Thug Kitchen chefs to change 'racist' name after defending it for years

Chrissy Callahan

After eight years of using profanity and slang to promote hearty vegan recipes, the founders of Thug Kitchen have decided to change their cooking website's controversial name.

Since launching eight years ago, recipe developers Michelle Davis and Matt Holloway have gained a loyal following from fans who appreciated their irreverent recipe writing style. As the site started surging in popularity, however, many critics over the years have highlighted several problematic issues about the concept of two white chefs using the term Thug Kitchen to promote their cooking.

This week, as many cities continue to host Black Lives Matter demonstrations after George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody, Davis and Holloway announced their decision to rebrand the contentious moniker.

"When we first launched Thug Kitchen in 2012, we wanted our name to signal our brand’s grit in the otherwise polished and elitist food scene. Over the years, as our critics pointed out the racist connotations of two white people using the word 'thug,' we tried to contextualize it by talking about our backgrounds and our beliefs," the chefs wrote in a new statement posted to their website. "We realize, however, that whatever our original intention, our use of it reflected our privilege and ignored the reality that the word is assigned to black people in an attempt to dehumanize them."

The duo created the vegan cooking site in 2012 when Davis was working in a natural food store and Holloway was working as a production assistant. After Gwyneth Paltrow gave the site her official seal of approval on Goop in 2013, Thug Kitchen's following skyrocketed and the duo soon signed a publishing deal with Rodale.

Davis and Holloway have since published three cookbooks (the first was published in 2014) and have landed themselves on the New York Times bestsellers list.

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Despite its popularity, Thug Kitchen has also been the subject of controversy over the years, and many have questioned the real meaning behind the site's moniker. In 2014, author Bryant Terry questioned the writers' use of profanity and general exploitation of the Black community in a column for CNN.

"Certainly, swearing isn't exclusive to African-Americans. But many of the site's captions, usually dreamed up by Davis to accompany Holloway's striking visuals, rely heavily on phrases from black rap lyrics, stand-up routines and films, which eventually went mainstream," he wrote.

A 2014 Vice article titled "'Thug Kitchen' Is the Latest Iteration of Digital Blackface" offered the following critique of the recipe site's founders: "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."

Until this year, Davis and Holloway have always defended their site's name. In a 2014 interview with the Austin Chronicle in 2014, Davis said: “We understand that thug is a loaded word, but we wanted everybody to be a bad ass, to have that aggression. The climate around the word thug is different now than it was when we started the site."

The duo also defended their decision to use profanities on the site in an interview with the Associated Press in 2014. "We swear on the site site cuz we swear in real life, like why would we change that? And again, the only way we're gonna keep that project going is if we think it's funny," Davis said.

In their recently issued statement, Davis and Holloway apologized to their fans (and critics), while setting out future goals for the maybe soon-to-be-renamed website.

"We want our body of work to reflect inclusivity and empathy. In that spirit, we will change the name of our company and website; discontinue the use of Thug Kitchen as the title of all our previous cookbooks; and closely re-evaluate the content of each book," they said. "These changes are underway but will take a little while longer while we finish the work. We’re serious about being advocates for change and that starts with us."

Shortly after the announcement, however, many took to Instagram to question the timing of the name change.

"This was an issue with your company years ago. Yet it wasn't taken seriously amongst most of your followers because it was mostly the black community that spoke out. I'm glad you're making the change, but interested how this change is now taking place," one person commented

Others said the move was "too little, too late" and asked the site's founders to take responsibility for their actions

"Are you going to recognize that you created and exploited a black voice to sell cookbooks? Your explanation seems to point blame at others, but you are also a participant," said another commenter.

The conversation also moved to Twitter.

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Still, some fans of the site said they were excited that the vegan recipe site was finally changing its name and would continue to follow them.

"I super appreciate this. I’m yo biggest fan yet I confess what you spoke of always made me cringe as a Black woman. Glad you are doin the right thing," one person on Instagram commented.

Davis and Holloway were not immediately for comment and have yet to disclose a timeline for when Thug Kitchen will be officially rebranded.