"The Thugs." Image via Twitter
Earlier this week, a hard-hitting investigation by Epicurious revealed that the food blog (and upcoming cookbook) Thug Kitchen—a brand that got popular by writing recipes in a tone reminiscent of African American Vernacular English—is run by two WASPy white people from California, Michelle Davis and Matt Holloway, whom Epicurious refers to as “masterminds.”
For the uninitiated, Thug Kitchen’s recipes are sold with phrases like “Don’t fuck around with some sorry-ass ten-dollar takeout,” and “This holiday season bake a batch of these spiced sons of bitches.” The tone has led many people to deride the "Thugs," as Davis and Holloway wish to be called, as “deceptive” and “a lot like the latest iteration of nouveau blackface.” Others criticized the title of Thug Kitchen for its use of the word thug, something that has been deemed a code word—that is, a “polite way to say ‘nigger’ in mixed company.”
The backlash to the revelation that Thug Kitchen is written by white people has inspired a backlash of its own. Detractors of Davis and Holloway’s critics point out that automatically associating the word thug with black men is itself racist. But there’s no denying that the word has historically been used as a weapon to condemn people of color.
As many have pointed out, last year, when 26-year-old Stanford grad and Compton native Richard Sherman played the game of a lifetime and served an integral role in sending the Seattle Seahawks into the Super Bowl, he gave an impassioned post-game speech in which he called out his opponents' perceived slights against him. He didn't even curse, but he was immediately labeled a thug, presumably because his skin color and dreadlocks fit the description of what people typically associate with that word.
More recently, I wrote about how the New York Post smeared storied New York City police officer, former drug dealer, and current community advocate Corey Pegues, describing him as a “thug cop” on the cover of their paper after he appeared on the Combat Jack Show and shared the story of how he transitioned from a victim of the trap to becoming an executive in the world’s largest police force.
One thing is clear: For the upwardly mobile white Angelinos behind Thug Kitchen, the word thug is ironic and funny, a bit of culturally exploratory fun. But for men like Sherman and Pegues, it's a putdown meant to demonize and dehumanize.
You don’t have to look very hard to find white and non-black people profiting off of what could traditionally be deemed black culture. Urban Outfitters sells a book called Understand Rap, written by William Buckholz, a white freelance writer from Seattle, who “demystifies” rap by explaining “confusing rap lyrics” so that “you and your grandma can understand.”
More infamously, the coder frat bros behind Rap Genius received a $15 million infusion in their company from angel investor Andreessen Horowitz. But they stole a large bounty of their lyrics from an original hip-hop lyrics website and profit from the works of primarily African American artists. Meanwhile, their private internal chatroom was a mess of cultural insensitivity and crude racial jokes.
Whether or not Holloway and Davis would have received a book deal if they were black is up for debate, but what isn’t is the way the word thug has been used to insult black men and women in the United States.
With that in mind, one would like to assume that the people behind a company that sells a $20 T-shirt emblazoned with the expression “Know Your Roots"—with its link to the history of slavery and black genealogy (not to mention the seminal book and TV series Roots)—might be cognizant of the blatant racial coding present in their marketing. Either they knowingly benefitted from a form of digital blackface, or they are racially tone-deaf. Neither explanation should absolve Holloway and Davis from criticism and outright commercial rejection.
After initially agreeing to speak with me for this story, the "Thugs” declined to comment for this piece.
Perhaps the best way to respond to a company whose recent promotional video (embedded above) contains the phrase “I don’t play that shit anymore” is to look Holloway and Davis in the face and tell them that we’re going to do the same.