In Conversation With Lily Zheng: What It Means to ‘Sell Out Ethically’ In An Unequal World

In Conversation With Lily Zheng: What It Means to ‘Sell Out Ethically’ In An Unequal World

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June 21, 2024 at 2:5PM UTC

My conversation with Lily Zheng began with a confession. 

After first attempting to get a copy of her book, “The Ethical Sellout: Maintaining Your Integrity In the Age of Compromise,” directly from the publisher, I’d ultimately had to order it from Amazon. And — given my commitment to not further padding the pockets of the world’s richest man, whose personal wealth grew another $48 billion during the first three months of the pandemic alone — this was not a decision I felt great about. 

Zheng, an activist, author and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion consultant, understood my guilt well. Navigating the guilt, shame and fear that surrounds selling out — or, making a choice that goes against your values, identity and/or community — is at the heart of her book. It’s part and parcel of her day-to-day life as a trans, queer, Asian-American woman who works as a corporate consultant. And it’s also a line she’s had to tow with Amazon, specifically.

“So many people order from Amazon that if I drove more people to order from Amazon, it would actually drive the book’s rankings up quite a bit, getting me more sales,” she told me. “The algorithm is really, really good — and also, I hate them.”

In “The Ethical Sellout,” which she co-wrote with Stanford University’s Director of Well-Being, Inge Hansen, Zheng doesn’t advocate for a purity-politics approach to these situations. The world, as she sees it, is a lot more nuanced than that. 

“We’re not trying to say through the book that there’s any one way to live your life or any one way, prescriptively, to sell out ethically,” she explained. “What we are trying to do is encourage conversations about power, inequality, historical oppression and our relationship to our communities in a way that makes these sorts of conversations about selling out less of a binary — ‘you sell out, you’re a bad person’ or ‘you don’t sell out, you’re a good person’ — and more of a nuanced, complex discussion about finding our way in a world that is so harmful and shitty for so many people.” 

In our conversation, Zheng expanded more on the book’s central themes, allowing space for life’s grays, and making decisions that mitigate harm in a power-imbalanced world.

Selling out ethically as a burden for some, and not others

As Zheng put it, “So long as we exist in a world that is unequal and oppressive, we are always going to have to navigate selling out as a consequence of existing in that world.” 

In short, in a capitalist society, making decisions that are completely free of harm to others is often impossible. But, as she and Hansen saw while conducting their research, understanding one’s choices as a source of harm is not a universal experience. As they wrote in the book: 

One of our participants pointed out that people with marginalized identities have a much higher standard for not selling out than people without them: 

“Looking at it from the other perspective, why not sell out? Why is it a question of integrity or morality for marginalized people or people of color? Why is that even a thing? Like, why can’t Omarosa have her ideas and still be Black? Or Kanye West have his ideas and still be Black?”

... As a result of these expectations, people with marginalized identities are often made to hold far more community responsibility for their choices compared to privileged identities.

As Zheng summarized to me, “Marginalized folks are saddled with the additional burden of needing to make choices that always, by definition, impact people beyond themselves.” 

Meanwhile, over the course of her research, Zheng did encounter individuals who didn’t personally relate to the sense of having sold out, or a fear of doing so. Not surprisingly, these were people whose core identities aren’t “othered” by society — people who are propped up to see their choices primarily through the lens of individualism, rather than from a place of “what does this mean for the communities I belong to?”

“We didn’t find much example of selling out among the rich and privileged, because they didn’t have anything to sell out,” she said. “They didn’t even think about those things as values they were compromising — they just didn’t have those values to begin with. We’ve actually talked to a few people who were like, ‘What do you mean? I don’t have any community that I’m betraying. I just made money.’ There wasn’t a sense of ‘I have betrayed this specific group’ because there wasn’t a feeling of belonging to a specific group.”

Selling out ethically and sexism

As discussed in the book, feelings of guilt and shame — one’s “moral smoke detector” going off — are common symptoms of selling out. And yet, gender can play a sizable role in who struggles with these feelings of guilt in the first place.

“If people, typically women or feminine people, have been socialized to be less assertive and to not be as certain of their choices, that maps on pretty well to men being more likely to feel confident that the decision they made is the right one, whereas women are more likely to wonder whether the decision they made was correct and to wonder whether they did the right thing.” 

Although Zheng acknowledges the value in introspection, it can sometimes go too far.

“To have these sorts of conversations internally about whether a choice was the right choice, to some extent, is I actually think a really positive thing,” she said. “I think that introspection is a powerful trait that we need people to be doing more of when it comes to these decisions. But like everything in this book, there’s a fine line between introspecting in a healthy way and being so riddled with guilt and shame that you can’t move past the decision that you’ve made.”

Selling out ethically in 2020

When Zheng wrote this book in 2019, she couldn’t have known what 2020 had in store. Now, she sees some of the choices and compromises that the book discusses as more relevant than ever. 

“In the book, we talk about the importance of the situation on people’s selling out decisions, and there is no more disastrous and absurd a situation than the one we are all in collectively as a country, and honestly as a world, right now,” she said. “These are some of the worst times that we have seen. Just using the framework of the book, you would expect that more people are selling out in this day and age because the situation is requiring that we compromise to survive.”

As an example, Zheng pointed to activist friends who’ve taken jobs they never would have previously — jobs that go against their values. And yet, they have to do this work now, Zheng said, because “they have to put food on the table, they need a roof over their heads, and they’re supporting their loved ones and kids.” Other friends of hers have had to choose to stay in toxic jobs they’d planned on quitting before the pandemic hit.

Now more than ever, as stakes and tensions run high, Zheng believes that a framework of analyzing one’s choices in a way that mitigates harm to others and reduces guilt for that which we can’t control is essential.

Selling out ethically and the CHANGE framework

Realizing there was no “five-step plan” for selling out ethically, Zheng and Hansen instead identified the CHANGE framework, to help people feel more comfortable about navigating their decisions in an unequal world. Using six qualities — Compassion, Honesty, Accountability, Nuance, Growth, and Exploration — the framework moves away from a “good vs bad” scoring system and instead presents a new lens through which to look at choices.

“I really do think that navigating the ambiguity of selling out and navigating the difficult compromises that we have to make every single day is something that all of us can benefit from,” Zheng said. “What we wanted to do was give some reassurance to folks that they’re not alone. Anyone who’s struggling under systems of oppression goes through this, and there’s no perfect way to exist in this messed up world… but we do need to think compassionately and honestly and with accountability about all of our decisions. We need to develop those sorts of skills.”

Below, Zheng shared some check-in questions that can help give you a sense of where your choices fit within the CHANGE framework. 


1. “How am I taking care of myself during this time?”

2. “How am I making space for myself?”

3. “How am I being kind to myself?”

“Those are very important, especially for people who are prone to guilt. I’m looking at every single person from a marginalized background! Pretty much every activist I know is driven by guilt, which is a great motivator but not very good for sustaining yourself.”


4. “Why?”

“Ask yourself why, but better than that, ask other people their thoughts on why you’re doing what you’re doing. Honesty is the toughest one of all because self-awareness is something that a lot of us like to say that we have, but it’s always a work in progress for all of us. So I might say, ‘Oh, I’m making this choice because I have no other option.’ That’s a really good time to bring someone else in and say, ‘Do I really have no other options?’ And oftentimes, you do. Get thought partners.”


5. “What impact am I having on all the groups I care about?”

“That requires you first to identify all of the groups you care about. I care about my family. I care about activists. I care about marginalized employees. I care to some extent about leaders. I care to a great extent about queer and trans people. So always, when I make a big choice, I say, ‘Is this choice going to benefit all of these groups? If not, is it going to do harm to some of these groups? Who is going to be harmed, who is going to be benefited, and knowing that, would my decision change?”


6. “What am I not seeing?”

7. “Whose perspective have I not gotten?” 

“I’m not trying to say play the ‘both sides’ game. I mean to say, ‘What about the side that I’m on is more complex than I know? How many perspectives exist in this space?’ It’s never, ever binary.”

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