The label sellout has referents in cultural, social, political, and economic communities. In idiomatic use, sellouts are people affiliated with a person or group (who typically have subordinate social status) who are perceived to have betrayed that person or group, their interests, and/or an ideology or cause. To sell out is to betray a group and/or cause.
Sellouts are often accused of betraying groups to which they had belonged previously, and which have a subordinate status to the group in power. These groups might be family, kin, or friendship-based groups, or larger, socially constructed or imagined communities based on nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, or class. Or the groups might be collectives, such as musicians of a marginalized style of music, environmentalists, members of business conglomerates, or international business partnerships seeking to maximize national profits in a competitive global economy.
These groups often have a specific ideological orientation that requires solidarity or a cause, and sellouts are said to be traitors to the cause. The sellout’s attempt to benefit himself socially, culturally, politically, or economically has negative implications for the subordinate group and a positive effect for the group in power—often referred to as the mainstream.
In their work on the economics of identity, William Darity, Patrick Mason, and James Stewart (2006) imply that there is an underlying relationship of domination and subordination between groups (in their work, racial groups) that leads to conflicts and the creation of alternative social norms. Darity et al. contend that the incentives for conflict relate to inequalities in material resources persistent in a society such as the United States with a racialized economic equilibrium that favors whites over other racial groups. This results in racialized individuals and racialized groups pursuing either a racialist or an individualist identity strategy.
A racialist identity strategy permits access to intragroup altruism while identifying individuals for other-group antagonism—that is, minorities versus whites and vice versa. People working under this system have strong loyalties to their racial group and the causes of the collective membership, especially members of the oppressed racial group. Thus, sellouts are individuals from the subordinate group who reject the racialist identity strategy in favor of an individualist strategy, opting for alternative social norms for personal gain rather than for the norms and practices of racialist altruism. The sellout’s actions often hinder the collective racial advancement toward the group cause.
In Latina/o communities in the United States, Vendido/a (“sellout”), Tío Taco (“Uncle Taco”), and “coconut” (“brown on the outside and white on the inside”) are often used as derogatory labels for sellouts who betray their loyalties to the Latina/o group or their cause against white domination. Similarly, in Asian American communities a “banana” is a person who is said to be “yellow on the outside and white on the inside,” and in American Indian communities, an “apple” is “red on the outside and white on the inside.” The most articulate definition of the concept and label in the African American community is documented by Geneva Smitherman, who defines a sellout as “an African American who isn’t DOWN WITH the Black cause, one who betrays the race and compromises the COMMUNITY’S principles, usually for personal gain.… By extension, anyone who GOES FOR SELF and abandons his or her group’s collective mission” (Smitherman 2000, p. 200). Other referents to sellouts in the African American community include “passing” (for white) and the labels “Oreo” (the cookie, “black on the outside and white on the inside”) and “Uncle Tom” (from the 1851–1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin ). Studies on this topic in the field of education were originally framed under the concept of “acting white” (Fordham and Ogbu, 1986).
Assimilation and acculturation are forms of selling out on a large scale through dissociating from the cultural, gender, class, racial, or sexual orientation norms and practices of subordinate group membership.
Besides gaining access to resources denied the subordinate group, sellouts may have a more altruistic motivation, such as a desire to work within the system for change; nevertheless, they may be accused of selling out. Others may be motivated to sell out for personal security—that is, to avoid physical and or ideological persecution by the oppressing group. Sometimes sellouts are co-opted by the dominant group to promote their agenda, then “disposed of” without receiving the expected benefits. Or they may feel guilty for abandoning their original (subordinate) group and never achieve full acceptance by the dominant group.
Luis Urrieta Jr.’s work with Chicana/o activist educators (2005) highlights the complexity of the issue of selling out, illustrating that there is more of a gray area than the “either/or” dichotomy allows. The tipping point of when people are in danger of becoming sellouts is rather arbitrary, and selling out is idiomatically understood differently in various communities, thus eluding a standardized definition.
SEE ALSO Acting White
Darity, William A., Jr., Patrick L. Mason, and James B. Stewart. 2006. The Economics of Identity: The Origin and Persistence of Racial Identity Norms. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 60 (3): 283–305.
Fordham, Signithia, and John Ogbu. 1986. Black Students’ School Success: Coping with the Burden of “Acting White.” Urban Review 18 (3): 176–206.
Smitherman, Geneva. 2000. Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Urrieta, Luis, Jr. 2005. “Playing the Game” versus “Selling Out”: Chicanas’ and Chicanos’ Relationship to Whitestream Schools. In Performance Theories in Education: Power, Pedagogy, and the Politics of Identity, ed. Bryant K. Alexander, Gary Anderson, and Bernardo B. Gallegos, 173–196. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Luis Urrieta Jr.