Thug Kitchen, Thug Life and the Perilous Nature of Cultural Appropriation

Thug Kitchen: Eat Like You Give a F*ck.  I agree with them there.  We ought to eat like we care about ourselves and our world.  I also think that I understand the premise of authors Michelle Davis and Matt Holloway, the White authors of Thug Kitchen (I only mention their race because it is relevant to this discussion; it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway — just because I remain critical of racial issues doesn’t mean I am racist. I have nothing against people of any race).  The authors’ intention was to show that vegan cooking can be badass.  Veganism is hardcore.  It’s not boring.  It’s cool.  It’s real.  It’s not just for hippies and hipsters.  Kale, quinoa and tempeh can be fun.   As someone who has followed a plant-based diet for some time now, I realize that veganism tends to be a privileged and inaccessible space.  I applaud authors and chefs like Bryant Terry and others who try to make veganism more down to earth and accessible to other cultural groups.  Moreover, I realize that there are so many vegan books (and blogs) on the market and that, as an author, you have to be different to have your book or blog recognized.

That said, off the bat, the title of this book did not bother me.  I thought it was interesting, but that’s pretty much it.  In fact, when I first saw Thug Kitchen, I marveled at the lengths we have to go to get veganism recognized and accepted.  We have come to the point where we have to have recipes riddled with expletives in order to convince people to eat healthy food.

The title Thug Kitchen raised my eyebrows but then I went on with life.  I wondered what the book had to do with thug life and then I realized that there wasn’t much.  Thus, I found the title odd and slightly problematic, but, as a Black women, I’m faced with so many problematic things on a daily basis such that I have learned and am learning to pick my battles, distill fact from foolishness, and tactfully identify those things that are worth my animosity, advocacy and activism.  If I internalize everything, I probably wouldn’t have reason to get out of bed in the morning.  So it’s become a habit for me to consciously and unconsciously block out racial ignorance as a defense mechanism and self-preservation tactic.  While the title is puzzling, I think there are larger fish – or tempeh – to fry.

Thug Kitchen has not kept me up at night.  I wish the authors the best of success.  However, I do feel that with regards to this book and in the wake of the cultural appropriation (to put it lightly) that happened on Halloween this year and every year, this is as good a time as any to engage in a discussion and give a friendly reminder about the wrongness of cultural appropriation.

“Cultural appropriation?” you say.  “Gee, Simone,” I can hear you mumbling, “you take this much too seriously.”  I beg to differ.  Please believe – I can take a joke.  I have a wonderful sense of humour.  But, as my grandfather always used to say, “What is [a] joke to you is death to me.”

When you take a caricature inextricably bound to a race or culture and lift it from its cultural context for exploitative purposes, I call that cultural appropriation.  The effects can be horribly damaging, from Elvis Presley and his contemporaries stealing Black musical stylings and using it for their own financial gain to the twerking Miley Cyrus (see here and here), and the chain wearing and gangsta posing Taylor Swift (with more twerking behind her).  This goes far beyond saying that “White people have no right to swear in their recipes,” or “White people can’t use the word thug” because those assertions are ridiculous.  The issue is not the “what” but the “how” and the “why.”

Some people are calling what they have done Internet-blackface.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. Blackface was a racist practice meant to demean and denigrate (the etymology of this word is interesting, especially in this scenario) and humiliate Black people during the time of minstrel shows.  I don’t think Thug Kitchen set out to demean or has effectively demeaned anyone.  In my opinion, they are not being racist per se.  While the authors have not done anything egregiously wrong in my view, they have engaged in a mild form of cultural appropriation.

“Thug” is a loaded term.  It goes far beyond just being badass.  It’s about criminality.  It’s about struggle.  It’s about the hustle to survive.  And people of colour the world over know that criminality and struggle and hustle (in other words, thug life) are unfortunately linked to race.  That’s why the title of this book invokes both a racial and cultural issue.  Because being a thug is often linked to being black (although it really shouldn’t be and I really wish it wasn’t), to call a book Thug Kitchen is an appropriation of Black culture.  Let me explain.

The Black community holds no monopoly over the word “thug.”  However, in the world of today, no other culture is more closely associated with thug life than Black culture.  We no longer immediately think of the Indian thugees (gangs of villians and thiefs) of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, which is, in fact, where the word “thug” originated.  The word “thug” now conjures up images of Trick Daddy and Tupac Shakur and not upper class people doing insider trading.  We think about grills (gold teeth), gold chains and dollar signs.  Nowadays, when we think of the word “thug,” we think about gangsters and rappers, who are, at least in the general public consciousness, typically and historically Black.  Furthermore, the word “thug” is often used to distance oneself from Black victims of crime.  Thugishness was used to denigrate (there’s that word again) Trayvon Martin (see here, here and here) and alienate Mike Brown (see here, here and here).  So while thugs are not necessarily Black, and while thugishness is not specific to blackness, thug life and thugishness is unfortunately (and often wrongly) associated with Black culture. Insofar as it has been subsumed by Black culture and is widely associated with Black culture, to appropriate it means one perilously walks a very fine line – a tight rope off of which many have been known to slip.

Even despite the best of intentions, cultural appropriation often ends up as an ignorant and ill-informed form of mockery that reeks of ignorance.

Some have said that this cookbook is another manifestation of White privilege.  A Black person couldn’t pretend to be a hick or a hillbilly and write a book called Cooking like a Redneck with “y’alls” interspersed between recipes.   Likewise, it would be inappropriate to write a cookbook called The Untouchables and include roti, dahl puri and butter chicken recipes.  You don’t take a socially marginalized class and exploit them.

Further, it is important to have a link to your subject.  It’s like reading a cookbook on Jamaican cuisine titled “Ya Mon”: The Rastafarian’s Diet, seeing it sprinkled with Jamaican patois throughout, and realizing that the author is a Samoan man from Kansas.  My first question would be, “Cool idea.  But who are you?  Why are you writing this book?  What qualifies you to write this book?”  Now, I’m not saying that Samoan people cannot write books about the foods of other cultures.   But I am saying that it is best to write about what you know – personally.  My question is, “what is your relation to the subject?”  If you do not possess a direct link with your subject, perhaps you are not the person to write the book.

If they were thugs, then I could say that they are writing about themselves.  But they are not thugs, which means they are writing about something of which I can be reasonably certain they lack knowledge, as portrayed by their narrow use and definition of the word “thug.”  Because Michelle Davis and Matt Holloway have written a book about veganism with the invocation of thug culture, and their only expertise is in the former, this is problematic.

Let’s pretend that thugishness has nothing to do with race.  Thug Kitchen still perpetuates the stereotype that thug life is only about using foul language.  That’s what being a thug means — saying “f*ck” and “s%$t” all the time.  In reality, “thug” is a bloody term.  As aforementioned, it’s about being a criminal and an outlaw.  It’s not reducible to swearing and another daring way of making a tofu scramble. The authors have reduced thugishness to expletives.

thug

We can argue ad infinitum that thugishness is not racial or cultural.  However, whether or not we believe thug life is inextricably bound to a culture, the authors have used it in a reductionist way.

That’s the problem with cultural appropriation.  Cultural appropriation ends up being necessarily reductionist because the appropriators often lack the knowledge and lived experiences to fill out and colour and justify the appropriation so as it to give it credence and credibility.  It’s representation run amok.  Instead of paying homage to humanity they end up humiliating a culture, class or community.  I’m not saying that Thug Kitchen has, in fact, humiliated a culture, but I do want to explain the slippery slope on which we find ourselves when we appropriate culture.

To conclude, Michelle Davis and Matt Holloway committed a misnomer, not a misdemeanor.  They are proliferating veganism and teaching people how to cuss while cooking.  I imagine that they had the best of intentions.  I don’t know if they knowingly participated in cultural appropriation (does it matter?)  I’ve written this piece not to shame them into submission, but to explain why dabbling into the representation of other cultures is dangerous, whether it’s Halloween or a cookbook.  Given all of the other things that can ruffle our feathers – or…umm…tofu – I will cut them some slack and forgive them for their culpable creativity.

“These adversaries
they gonna have to be worrying
cause I’m a be illing
Fulfilling my Passion
Till I’m burryin’
My Thug Passion”

— Tupac Shakur, Thug Passion

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