So unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past several days, you and just about everyone on the north American continent has heard about the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Ferguson, Missouri, resident Michael Brown. And unless you’ve completely abandoned social media, you and just about everyone on the north American continent has heard every conceivable opinion about it…and possibly formed one or two opinions of your own.

But what does this have to do with the vegan community, you might ask. Well, whether or not you believe an unarmed teen deserved six gun shots from an officer for stealing a handful of cigarillos, this reignites a recent discussion about racial politics and cultural sensitivity in veganism.

You see, when reading discussions on social media, I noticed a disturbing trend:

 

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Oh my! Michael Brown is a ‘fleeing felon.’ Curious. I don’t recall any statements being released that he was convicted of any felonies or that he was facing any felony charges. Surely this is just one well-meaning vegan who got some bad information. But then:

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My goodness! He was a murderer too? I must have missed that part of the story. I wonder who his victim was. Could there have been multiple victims even?? Bah. This is another completely isolated incident. Although:

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Wait a minute, here. Do you see another common descriptor thrown in to characterize Michael Brown? If you guessed the word thug, you win the grand prize. I’m almost tempted to think thug was coded language for racist people who want to use another word entirely. But that can’t possibly be the case! After all, we all just agreed that the word thug in America was race neutral.

Didn’t we?

Think back, if you will, to roughly two months ago when two industrious white writers from Los Angeles launched their edgy new vegan cookbook based on their popular blog filled with colorful language and witty banter. A book called Thug Kitchen. And think about how the discussion in the vegan community placed most readers squarely into two camps: 1.) those who supported the book and 2.) those who recognized the book as cultural appropriation at best and Internet blackface at worst.

For those who supported, and still may support the book, please consider once and for all why this seemingly harmless book is actually a clever story about how two plucky white people made a fortune pretending to be urban hip hop artists du jour.

Common defenses for Thug Kitchen:

I never thought of race. You’re racist if you think it’s about race.

Look, those who are pointing out racism aren’t guilty of racism. Although that’s a very handy defense mechanism to accuse the accuser, that’s not how this works. Even Jon Stewart observes we can’t use the whoever-smelt-it-dealt-it defense outside of grade school, particularly with regard to racism.

According to research conducted by Tufts University, black people live in an America where white people feel more victimized by racism than them (lulz). And this despite the fact that the 60% of the prison population is comprised of people of color and statistics indicate that black people are arrested at four times the rate of white people for exactly the same crimes. Trust me, if you’re white, nothing has to be about race. And if you’re black, everything always is.

Thug is race neutral.

Pop quiz: Are you white? If the answer is yes, then there you go.

Totally who the authors had in mind when they were writing this book.

Totally who the authors had in mind when they were writing this book.

When I think of a thug, I think of a 1940s gangster. I never dreamed of attributing it to black people. 

Was this book written in the cadence of a 1940s gangster? No? Oh, okay then.

The word thug is British in origin and was used to describe Indian criminals.

First of all, the word gay used to just mean happy. But it pretty much means gay now and we don’t live in the past. Second, even if we used the word as originally intended, it would still be inaccurate to describe any other group and it would still be racist against Indians.

Well it isn’t a racially sensitive term in [insert your country here].

That’s awesome. I’m actually sincerely glad that is the case. Set up the sofa and make a space for me. Outside of America, racism doesn’t necessarily exist in a black/white construct. But as stated by the Academic Abolitionist, this is an American book with a primarily American audience. What it does or does not mean outside this country is mostly not relevant to American culture.

I never use it like that. And that hasn’t been my experience. So it’s okay.

Unfortunately, anecdotal experience ≠ structural truth. So although your mileage may vary, tis’ not relevant to the lived experiences of urban racial minorities.

I have a black friend who thought it was cool. So I can use that as my get-out-of-jail-free card.

If your black friend also lets you get away with saying the n-word, would you take a car trip over to Harlem and let that fly above 140th and Amsterdam?

Well it doesn’t mean that for me. So I reserve the right to say it with impunity.

Fabz. Let’s look at this from another perspective. Historically, the swastika was linked to Buddhism and a charm for good luck. But Hitler appropriated it as a symbol of Nazism. Would you wear one around a Jewish person and smugly tell them that it doesn’t mean that for you? Or is that kinda sorta anti-Semitic?

Well the tone of Thug Kitchen could belong to anyone. I didn’t imagine it was black at all.

Aaaaaactually, even the Washington Post is quoted as imagining the voice of Samuel L. Jackson. So, while it’s fortunate that you didn’t, it’s fairly common.

Well I’m not black and I’ve talked that way for years.

Awesome. Then you, my friend, have adopted what is known as AAVE or African American Vernacular English. Just because you’ve integrated it into your vocabulary doesn’t mean you invented it. Also, before you launch into a discourse about how it’s just using the word fuck a lot, AAVE is not about cussing. It’s an entire dialect.

So bottom line is this: most vegans want to be good allies in all types of justice—not just for animals, but also against racism, homophobia, sexism, and more. But part of being a good ally is recognizing when someone tells you that something can be perceived as problematic for a community you don’t identify with. Seeking justice for nonhumans while still engaging in exploitative or problematic behavior actually sets us back. Don’t we get tired of people who say to us, “Well animals are great. But it sure would be awesome if you cared about people too?”

Well now is our chance to own the answer that we are vegan for everyone. The solution isn’t an either/or proposition between human and nonhuman animals. It’s both/and.

So vegans. Can we bury the word thug…please?

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Christopher-Sebastian McJetters is a social justice advocate who divides his time between New York City and Charlotte, North Carolina. He is a professional copyeditor and a staff writer at Vegan Publishers. In his spare time, he organizes events and discussions relative to exploring the intersectionality of veganism and other movements for social justice including the LGBT community and people of color. He is also the proud parent of one rescue dog, Orion.