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 Black, Kelly Kean Sharp isn’t Mexican, BethAnn McLaughlin’s Twitter isn’t Hopi, Craig Chapman’s Twitter isn’t a woman of color, Andrea 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.
For example Facebook’s newest business advice resource, “Social Good For Business,” reads like a manual for leveraging social issues for profit. Their case study of Bombas Socks champions the cause of LGBTQ homeless youth to boost brand awareness. Did Bombas actually help these youth? Who knows, it never comes up. Instead the article underlines a “65% higher return on ad spend than business-as-usual campaigns.” The only explicit “Social Good” that the site promotes is revenue.
The heightened tokenization of social issues intensifies life online for precarious marginalized groups. Social media users are entrepreneurs in the attention economy, where viral media represents a shot at authority, instant self-promotion and career advancement. The pressure to participate and establish a unique brand pushes many minority actors to capitalize on their story of adversity. But this is degrading, and worse, undermines civil rights movement building where identity is not a brand, but our interdependent relationship and lifeblood.
The insistent pressure to self-optimize was hatched in the post-financial pop culture fallout of the 1973 market collapse. Corporate interests turned to cheap, lightweight, flexible accumulation and ephemeral vivid lifestyle campaigns like “The United Colors of Benetton.” At the same time pro-business activists strangled growing civil rights movements that threatened their profit margins: discrediting labor union activism, privatizing essential services that these movements depended on, and “culture wars” attacks on the public democratic spaces where they organized.
As these movements weakened, their centrist elements emerged as single-issue lobby organizations aligned with capitalist media and market interests to shore up inclusion and access for the privileged few while pushing policies like color-blind anti-affirmative action racial politics, post-feminist girl power and LGBT homonormativity, to cite incisive cultural analyst Lisa Duggan. Organizations like the National Abortion Rights Action League and GLAAD sought institutional affirmation, assimilation, fundraising opportunities, and a shot at survival. The price? Corporate decision-making models and liberal reform divorced from material life, class politics, or any critique of global capitalism.
Today “corporate social responsibility” swans into that rift. Pantene’s global “Hair Has No Gender” campaign launched images of transgender women of color that reduced a civil rights movement to a fad excavated for monetary advantage. Commercialized social justice doesn’t redistribute resources, it drains the “collective” part of action, and reduces community leaders to shampoo sellers. Tiktok Creator Marketplace hawks users as corporate billboards, and this model of personhood is rapidly expanding to Snapchat and Facebook. Marginalized individuals are pitted against each other as entrepreneurs who benefit from capitalism rather than fight its inequalities.
But marginalized communities watch as this tokenization explodes with or without us. Last year as corporations broadcast solidarity statements with Black Lives Matter, they inaugurated a heightened shamelessness around social issues for profit. We know it’s bad because even far-right executives are upset and retaliated this May. A group called Consumers’ Research kicked off a million-dollar ad campaign lambasting “corporate wokeness.” For once I agree with my political opponents. In the words of executive director Will Hild:
“What we’re seeing is increasingly companies trying to distract from their failings by cosying up to woke politicians. You’ve seen them taking positions on legislation that has nothing to do with their business model.”
Indeed! But our agreement ends there. His goal is a return to business as usual; mine is more radical. Identity politics must be restored to the definition in the 1977 Black lesbian civil rights manifesto The Combahee River Collective Statement (PDF)— a movement dedicated to both representation and the redistribution of material resources. Social media fuels the opposite: identity politics divorced from redistribution and class analysis, marinated in a business model of saleable demographics and lucrative moral rhetoric that weakens equity and solidarity.
Ethnic fraud, class fraud, sexuality fraud have all boomed as disenfranchisement, or the appearance of it, has become perversely bankable thanks to a social media business model that celebrates single-issue representational diversity optics in service of the upward distribution of profits.
The solution: identity politics must always be tied to concrete class-based activism, affordable housing, healthcare, legal status, and robust labor rights. The ravages of the pandemic have raised the circulation of these concrete issues on social media platforms, harnessing their algorithms for real social good. May we persevere.