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How identity politics turned into "identity economics" 
May 14, 2021
On 3 August 2020, The Washington Post exposed the truth about the Instagram account “Queer Appalachia” (Eisenberg, 2020). Over the years, this highly influential account had fundraised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support social justice efforts and combat White supremacy and transphobia in the region, often on behalf of queer and trans people of color. But queer and trans people of color did not see any of the money. It was mostly kept by Mamone, the account’s White owner, who capitalized on marginalized identities to earn attention and money. “Every time [Mamone was] trying to get money,” an informant told the Post, they would claim they were fundraising for “a trans person of color” (Eisenberg, 2020).

Mamone’s story is not isolated. The next day, on 4 August 2020, the New York Times exposed neuroscientist BethAnn McLaughlin for inventing an Indigenous Twitter user. The fictional account @Sciencing_Bi had allegedly belonged to a queer scientist of the Hopi Nation—who avidly supported McLaughlin’s divisive public statements about gender and sexism, and came to her aid in high-profile disputes, even petitioning for her tenure bid at Vanderbilt University. Then this past April, after the account had gained significant attention on Science Twitter, McLaughlin killed it off. Its owner allegedly contracted COVID-19 and died (Bromwich & Marcus, 2020).

Just 1 month later in a Medium blog postdated 3 September 2020, Professor Jessica Krug publicly confessed to having pretended to be Black (Krug, 2020). Krug works as an associate professor at George Washington University. According to her faculty bio, she teaches “politics, ideas, and cultural practices in Africa and the African Diaspora, with a particular interest in West Central Africa and maroon societies in the early modern period and Black transnational cultural studies.” Until her confession, Krug was a high-profile Black studies academic, supported by acclaimed writers like Kiese Laymon and Hari Ziyad. Krug could have led a successful career as a White scholar of the African diaspora. She did not need to pretend to be Black. Why did she do it? She may have believed it gave her position more legitimacy. Hari Ziyad tweeted that she was “always needing to prove her authenticity at the expense of everything else” (@HariZiyad, 2020). Her fellow academic Yarimar Bonilla observed how “she consistently trashed WOC [women of colour] and questioned their scholarship” (@yarimarbonilla, 2020).

Krug, McLaughlin, and Mamone are three extreme cases of a shifting norm. At first glance, these stories represent online identity fraud, but I argue that they also signal something more pernicious: the growing cultural treatment of social identity as currency.... Read more here

How Facebook thrives on deep-seated North American Protestant values
April 20, 2020
Facebook has been accused of major global crises, potentially undermining electoral democracy and facilitating the spread of xenophobic extremism worldwide. Scholars and news media generally name Facebook’s two central flaws: that its data collection practices are a threat to user privacy, and that stricter regulations are required to prevent “bad actors” from spreading hate and disinformation (Frenkel et al., 2018; Hughes, 2019; Massanari, 2017). However as a queer and racialized social media activist, I became deeply attuned to the way that my influence was directly proportionate to my calculated self-branding and intolerant callouts. Separating these two concerns—personal data collection and bad actors—overlooks the way that one generates the other. Both problems share the same source, because Facebook is a modern iteration of a colonial legacy: the profitable nature of alienating, antisocial behavior.

Due to Facebook’s subsidiary acquisitions and the absorption of many third-party apps through its application programming interface (API), its influence amounts to an imperial infrastructure (Yong Jin, 2015). The global ubiquity and personal intimacy of social media add pernicious new dimensions to colonial capitalist tropes. Its revenue comes from classifying identity into target advertising categories, and to generate more of this $6 billion asset, consumer-facing algorithms encourage users to delve into deeper group engagement through liked and shared declarations and social renunciations (Tufekci, 2018; Vaidhyanathan, 2018). Through Facebook Ad Manager, these personal values, behaviors, and reputations are itemized in terms of market value, and meanwhile for users, these identity politics produce proportionate social currency. The overall effect produces a viral, profit-driven distortion of identity politics that I call “identity economics,” a new version of traditional market research (Akerlof & Kranton, 2000) with high personal stakes that incentivize individual demagoguery and vigilance. For instance, Cambridge Analytica’s legitimate Facebook data use has been credited for “maintaining the cohesion of the coalition” of violent populist campaigns in Italy, Brazil, Malaysia, and 200 other elections worldwide (“Cambridge”, 2018). Such antisocial backlash has not discouraged use, Facebook’s network effect and revenue grow amidst “cancel culture” and combative polarity. This article argues that Facebook’s business model belongs to an ancient colonial business legacy based on a ranking system of public virtues and sins... Read more here

Popular Press
BIPOC Activists Fight Canada's Biased Art Scene
Aug 5, 2021

Canadian art has a reputation for being White bland, and that might be because it’s controlled by government grants and the tastes of wealthy White patrons. This is a shame in a richly diverse country full of creative, ingenious, original artists. In 2013 I started an annual Montreal festival to feature queer and transgender artists of color, but stifling funding parameters have since forced me, and many of us, to quit.

The explain what I mean by “stifling”: in March the Canadian government announced that it is pouring millions of dollars into the arts post-COVID. The Canada Council for the Arts (CCA) will disburse $116.5 million, and Canadian Heritage $62.8 million. So far, groups that are “Indigenous, culturally diverse, deaf, disabled, or official language minorities,” will share only four percent of these CCA funds. In other words, we aren’t really who the country thinks of as “artists.” ...Read more here

How Ethnic Fraud Became Perversely Bankable 
June 15, 2021

We seem to be entering a weird golden age of ethnic fraud. Disgraced names started stacking up spectacularly last year as high-profile academics of color were exposed as white. Jessica Krug isn’t BlackKelly Kean Sharp isn’t MexicanBethAnn McLaughlin’s Twitter isn’t HopiCraig Chapman’s Twitter isn’t a woman of colorAndrea Smith isn’t Cherokee.

Is this a moment of reckoning, or a new normal? According to activists, callouts don’t seem to stem the tide. That might be because the incentives to fraud are growing.

Social media rewards marginalized actors—and their imposters—for capitalizing on disenfranchisement. This is true despite the fact that people who adopt marginalized identity as a political act are demonized on both sides: left-wing critics accuse them of “victimhood chic,” “victimhood culture” and the “Vampire Castle” to the delight of right-wing critics, like the typical Fox News assertion that “the goal of protests over George Floyd’s death: It’s about victimhood and power.”

But social media performativity isn't about power-hungry individuals. It's the design of a platform built to optimize every last thing for profit.... Read more here

Museums and identity politics 
Autumn 2019

In 2012, an artist I admire curated a highly anticipated exhibition of 101 Toronto artists, and 94 of them were white. I was so incensed that I wrote an MFA thesis about it. “Why,” ranted my thesis, “doesn’t Canadian art reflect national demographics? Whose art history is canonical? Who truly owns the gallery space?” Within just five years, my paper was outdated. In 2017 the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) unveiled Every. Now. Then: Reframing Nationhood, a retrospective deliberately honouring Toronto artists who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour. The same year the gallery inaugurated the formal position of Indigenous curator, first appointed to Wanda Nanibush. She radically established Anishinaabemowin as a third language on most AGO wall texts, a groundbreaking precedent for a major Canadian cultural institution, and in 2018 the AGO’s JS McLean Centre for Canadian Art was renamed and reinstalled to include and integrate Indigenous art.

How did cultural priorities change so drastically in such a short time? It’s an unprecedented pace even to generations of local activists, and it wasn’t accelerated by belligerent MFA papers. A major enabling factor has been social media’s voracious pace. Online movements drive social change in what feels like dog years, and one activist month on Twitter is equal to one pre-internet activist year.... Read more here

Identity politics and graphic novels
July 11, 2019

I’ve been blessed with wonderful lovers who, after our breakups, have emerged into cherished friendships. But not always. A couple of my breakups will haunt me for life, and sometimes I still have nightmares about them. ​7 Dreams About You​ is a graphic novel based on these, and this excerpt is the second chapter.

My hardest relationships started after I got famous on queer social media. Queer fame is a bolt of lightning that strikes and disappears as quickly as the turnover of each new gay generation. Queers of colour in particular, can’t lean on a formal institution or canonical lineage, so we spend a few seconds in the spotlight before a younger version of us claims to be the first to ever to exist.

My short gasp of fame was completely awesome. Hundreds of people liked my status updates. I went on international book tours, won film festival awards, and published my first graphic novel. Fame was a babe magnet, which was fantastic. I dated the sexiest androgenes I laid eyes on, charismatic, talented magical and wonderful. Twice I was part of a queer “power couple,” which was intoxicating.

Some famous power couples last, mine buckled in the social media spotlight. Each time we were passionate and lovestruck and gradually warped with jealousy and paranoia. I don’t blame my exes, I blame online platforms. Everything in our lives was ranked in order of popularity, in a landscape that trained us to think like brands instead of humans. I was battling my own lovers over our meagre fortune of social currency. My nightmares took the shape of instagram feeds. Now I obsess over the distorting power of social networks, it’s the subject of my PhD. Ultimately this book is about the corruption of identity politics that I call ​identity economics​... Read more here