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“Thug Kitchen” and the Privilege Of Being Oblivious

November 7th, 2014     by Jackie Mlotek     Comments

Illustration: Erin McPhee

I’ve been a vegetarian for around 4 years. I tried being a vegan for one year and had a difficult time. It was my first year of university, a lot of change was happening, and I happened upon this website you may have recently heard of - due to some controversy - called “Thug Kitchen”.

During the same time period, I began to learn about white privilege ( As I began to learn about white privilege and the immense unearned benefits it affords me, I still didn’t realize its implications on my decision to be vegan. It didn’t occur to me that my choice to be vegan could, in fact, have anything to do with white privilege, with having food security, and being able to afford a vegan lifestyle, in terms of both time and money.

Many people argue that being vegan and/or eating healthy - even though the two are not inherently linked considering that I pretty much only ate pasta for a year when I was vegan) - can be done on a relatively low budget. For the purpose of this post, being vegan and healthy eating will be used interchangeably. Though some people are able to eat vegan on a low budget, it isn’t always realistic. People who can make claims that eating healthy can be cheap usually do not have kids/anyone beside themselves to feed, or have a lot of money or time. This claim is not the rule, but for many people it is a reality that they don’t have the time or money to engage in “healthy eating”. And those not able to partake in “healthy eating” are often shamed instead of the structural causes that are at the root and must be examined and dismantled. How can someone blame an individual for not wanting to stand in the kitchen and cook if they are experiencing poverty, are unemployed or working precariously, have to feed dependents, and have limited time and energy for preparing food from scratch? Combine that with structural racism, sexism, cisnormativity, heteronormativity, ableism, and classism that people can experience in a multitude of ways, and you’re looking at some serious stressors that will understandably get in the way of healthy eating sometimes.

In 2012, 4 million individuals in Canada, including 1.15 million children, experienced some level of food insecurity. That math works out to almost 13% of all Canadian homes. The 2013 Nutritious Food Basket survey also found that it costs $185.99 a week ($805.33 a month) to feed a family of four - as defined in the survey as a man and a woman 31 to 50 years of age, a boy 14 to 18 years of age and a girl 4 to 8 years of age. This survey assumes that you have the money, access to grocery stores, and time to buy and prepare dishes involving fresh vegetables, lean meats/other protein sources, and so on. It is also dependent on where in Canada you are living as food in Northern Canada is unbelievably expensive. Looking at these numbers, it’s not possible to say that healthy eating is not a class-loaded term.

Here’s how all of this relates back to the “Thug Kitchen” website and cookbook, and the big reveal of the two white individuals who are behind it: there are so many ways to be funny and ironic without doing it at the expense of people who are marginalized. If we were actually living in a post-racial utopian world (we are not, but which I will always hope for) maybe we could talk about white people using “thug”; but we’re not. And that’s not even the point. Words like “thug” are coded for racialized folks, specifically young black men, and white people using words like “thugs” perpetuate those connotations in a way that has obvious real life consequences. You are unlikely to see an opinion piece about a white person committing a crime saying they are a “thug”.

To be fair, “thug” is used in many contexts and it is not always negative, but that’s not my post to write. As a white person, living in a white supremacist world, when white people use those kinds of words as a joke, it is perpetuating racism and violence. The tone of the website/cookbook finds its humor in the way it acknowledges the racialized reality behind the word “thug” because the whole rationalization of the humour here is “haha, thugs can’t be vegan/be interested in eating healthy so let’s stick some swear words in our recipes and laugh at how ironic this is!” It perpetuates and reinforces stereotypes about whom “thugs” are and how they should act, which in dominant discourses means young black men. Therefore, those who are called “thugs” in their lived daily experiences are the butt of the joke. And this is not okay.

One of my professors recently stated in a lecture that racism isn’t way over there with a few people making terrible comments online or in a certain area; racism is a structural system of oppression that we are all influenced by. It’s time to start being accountable for our language, especially those who benefit from whiteness.

Tags: race and racism

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