not reject the image out of high-mindedness or out of embarrassment, as Seth explains in the next sentence. He says “We really did feel that our love of the music bought us something, some right to blackness, but by the time we got to New York, we’d learned not to talk about it” (Ibid). He falls close to the Malik side of the argument than the Bradford side. In Malik’s view, “In the case of culture, however, what is called appropriation is not theft but messy interaction” (Malik 2). Thus, the Rasta image and the sound studio exist as a bridge between the white upbringing and college experience. However, the two protagonist’s use of old records to imitate their sound falls squarely in Bradford’s note that “when artists appropriate, they can profit from what they take, while the oppressed group gets nothing” (Bradford 2). All of this ties in with Carter and Seth’s rejection of their preferred black image for a general sixties revival image. They recognize as a concept the grey area they work in, but turn away from appropriating black culture totally. Whether they do this to move closer to the ideal of exchange or simply to protect themselves from others who would accuse them of cultural appropriation remains to be seen.

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  14. K. Tempest Bradford tells us that many writers say “don’t write characters from minority or marginalized identities if you are not going to put in the hard work to do it well and avoid cultural appropriation and other harmful outcomes.” (Bradford 3) Though a heavy task, Bradford is clear that writing characters from minority or marginalized identities is possible if the writer is willing to put in the work. Rather than do this, Kunzru takes up the task of cultural appropriation by writing from the point of view of the appropriators in an effort not to defend appropriation but to show that many people of privilege do not understand how they are appropriating marginalized cultures.
    Through the characterization of Seth and Carter, Kunzru shows that cultural appropriation is accepted by the dominant culture as creation. This is made clear through their involvement in the music industry as Carter claims to “own” the tradition of blues and folk music after releasing the song that Seth recorded on the street. An even more obvious example of this is when, slightly earlier in the novel, white hip hop artist that Seth describes as always being “‘in awe’ of one or other canonical black star” (Kunzru 29) is introduced. The reaction that Seth and Carter have to him seems to point at a mild understanding of the how the music is problematic but fails to have either one see how they participate in the same thing.
    Kunzru’s use of the music industry clues the reader into this quickly as many genres of music have been started by African Americans and stolen by white artists. As both Bradford and Malik point out, Elvis is considered the “king” of rock and roll but Chuck Berry and other black artists began the genre. Through the choice of the music industry as the central industry and the two white men as the main characters, Kunzru demonstrates how cultural appropriation is happening everyday without the dominant culture seeming to notice or care.

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  15. Today, I was sitting in class, taking notes, when the professor made an interesting observation. The topic, if we were to “Make America great again,” what time would Trump supporters want to return to, many said the 1950’s or 60’s, sparking the comparison to the show, Mad Men. At its core, the show, and advertising in general, is about appropriating culture, either to sell a product, or tell critique the decade the show takes place in. This is much like Hari Kunzru’s novel White Tears. From Carter telling Seth that, “He listened exclusively to black music because, …it was more intense and authentic than anything made by white people,” (Kunzru 9) to their discovery of a lost piece of jazz music, the pair of white guys, basically spent the entire time that they have known each other appropriating black culture.
    While it never explicitly said that they were hated for appropriating a culture that they were not a part of, the book also states that the men never really connected with any black people unless they were wealthy themselves, like Carter.
    Yet, while both Seth and Carter heavily sample early recordings of black music to make their own sound, both seem highly aware of the fact that they are white people treading the fine line between appreciation and appropriation of black culture. This is in line with what K. Tempest Blackford and Kenan Malik were writing about in their respective opinion pieces. Malik, at the end of his piece states, “Seventy years ago, racist radio stations refused to play ‘race music’ for a white audience. Today, antiracist activists insist that white painters should not portray black subjects. To appropriate a phrase that is not my own: Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose,” (Mailik NY Times Opinion). While Bradford in her piece writes, “Cultural appropriation does damage, and should be something that writers work hard to avoid, not compete with each other to achieve,” (Bradford NPR Review). Both of these pieces hint at but do not achieve what is going on in the book, these artists are trying to appreciate the artists that come before them, and bring it to an audience that would appreciate it the most.
    That is why the secret to advertising is knowing when to appreciate your subject, and why Mad Men is a successful critique of the 1960’s.

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  16. As many of my classmates have mentioned before me, it’s somewhat too early to nail down the exact point Kunzru is making in White Tears. However, it is possible to hypothesize and analyze the foundation laid in this first portion of the novel, particularly in relation to cultural appropriation. I appreciated the points Sophie made in her comment, about how the novel portrays Carter as steeped in a certain kind of appropriation from the get-go (what with his blonde dreadlocks and time abroad in Nepal). Even more notably, the protagonist of the novel frames these traits as positive. It’s cool to be cultured, and by proxy, Seth finds Carter cool for appropriating culture. When the two create “Charlie Shaw,” Carter’s ego soars; he experiences the kind of adrenaline I’d imagine a robber feels speeding off in the getaway car. “So who’s the expert now,” he asks (61). In asking this, he’s challenging the idea of “gatekeeping” that Kenan Malik also tangos with in his essay “In Defense of Cultural Appropriation” (3). Carter has, in a sense, bypassed the gate and hopped the metaphorical fence. I’d find it hard to call what he and Seth are doing anything but dishonest and appropriative.
    One thing that I think will be important to keep in mind when reading White Tears is the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange. In an article pushing back against Malik’s claim that fears regarding cultural appropriation stifle creativity and create segregation amongst races, Bradford looks to Maisha Z. Johnson’s definition of what is and is not appropriation. Johnson states that cultural appropriation involves “an individual working within a ‘power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group’” (Bradford quoting Johnson 2). The disapproval of appropriation stems not from the belief is that culture is to be sequestered and nary shared, but the fact that it is an injustice to socially and systematically disenfranchise a group of people while simultaneously picking and choosing elements of their culture to pass of as your own and/or profit from.
    This act of passing it off as your own and profiting is exactly what Carter and Seth aim to do, however. It will be interesting to see how this may (or may not) haunt them.

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  17. In the beginning of his novel White Tears, Hari Kunzru discusses the implications of musical appropriation by demonstrating how white musicians are currently, and have historically, taken credit for and appropriated black music and musicians. Kunzru asks his readership to think about popular culture and American musicians as both artists and “innovators”—a term that I’m not sure can solely be used to describe the roles in which Carter and Seth take on and off. Kunzru characterizes the two as privileged and ultimately only credible about musical machinery rather than racial tensions. Seth, the initial narrator, admits that both he and Carter “worshipped music like Perry’s,” with the knowledge that they didn’t own it but “masking [their] disabling caucasity with a sort of professorial knowledge” (17). It’s even mentioned that the black kids at their school are somehow not black “enough” for the look they thought POC should portray. This incident is followed by yet another moment of white privilege; which indicates to me that Kunzru is preparing his audience for the onslaught of racial tension to come. Additionally, Kunzru hints at one of the main goals of the novel through metaphor: “Between the dollar store and the dry cleaner …was a clinical white space selling frozen yogurt” (92). The whitewashing of the dollar store, the dry cleaner, by the frozen yogurt fad, mirrors the white people listening to and remaking black music “fad” or rather, musical atrocity.

    Bradford’s article similarly echoes the idea that “When artists appropriate, they can profit from what they take, while the oppressed group gets nothing” (2). In the case of Seth and Carter, it seems that this might ring true. Credit is only given to original artists based on their aesthetic or outlandish behavior (like when Seth talks about how he knows why John Coltrane blew out his sax) instead of explicitly discussing musical prowess.

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  18. Upon finishing the first 30-something pages of White Tears, I found myself trying to decide whether or not I found the two protagonists to be a bit racist—if not measurably ignorant. Carter certainly is, for rather early on in the novel we learn that he sports “blond dreadlocks” and a Mexican symbol for a tattoo, which is blatant cultural appropriation. It is also probably worth mentioning that both of these characteristics are deemed “cool” by Seth and others at their college. There is also a moment where Seth openly generalizes his African-American peers: “The actual black kids at our school, of whom there were very few, seemed to us unsatisfactorily preppy or Christian or were basketball jocks doing business, degrees, devirginating sorority girls and talking loudly in the commons about their personal brand” (17). Nevertheless, it wasn’t until a bit later on in the novel that I began to see how the story directly relates to what we’ve been talking about thus far in class: the idea of decade-old tracks and samples being appropriated by the main characters. A facet of this particular appropriation that we have not yet discussed in class is that the music Carter and Seth reuse is entirely the product of African-American artists.

    I’ve always personally deemed cultural appropriation as being wrong but honestly, never thought to scrutinize why I felt that way—it just seemed kind of obvious. For a split second Kenan Malik had me questioning the wrongness of it when he says, “Writers and artists necessarily engage with the experiences of others. Nobody owns a culture, but everyone inhabits one, and in inhabiting a culture, one finds the tools for reaching out to other cultures” (NYT). I personally found the rest of the article to be a bit dubious and unconvincing but that small snippet had me recognizing the merit of writers and other artists attempting to create from a perspective that is not their own. With that said, Bradford’s article from NPR reaffirmed my original beliefs about cultural appropriation being wrong, particularly when it quotes Maisha Z. Johnson saying “‘[cultural appropriation is a] power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group'” (NPR).

    Keeping in mind the content of these articles, Kunzru seems to be commenting on the potential consequences for cultural appropriation—the first of which has Carter being almost beaten to death. Prior to the utilization of the “Charlie Shaw” sample, I didn’t find Carter and Seth to be guilty of cultural appropriation in that their use of black music didn’t directly lead to their own benefit. Their “earnings” (a studio with high-end equipment and an apartment in Manhattan) weren’t really a consequence of their work at all, rather a result of Carter’s inherent privilege. I rather thought of their inclination towards black music as being a naive proclivity for a genre that they didn’t really understand—or care to understand—but simply enjoyed sonically. The remaining consequences for the release of the “Charlie Shaw” sample are, of course, yet to be seen.

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  19. There are many points of entry into the conversation about cultural appropriation in Kunzru’s novel, White Tears. I agree with many of the comments that Kunzru is clearly trying to make a statement about the dangers of appropriation.
    There’s one part of the novel that struck a particular chord with me and it was when the executives come to pitch Seth and Carter to not only do one track, but also an entire album that the record company would own. Seth is on board, but Carter is suspicious:

    —What the fuck was that? I asked. He lit a cigarette.
    —He can kiss my ass.
    —He’s huge. Everything he does charts.
    —So? We’re doing him a favor even talking to him.
    —Come on, man. Don’t screw this up. It’s what we’ve been dreaming about.
    —This is our music, Seth. We live it. We feel it. He thinks he can just swan in and buy it off the shelf? (31)

    Carter is clearly against the idea of selling out their work because he knows the work will no longer be theirs if they do. Given Carter’s strong opposition to anyone owning or using his own work, one would think that he would feel the same way about using other people’s music and work. However, he does not. Carter even goes as far to say they’re the rightful owners of a voice and track that they record from an African American man without his permission, just for monetary gain. This got me thinking about something Bradford writes, “…it [cultural appropriation] is not a process of equal and mutually beneficial exchange, and it is not a way for one culture to honor another…” (4). There is no mutual exchange between the African American man’s voice and the music Carter creates from it without his permission. There is no honor in the way Carter and Seth try and sell this man’s voice. I believe Kunzru is not only addressing the general dangers of appropriation, but also warning of the ways socioeconomic backgrounds, privilege and race play into the ways of who is allowed to blur and control the lines of appropriation. Carter comes from a place of privilege, money and whiteness, and Kunzru demonstrates how those things allow him access to choose who gets to own his art, while also letting him appropriate other people’s art with no questions asked. I have yet to finish the book, but there are definitely some issues about race and class that complicate and intensify the harmful effects of cultural appropriation in Kunzru’s novel.

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  20. In White Tears, British-Kashmiri author Hari Kunzru addresses the eternally pressing issue of cultural appropriation through his two protagonists (if we may call them that), Seth and Carter. Seth, the novel’s narrator, is a suburban upper-middle-class introvert who exists to represent a more benign, but still poignant, “doesn’t-know-any-better” sort of appropriation, and Carter, Seth’s best friend, represents the wealthier, more deliberate side of the issue. Where Carter’s immediate description as Calaveras-tattooed, blonde, dreadlocked, and presumably rich suggests a profound ignorance, his shallowly thought through disdain for whiteness and associating himself with it indicates a greater awareness. That is, Carter’s speaking “as if ‘white people’ were the name of a gang… something to which he didn’t belong” suggests a passive awareness of oppression by white people. He clearly seeks distance from them, but also accepts his white privilege without questioning it or his parents’ Republican donor status.

    Laying out his arguments against cultural appropriation, Bradford uses the word “elements” when discussing white obsession with minority cultures; white people are rarely obsessed with the entirety of a culture and what it has gone through above its material or artistic products. Carter engenders this concept in that his initial self-distancing from other white people is not legitimately because he would like to separate himself from a centuries-old narrative of white oppression, but instead a regurgitation of what he has heard black artists say.

    Classifying the stolen song as blues, Kunzru presents little moral gray area; yes, the plagiarism of Charlie Shaw’s song was not ill-intentioned, but it was a genre that developed out of and is still largely based on African American oppression.

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