In light of the recent controversy over the duo who created the blog, Thug Kitchen (TK), and hid their identities until the launch of their vegan cookbook under the same name, members of Cali Vegans of Color collaborated with a diverse group of ethical vegans and launched a protest campaign at TK book tour events that were scheduled to take place in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. As a result, all three October events were cancelled.
Michelle Davis’ and Matt Holloway’s cookbook is a banal attempt at crafting “rapper” words by two white individuals who obviously don’t mingle with a diverse and progressive group – a book viewed as creative and funny by those who only get their exposure of people of color through Hollywood stereotypes and the sensational evening news. Their vegan recipes aren’t particularly creative and blend in with the other dime-a-dozen cookbooks that clutter bookstores. Notwithstanding, this obvious and poor attempt at appropriating negative stereotypes of black men has a serious side.
Clearly, the word “thug” can be used to refer to non-blacks, but the reality is, over the past few years, in this culture, thug is almost exclusively reserved for black males and the attacks are almost always by white males. The history of the criminalization of African Americans and racist coded language is no secret. One doesn’t need to have a PhD in sociology to recognize that this culture perpetuates associations with the image of a thug, a criminal and a black male. Unfortunately, too many are quick to dive into the deep end of the denial pool, even in light of the media’s attention to violent attacks by police officers and white vigilantes toward unarmed black men. Michael Dunn, the white man who murdered Jordan Davis, an unarmed black teenager, for playing loud music, called him a thug. Trayvon Martin’s name became synonymous with the word thug to justify that he “deserved” his unfortunate fate, and black athletes are labeled thugs while white athletes get a free pass. As Richard Sherman, cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks and Stanford graduate, said during a press conference, “[thug is] the accepted way of calling somebody the N-word nowadays”.
The City of Ferguson, MO, is under investigation by the FBI for racial profiling of its African American citizens after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. State Trooper, Sean Groubert, shot Levar Jones several times as Mr. Jones reached for his driver’s license after Officer Groubert stopped Mr. Jones for a safety seatbelt violation and asked for his identification. But somehow these and many other stories do not seem to shake deeply held racist beliefs out from its unconscious abyss into self reflection. Even if one has been out of the loop on the new coded N-word, to deny that this culture criminalizes black people is to affirm one’s privilege, or speaks volumes to one’s lack of elementary critical thinking.
The authors’ decision to hide their identities until now clearly indicates culpability. Several activists in our group tried to engage in a critique on the TK Facebook page and blog and their comments were deleted and they were banned. So it became quite evident to us that the authors knew exactly what they were doing and didn’t give a damn about anyone’s objection to the book. The authors and publisher were clearly out to make a profit and avoid any real discussion.
No one was advocating a government ban on the book either, but a few bookstore owners who replied to my email tried to spin this into a free speech issue and encouraged a discussion at the book signing. This, in my opinion, was a cop-out and would have projected the false message that they were acting in the best interest of fairness and the community. I doubt they would have hosted a Jihadist in the name of free-speech and fair debate. In addition, inviting the authors (and their fans) and the protestors (us) to come together at their bookstore for a wonderful dialogue to build bridges is as unrealistic as when Michelle Obama got together with the big junk food corporations in her Let’s Move campaign to improve the health of our children.
For argument’s sake, let’s consider what could have happened if the book signing wasn’t cancelled and we were invited. First of all, why would I want to watch these clowns’ pathetic minstrel show of racist coded language as they play Mr. Thug and Ms. Thugette, in celebration of their dime-a-dozen cookbook, as they make fun of and stereotype my brothers while their mostly white fans join in the humor? It’s funny to them and their audience because they’re not the ones who fear that a police stop for a minor traffic violation could easily escalate to jail time, assault or death. They make fun of my brother, they make fun of me, and the very being of my black identity would not allow me to sit and become involved in self-negation. Then, during the “discussion” period, I’m supposed to voice my concerns under time constraints to an audience who are oblivious and indifferent to making the key connection that the mindset of the authors (and their fans) is no different from the mindset of the white vigilantes, law enforcement officers, district attorneys and judges who believe that black men and boys are a pariah, a problem to be dealt with, locked up or murdered. How can one deconstruct in a few sentences a mentality that believes, but will not vocalize, “Black men go to jail because they commit crimes, the police are just doing their jobs, black men call themselves thugs and act like thugs, so what’s the problem and what does this have to do with TK anyway?” Even if these questions were uttered, they could not have been addressed effectively in this space. Regardless, I suspect that the response to my voice would have been, “stop whining”.
There can be, and are, sincere spaces for debate and discussion about racism – racist coded language, cultural appropriation, terrorist attacks on black men by white men, and the erosion of families caused by police brutality and a biased and broken criminal justice system, but the book tour was not one of them. The purpose of our direct action was resistance. Our goal was to send the message that we would not tolerate their blackface theatrics, and that they are not welcome in our community. This was also about empowering ourselves through resistance. When one takes a stand to act in small ways (such as this protest) and in big ways (such as forming a community police watch) we are declaring our intolerance to racism.
Appropriating negative stereotypes of black people was just the vehicle. The fundamental problem, the driver behind the wheel, is the conscious and unconscious mindset that unfairly stereotypes and fears black people, particularly black men and boys, that cause people to act that is dangerous. This is why I protested TK.
Although this protest campaign included both vegans of color and white vegans, unfortunately, but not surprising, most of the pushback I observed overwhelmingly came from white vegans. If white ethical vegan activists continue to dismiss the importance of intersectionality and refuse to show solidarity with other social justice concerns, this movement will continue to be divided and its white privilege stigma, I believe, will continue to hinder progress.
Liz Ross is the co-founder of Cali Vegans of Color. She is an activist for both human and non-human animal rights.
[Editor’s note: I am happy to be able to host this piece by Liz Ross. Following the big reveal of the book, I was pleased to see many critical, intersectional vegans recognize that a vegan cookbook doesn’t get a pass on being oppressive. Here are some other black vegan/plant-based perspectives on Thug Kitchen.
“Culturally Appropriate Foodie Tuesday – A Rant About Thug Kitchen” by Ayinde Howell – 9/30/2014
“On Ferguson, Thug Kitchen, and Trayvon Martin: Intersections of [Post]Race-Consciousness, Food Justice, and Hip Hop Vegan Ethics” by A. Breeze Harper (Sistah Vegan) – 10/9/2014
“The problem with ‘thug’ cuisine” by Bryant Terry – 10/10/2014
“‘Thug Racists’ and Coded Language” by Sensei Aishitemasu
*not sure whether this commentor is vegan, but an excellent analysis of how coded language is used to stand in for racial slurs]