This week, the founders of Thug Kitchen announced that they are in the process of changing the name of their media brand. In 2012, Matt Holloway and Michelle Davis anonymously started the Thug Kitchen blog where they shared content written in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and often referenced rap lyrics, popular Black artists, and used curse words in conjunction with sharing vegan recipes and tips. Many followers believed that the blog’s creator was a POC and the use of the term “thug”—a racially charged descriptor often used to criminalize POC—was an honest attempt to redefine the race-coded word in order to promote veganism to communities of color. In 2014, before the publication of the blog’s first book, Thug Kitchen: Eat Like You Give a F*ck, an interview with Epicurious revealed that Holloway and Davis were two white people living in East Hollywood in Los Angeles, CA. Shortly thereafter, the media brand received backlash for appropriating Black culture in what some called “digital blackface.”
In 2014, Black vegan chef and food justice activist Bryant Terry wrote a poignant op-ed for CNN on the topic of Halloway and Davis’ appropriative behavior—which some fans defended, and still do, as harmless comedic writing. “It’s no coincidence that Thug Kitchen’s admirers often imagined the ‘voice’ of the site to be that of shrill, vulgar, and often uproariously funny black men like actor Samuel L. Jackson or rapper Ghostface Killah, and not that of actor Robert De Niro or Hells Angels founder Sonny Barger,” Terry wrote. “The contrast drawn between the consciously progressive dishes shown and the imagined vulgar, ignorant thug only works if the thug is the kind of grimy person of color depicted in the news and in popular media as hustling drugs on a dystopian block, under the colorful glow of various burger stands, bulletproof take-out spots, or bodega signs. ‘Those kind of people,’ the visual gag suggests, ‘intimidating you into … preparing arugula or tempeh? How absurd, how shocking, how hilarious.” In addition to Terry, many of the blog’s followers pressured the brand to rethink its approach and were met with resistance or silencing.
Currently, the United States is in the midst of widespread protests in the ongoing fight to dismantle systemic racism sparked anew by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by police in Minneapolis on May 25. Thug Kitchen took to Instagram on June 4 to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and acknowledged that its use of “thug” was problematic, which sparked the same criticisms as it received back in 2014, including from Afro-Latina vegan activist Jessica Schoech—founder of North Hollywood, CA-based event Vegan Street Fair.
“Thug Kitchen, I do want you to address emphatically why it took you until now to state that the word ‘thug’ is problematic when your book came out in 2014—six years ago—and it was revealed that you were in fact white,” Schoech responded to Thug Kitchen’s post. “People did tell you unequivocally that the word ‘thug’ was the new n-word; Folks like Bryant Terry; Folks like Christopher Sebastian; The thousands of people behind the campaign to cancel as many of your book signings as possible, and just as recently as me on a phone call with you in 2017 when you called me directly to tell me that if I had a ‘f*cking problem’ with you, I should come to you directly. Your words. I emailed you countless articles about this issue in 2017 … you knew about this word and you ignored it for years.”
This week, Terry explained to VegNews that he will no longer comment on Thug Kitchen publicly, directing us to his final words on the matter during an interview on the KCRW podcast on June 12. “The issue with Thug Kitchen is connected to the uprisings that are happening around the world and the antiracist movement that is growing,” Terry said. “I think that the thread that runs through all of these things is the issue of white people so often refusing to listen to Black people and other people of color when they say they’re offended or are in pain or that they feel marginalized or unseen.” Terry offered some suggestions to Thug Kitchen about ways to move forward, ending with, “And lastly, they just need to change that f*cking name.”
One day after Terry’s KCRW interview, Holloway and Davis posted a note titled “We’re Changing” explaining the actions they planned to take in response to long-standing criticism. “When we first launched Thug Kitchen in 2012, we wanted our name to signal our brand’s grit in the otherwise polished and elitist food scene. Over the years, as our critics pointed out the racist connotations of two white people using the word ‘thug,’ we tried to contextualize it by talking about our backgrounds and our beliefs,” the note states. “We realize, however, that whatever our original intention, our use of it reflected our privilege and ignored the reality that the word is assigned to black people in an attempt to dehumanize them. That’s f*cked up and not at all what we want to stand for. We apologize. We recognize we need to do better.” In their note, Halloway and Davis announced that they would change the name of their company and website, discontinue the use of the Thug Kitchen name on their cookbooks and reevaluate the content in those books closely.
“I hope that in this historical moment that we’re in, people’s lens can allow them to understand what I and many people were trying to voice back then,” Terry said. “[Holloway and Davis] were gaslighting people … there is a specific history in this country, particularly in the early 20th century, of white people making fun of Blacks and pretending to be Black.”
Photo Credit: Josh Telles