On Veganism’s Race Problem, or F***ing Thug Kitchen (Updated)

This is maybe a little outside my usual wheelhouse, but I’m irritated by the lack of response from…anyone about the (not at all shocking) revelation that Thug Kitchen is written by two middle-class, pretty, white people.

I’ve been vegan for a long time (coming up on 7 years, and vegetarian for 11 before that). My foray into veganism coincides, more or less, with my feminist awakening, though I did not draw any parallels for several years. Rather, I was just trying not to be an asshole contribute to unnecessary suffering. I’d always been an animal lover and had stopped eating animals at age 9 when I realized how absurd it was that we ate cows because we didn’t consider them sufficiently cute but didn’t eat dogs because they met some arbitrary cuteness standard. Eggs followed in my mid-teens, and veganism happened just before I turned 21.

In those early days I had yet to encounter the idea of intersectionality, nor interrogated my own sites of privilege–especially racial privilege. My progressive politics were pretty rudimentary. As I ventured further into both intersectional feminism and veganism I started to see that they weren’t all that compatible in a lot of ways. I don’t want to make this post into veganism and race 101 because there are vegans of colour writing far better than I ever could on the subject. You should go read them.

What I do want to talk about, however, is mainstream, white veganism’s collusion and tacit acceptance of cultural appropriation and the overwhelming whiteness of veganism. The first time I saw something from Thug Kitchen posted on Facebook I knew it was by middle-class white people. Not just, as my friend S., pointed out, because only someone immune to the racial violence out of which “thug” emerges would use it in such a manner. But because the voice feels insincere, like some play-acting (of what the bloggers think Black people sound like, I have to assume). And because the authors were conspicuously absent. And because it has that self-congratulatory, self-perceived edginess of a white girl with a ukulele singing a Dr. Dre song in front of a whole bunch of white people. And because a whole bunch of white people on the internet loved it.

Thinking of mainstream vegan cookbook authors I can only think of three who are not white. One of whom, Bryant Terry, does incredible food justice activism alongside putting out beautiful cookbooks. Yet his name rarely comes up in conversations of veganism and vegan cookbooks. And I’ve certainly never seen anything of his passed around Facebook with the glee that Thug Kitchen, with its faux-edge indicated by “motherfucker” punctuating and accenting such groundbreaking dishes as quinoa with cranberries, garners.

Another issue is the number of books published every year that are basically some version of “White American Lady Cooks ‘Ethnic’ Food” whether themed by country or one whirlwind tour. There can be a fine line, it seems, between appreciation and appropriation, especially where food is concerned. But there are authors whose entire careers seem to be based around presenting the food of cultures they have no attachment to with a vegan spin, with no understanding or reverence for the role of food in culture and identity, the sanctity of recipes passed down generation to generation to generation using traditional foods and methods to feed and nourish families and communities, the sacred nature of commensality, of shared experience and knowledge.

Along with examining the ways in which access to food is gendered and racialized in our culture, we need to look at how the ways we talk about and think about and approach food can be alienating and exploitative by turns. We need to examine the ways we think about people who are not vegan for reasons of access or culture and recognize those as valid reasons while working towards structural changes to mitigate the damage of meat and dairy-heavy diets (for example, abolishing CAFOs while changing lobbying and subsidy laws to make the meat and dairy available to lower-income people and those living in food deserts less disastrous for the planet and the animals). And we need to vote with our dollars and our energy. We need to stop supporting twee white people borrowing a “thug” aesthetic (whatever the fuck that means beyond some racist dogwhistle) and support vegan authors of colour bringing their culture and food heritage to life in vibrant and beautiful ways.

UPDATE: When I wrote this I couldn’t find responses from anyone (aside from one not very in-depth piece on Jezebel) but since then there have been some great responses from POCs that you should read. I should also say that there may have been responses happening on Twitter but I am essentially Twitter illiterate so I may have missed them. If I did, that’s on me and I apologize. Mine shouldn’t be the loudest voice being heard on this topic though I’m glad to see it’s sparking some interesting conversations.

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15 thoughts on “On Veganism’s Race Problem, or F***ing Thug Kitchen (Updated)

  1. I am having a shame moment as I was one of the people who was enthusiastic about the Thug Kitchen trailer, but I also know you are right about this. Part of me hoped that maybe the authors weren’t middle-class white people, but when I saw they were, I wasn’t terribly surprised. Anyways, thanks for writing this.

  2. Wow. I, uh…wow. I’m not shocked–at all, as you say–that Thug Kitchen is written by white people. Who else would self-apply the term “thug” in quite that tone? And the racist dog-whistling–reading your piece, I’m uncomfortable that it didn’t bother me more, but that has more to do with picking my battles and tuning out the rest, I think. (Itself a form of privilege: deciding when to be inured to racism on the Internet.)

    But I also hadn’t realized Thug Kitchen was more than just a meme put out by someone with a Tumblr. A self-deprecating insider mocking the sometimes twee–and, yes, overwhelmingly white (and classed, and gendered)–public face of mainstream veganism. (Something a la the Twitter account “Sh*t Food Bloggers Say,” the anonymous author of which goes to some lengths to state that she is parodying herself as much as anyone else, or more.) Frankly, I thought TK was a send-up of people like Gwyneth Paltrow.

    To learn that they have a substantive food blog? And now a cookbook published under contract? That Paltrow herself gave them a shout-out critical to their current success? That’s the source of my opening “wow.” That’s what I’m finding shocking. And yet, I know better than to be shocked. This, too, is how white privilege works.

    [Sidebar: I’m not a vegetarian and thus have made no great effort to know cookbook authors who are–but I have come across Bryant Terry before. And his food justice activism is indeed incredible.]

    Thank you for writing this.

  3. OMG, I was seriously about to write basically this exact same post. Except you said it better than I could have so thank you. Yes to all of this, esp. that last paragraph. !

  4. Thanks for this very thoughtful post. I was never truly confronted with how my class status influences my food choices until this year when I tried (and completely failed by their standards) to do a vegetarian version of Whole 30 (which is basically strict Paleo, if you’re unfamiliar). The vegetarian version required buying a lot of expensive food and I found that, even if I wanted to, I was unable to complete the challenge on a graduate student/adjunct budget. I was disgusted to realize, first, that my income did indeed play a significant role in my health and diet, but also that the rhetoric of programs like Whole 30 and a lot of other discourse around food basically ignore issues of race, class, and socio-economics. I felt like the website presented the whole thing as thought it were about attitude – “I won’t eat sugar because I want to be healthy!” And the reality was, “I have to eat certain foods because this is what I can afford.”
    I know this is not exactly related to the topic of your post, but I especially appreciate your point in the last paragraph about how our access shapes our dietary choices.

  5. Arrrgh. Very good points. I didn’t know who put out the blog/book but didn’t think they were people of colour. I just liked the swearing to be honest. I will buy a Bryant Terry book instead of Thug Kitchen. I love his first cookbook and paid many fines at the library for having it out too long.

  6. I think you are taking this a little too seriously. I know lots of people who speak/write like that who are of varying races/class backgrounds.

    The point is – why does it bother you so much? They are just having fun with their blog & recipes. If you picture something different when you hear the word “thug” and get offended that these bloggers don’t fit into your ideal, then that is more your problem then it is theirs.

    Why do people have to fit a label or into “boxes” in order for you to feel comfortable?

    1. I don’t think there is such a thing as taking racism “too seriously”.

      You can disagree with my analysis or conclusion but this is denigrating and derailing. And I don’t tolerate that on my blog.

  7. I don’t know. When I read Thug Kitchen posts, I tend to hear them in the voice of Dicky Barrett of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. And I think of thugs as the characters in the Boondock Saints. Maybe I’m old. Maybe I’m sheltered.

    1. Well, I can’t speak to your age, but I think your latter guess is probably spot on. 🙂

      If you remember how the Trayvon Martin murder was covered, “thug” was used to devalue his life and justify Zimmerman’s murder of him (see pretty much any Fox News coverage), because we have, culturally, imbued it with all sorts of racist subtext. (And I feel pretty confident the authors of Thug Kitchen weren’t trying to get some fifteen year old, fictional, Boston street cred, you know?)

  8. God yes, this is brilliant. A few people have already mentioned this, but it bears repeating: one of the biggest problems with this particular iteration of the Thug-whatever nonsense is that white folks get to be making money off of a label that keeps blacks from getting jobs. Then, toss in this specific sanctimony about what “good, clean food” is (seriously, who’s rubbing their food in mud before eating? The term is so condescending.) and the fact that class and poverty have as much to do with what you eat as willpower, and this is yet another perfect example of the denigration of blacks and blackness for the profit of “entrepreneurship”. Gross.

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