The "Pay Them" Paradox

How one of the most universally obvious recommendations within social justice falls apart upon a second glance.

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Did you ever play that game when you were younger where you ask “How much money would it take for you to do this gross thing?”

“Would you eat that bug for $100?” your friend might have asked.

“Ew, gross! No way!” you would have said (I’m assuming you were a stereotype in an after school special).

Then your friend counters, “What about $200?”

“Not $200, but maybe $2000.” And that’s when things started to get weird.

All of a sudden, you were in the midst of a reverse bidding war, and it was your ability to live with yourself that was on the auction block.

“What about $1900? $1800? $1000?”

“One THOUSAND dollars to eat a bug… I don’t know…”

As a kid, this game of hypotheticals is an innocent way we start to navigate one of bitter realities of the world we live in: everything has a price, even you.


Maybe you’ve played this game as an adult, as a sort of drinking game. Swapping out the “gross” thing of “eating a bug” with something more socially embarrassing, sexual, or otherwise risky – but still entirely hypothetical.

Some people get really into this: “Would you make out with Donald Trump for $5000 dollars? How about no tongue, but it’s $1000? His eyes are wide open, your eyes are wide open, and it’s $10K?”

It’s also a non-game version of this most of us participate in several times a day: we Millenials call it Adulting.

It’s just as convoluted as the drinking game, just as much “not fun.” The only real differences are the pay is lower and it’s not hypothetical. It’s real, and it’s mandatory.

“Would you work this service job for $12 per hour, but it’s only part-time and there are no benefits?”

I don’t know.

“Okay, it’s $11 per hour, still part-time, but now it’s nights and weekends and there’s dental?”


“How about this office job that has full benefits, but it’s only $9 per hour, and you need to be on site for at least 10 hours a day (we’ll only pay you for 8), and it’s an hour commute each way so you won’t have any time for side hustles? What do you say?”

I’d say that wide-eyed Trump kiss is looking better by the minute.

Money or Die

The undercurrent that moves any of these conversations along is the truth that money is necessary for survival.

It’s how our society is arranged, and something that’s only gotten more true in recent years. Despite our developments in time-saving technologies, more efficient production, global communication, international networks of trade, and more – it’s somehow no less expensive to be alive.

Sometimes this is jarring, like when you get fined an overdraft fee by your bank: “So you’re telling me you’re charging me money for not having enough money?”

Most of the time it’s just the water we’re swimming in, and we don’t even notice it. To the point where, when we’re in a rare place that doesn’t charge us money simply for existing, like a public library, we’re not sure what to do with ourselves. “Where do I swipe? Or is this a chip reader thing?”

We live without any real sense of a safety net below us. Almost half of Americans are one missed paycheck away from poverty. But hey – look on the bright side, the average American is also a mere 613,308 paychecks away from being a billionaire.

(Just be patient, and in about 5,897 years you’ll get there, bud! Assuming your cost of living is $0. Oh wait! It’s very not. That’s what I was talking about before I got lost on this tangent.)

The reality we live in is have money, or die.

Be lucky enough to have been born into money, inherit money, win the lottery, be one of the unicorns who gets a great job and didn’t come from money, work three jobs, whatever it takes.

The more money we have, the less close we are to dying for not having it. To having an “emergency fund.” Or the luxury of being able to get too sick or injured to work, and still not die.

Money. Or die. It’s that simple.

Those With the Least Money Are Most Susceptible to Being Coerced by It

As a kid, growing up poor – incredibly, always-teetering-on-the-edge-of-homelessness poor – the “eat a bug” game always landed on me in two ways.

In the usual way, it was fun. Pure childish gross icky incredulous fun – some of the best fun to be had, if we’re being honest.

But when it landed on the part of me that was noticing our poverty, it felt less like a game and more like a way out. I knew it wasn’t real, of course, but sometimes I couldn’t help but wonder about the implications of it being real.

“Would you eat that bug for $1000?”

A thousand dollars would probably make sure we didn’t get our water turned off this winter. Yeah, I’d eat a bug without a second thought if it meant not having our water shut off.

“If we trapped all of our farts in a jar would you eat them for $5000 dollars?”

I bet we wouldn’t get evicted again this year if we had $5000. Maybe ever. I’d eat the shit out of some farts for that.

(Okay, that one was maybe too gross, but it actually made me laugh, so I’m not sorry – childish icky incredulous fun, y’all. Get some.)

What I was tapping into in those moments was a dimension of the society that we live in, the roles money plays within it, and how cruelly wealth can be wielded by those who have it, against those who do not.

If we live in a world where many of us are one beat away from poverty (which we are), we’re also living in a world where many of us are vulnerable to being exploited by money (which, indeed, we also are: to some extent, it’s called “a job”).

We could refer to this as “economic power inequity.” Those who have money, have power, particularly over those who don’t have money. And the sky’s the limit.

Another way to think of this is that if you have a lot of money, others holding money hold less power over you. Truly, this is probably an infinite correlation, where the more money you have, the less others’ money has any bearing on your life, to the point where no amount of money can reasonably influence you.

(I bet Jeff Bezos wouldn’t even consider eating a fart for anything less than a cool billion. Anyone want to go in on a crowdfunding campaign?)

And the inverse correlation is also true: the less money you have, the more power others’ money has over you, particularly when some small part of it might be, possibly be – if you play your cards right – your money.

(Meanwhile, in Reality is Actually a Dystopian Nightmare Land, billionaire Peter Thiel is all for paying literal “blood boys” for their young, fresh blood – and I cannot pinpoint a better example of economic power inequity.)

One of the Ways We Anchor Marginalization is Proximity to Poverty

Within social justice, a common way that we talk about “dominant group identities” as opposed to “marginalized identities” is via the groups proximity to poverty.

We’ll share a lot of statistics that show, in a variety of ways, how much less wealth or income a person is likely to have because they hold a marginalized identity.

Sometimes we do this indirectly, by connecting a particular marginalized identity to higher likelihoods of experiencing homelessness, or joblessness, or being unable to access a financially-inaccessible system like higher education or healthcare.

While economic disparity isn’t the only hardship we use to define marginalization (there are lots of others!), it’s a really common and useful one.

For one reason, unlike other forms of suffering, it’s easily compared. You can measure economic disparities with hard figures, numbers that are higher for one group and lower for another, objective, quantitative data.

For another reason, we actually have the data available to us on things like income, wealth, employment, and homelessness. It’s useful to make comparisons on this front for the simple fact that we measure these things, more commonly and broadly than other disparities in wellness and suffering.

And a third reason, related to and building from the first two, is that a lot of other disparities can be collapsed back into economic disparity. Disparities in “non-economic” aspects of well-being like childcare, educational attainment, nutrition and more – if you work backwards far enough – are rooted in money. If you have more money, the hardship you experience by systemic barriers on those fronts, even if it’s not fully mitigated, poses less of a threat.

All this goes to say that economic disparity isn’t the end all nor the be all of social injustice, but it does a lot of work on behalf of oppression, and alleviating it would mean huge leaps toward living social justice.

“Pay Them.”

Following from this economic disparity, there’s a common theme within social justice work of doing what we can to enact economic justice amidst other forms of anti-oppression or liberation work.

(Also, we’re finally catching up with the thesis of this essay, and the title. I appreciate your patience.)

In all aspects of professional social justice – from non-profit work to organizing to speaking to education and training and consulting – there is a norm that says, essentially, the following:

The people leading the conversation should be the marginalized people directly targeted by that oppression, and you should be paying them. And paying them well.

This, I should say, is an intuition that is almost universally shared amongst social justice people – something that is rare, to say the least. And even non-social-justice people seem to nod to this. It adds up.

“Trust oppressed people with knowing the path out of their oppression. And pay them to guide you along the way.”

Sometimes this norm is extended a little further, and shared more dogmatically. For example, here are a few ways that same idea gets expressed in social justice dogma (SJD):

  • Not paying a marginalized person to do social justice work is oppressive.
  • Dominant group members shouldn’t be doing – and definitely not being paid for – anti-oppression work.
  • Paying a dominant group member the same as what you pay a marginalized person for social justice work is oppressive.

What’s embedded in all of this is the following:

  1. It’s unjust to pay dominant group members to do anti-oppression work.
  2. It’s just to pay marginalized group members to do anti-oppression work.
  3. And because their marginalized group membership is likely connected to economic injustice, the more you pay them, the more just it is.

And if you’re noticing that this rubs against another tenet of SJD that says something like “it’s not oppressed people’s job to teach you about their oppression,” and thinking that might be the paradox in question, I hear you. And kudos! But that’s not the paradox.

Imagine a little floating asterisk above that whenever someone says it: “*Unless you’re paying, and paying well. In which case, it should only be oppressed people’s job, because oppressed people need good paying jobs.”

And I couldn’t agree more with that last bit. But the rest, well, hold onto your butts.

Things Are About to Get Bumpy

What you’ve read so far, if you’ve been reading in order and not skipping around (not judging! Both are useful ways to read non-fiction), has represented the main beats of a conversation I’ve now had with about a dozen other social justice educators.

Everyone one of them has held more marginalized identities than I do (not bragging), and in every conversation the part that comes next was a twist they weren’t ready for, and one that has consistently made both of us uncomfortable – although them a little more than me, in every instance of this conversation but one.

The first time I had this conversation, me and my friend were flying by the seat of our pants, and we were both uncomfortable with where we landed.

Consider this the “Fasten your seat belts, we’re about to experience some turbulence,” portion of the essay.

This is your captain speaking, and I want the black box to show that I didn’t choose this flight plan.

The Rider Precludes the Following…

I was invited to speak at a conference that was about sexuality education, and everything seemed great. I was excited to be involved. All that was left was signing the contract.

Attached to my standard speaking contract was a rider they added (if you’re unfamiliar with the jargon, think of this as a little list of dos and don’ts). Among other things, there was a “You can’t mention abortion” caveat.

As in, “At no point during this keynote focused on sexuality education, or during the question and answer session after, can you mention abortion, one of the most hot-button, politically-relevant, and asked-about things in sexuality education.”

Another time, I was invited to speak at a conference about gender identity, but they didn’t want me to mention race, racism, or “Black Lives Matter.”

Another time, I was invited to perform one of my comedy shows at a social-justice-oriented festival, but I was told I couldn’t make any jokes at the expense of, or that would be perceived as critical of, the massive corporation that underwrote the conference. (A corporation that also happened to be a military arms manufacturer, and, ipso facto, war profiteer. Here’s a joke: you funding anything and calling it socially just. Got ‘em!)

These requirements, while unusual, aren’t out of the question. And they help paint a picture of what it’s like to be hired to do “social justice.”

In all three of these cases, I bowed out. Those weren’t compromises I was willing to make – they didn’t feel like “compromises” at all, but blatant hypocrisy. It was an easy call for me to pass.

Even when there aren’t clear deal-breakers like these, there a million little concessions you’re asked to make, each eroding your agency, or pedagogy, little by little. “You only have 15 minutes.” “Please tell this story!” “Sorry, we’re only able to do one event a year. There won’t be any follow-up.” “They want to hear about your childhood struggles.”

I can probably list on one hand the number of gigs I’ve ever done, of the hundreds of things I’ve been hired to do, that didn’t push back against my ideals at least a little. And most – the vast majority – gigs are a balance of “this is entirely unideal” and “I can make this work.”

In situations where it no longer felt like I could make it work, when it felt like the client had chipped away at all the value of the program, or inched me past my personal comforts, I’d also back out. This decision was always slightly more difficult than when there was an obvious deal-breaker, but still fairly easy for me.

My ability to say “No” was made easier by one huge thing: I operated within the “gift economy,” meaning I didn’t have a “standard rate” for my speaking or performing. Instead, if I felt excited about offering my gifts, I empowered the person who was hiring me chose how to reciprocate – to pay me based on what they could afford,what felt fair, or what was the best expression of their gratitude. And I wouldn’t know what that number was until after I did the gig, or at least agreed to do it.

This meant that I never knew how much money I was turning down when I passed on a gig that felt like it compromised my ethics. It could have been a lot, or it could have been negative dollars (i.e., me paying for a flight and room and board to go and speak or perform). I didn’t start operating in the gift economy for this reason, but as a poor person doing social justice, it was a welcome benefit.

One of my colleagues, a transgender speaker slash educator person, doesn’t operate in the gift economy, but is similarly able to pass on gigs that compromise his ethics. For him, it’s because he has a lot of money (individually, and through his family), so passing on $3000 (or whatever he would have charged for that gig) isn’t the difference between life or death. It’s not a motivator for him.

But what about someone who sees that $3000 as the difference between life or death? Or someone who doesn’t know when their next paycheck is coming? And doesn’t have family support, or any other safety net?

To put this another way:

Who is most likely to be able to say “No,” when their ethics are compromised, or they’re asked to do something they don’t want to do, don’t feel comfortable doing, or don’t feel is right?

And who is most likely to say “Yes” – to have to say yes, to be unable to say “No” – if $3000 is on the line? Even if it compromises their ethics, or makes them uncomfortable, or feels wrong. What if it’s $10,000?

Saying “No” to Money is a Privilege

“Please put on your oxygen mask before assisting others,” comes to mind here. Because we can’t help others if we’re suffocating. And because it feels like this metaphorical plane might be crashing to the ground. Let’s see if we can land it safely.

I think I’ve already said most of what I need to say for you to understand the paradox here. If you’re grokking it yet, it’s not a comfortable concept, so let’s turn to a lot of social justice people’s auto-pilot mode and deliver the thesis of this essay in the form of items on a Privilege List.

In what will likely feel like one of the most awkward, inverted, paradoxical applications of Privilege Theory, let’s try the following sentence on for size:

Being able to say “No” to a paying social justice gig because you aren’t comfortable with the ask is a privilege.

If that one doesn’t feel as uncomfortable as trying to turn around into an airplane bathroom, what about this one:

Hiring marginalized people to do anti-oppression work is an example of dominant group privilege.

Here’s a different formulation of that same idea:

Paying marginalized people to do social justice work is way of exerting economic dominance.

We’re drifting from the Privilege List format, but getting closer to feeling the gravity of this implication. To take us even further adrift:

The more marginalized the person, the more offering them money compromises their ability to consent.

Or, to flip the power around, and make this feel like I’m sucking the oxygen out of the room:

The only people who can truly consent to being paid to do social justice work are people with enough economic privilege to say “No.”

And who are the people we can generally infer have economic privilege? The people that in social justice settings regularly imply universally have economic privilege: Whoever holds the most dominant identities (or holds the fewest oppressed identities).

Want to pay someone to do social justice work and be sure that you’re not compromising their ability to consent, reifying economic injustice, exerting dominance, and enacting injustice?

Better hire a White, straight, cisgender, (Christian, non-disabled, college-educated, middle-to-upper-class, etc.) man.

This Isn’t Hypothetical

Everything I’ve walked through above isn’t a thought experiment, or something that might happen someday, lest we correct course. It’s already happening all over the place, we just don’t flag it, because it’s normalized to the point of invisibility.

It’s something my friends and other professional social justice educators and advocates, marginalized people hired to do the work by organizations and people with lots of money, have confided in my countless times throughout the years. The compromises they’ve made in the curriculum they were writing or facilitating, the bits they took out of a speech, the sponsored content they produced, and so on – the things they did that they didn’t believe in, or felt weren’t helping the cause, or made them uncomfortable, or feel stretched or manipulated because they needed the money and couldn’t say no.

It also rears its head in the relationships between wealthy benefactors and the non-profits and causes they fund, the ways they can pull strings, shut down initiatives, or push the cause in the direction of their choosing. An exercising of power that has implications for every marginalized person working for that org, or benefiting from its efforts.

Because it’s not just a “theory” that marginalized people tend to have less economic privilege. It’s a reality. And the byproduct of that is that a lot of people get hired to do work they’re not thrilled about, and they’re not in a position with enough agency to push back.

Worse, it’s something that is fully SJD-endorsed, and even celebrated as an ideal within the social justice movement, which is why we don’t give it a second thought. “Pay them.”

We have somehow managed to ignore the implications of who gets to do the paying. The systemic power being leveraged by the person or organization that has the money, who decides what is worth paying for, and who they choose to pay – it’s all obfuscated by the simplicity of “Pay marginalized people to do the work.” “Pay Black women.” “Pay trans people.” “Pay them.”

For this to be justified as a socially-just thing, something that is inherently right, or even merely ethical, we need to disconnect who is doing the paying, who is being paid, and for what. That is, we need to not concern ourselves with the relationships among those three bodies, or how power shows up.

Basically, we just chop out the middle part, “Who is being paid”, and hold it up on its own – as if that can exist in a vacuum. Then we celebrate when it’s a marginalized person being paid, and cast it aside as oppressive when it’s not.

This isn’t something we usually do in social justice. We always consider power, agency, and the systemic nature of oppression. And for good reason.

“Who is doing the paying” really matters; so does the “for what.” When we consider those elements, it casts a different light on “who is being paid.”

Considering the whole picture, it seems as likely – or even more likely – that if the “who” being paid is a societally-marginalized person, they’re in a precarious position between someone who is exerting power over them, and something they don’t necessarily want to do.

In any other case, when there’s a marginalized person being put into a precarious position, social justice people are on high alert; but here, we’re creating the conditions and doing the shoving.

So Who Do We Pay?

Right now, the checkboxes are as follows: if you’re trying to do social justice, you should be paying a marginalized person; paying them more is better; and this is, in some way, inherently and obviously socially just. Box checked.

Everything I’ve said above suggests the opposite is true.

That the more marginalized a person is, the harder it is to pay them in a way that’s socially just, affords them agency, and doesn’t risk being exploitative or reinforcing harmful power inequities. And the more money one offers to pay them, the more perilous this gets, their ability to consent is compromised, and the likelihood of unjust power structures abound.

Paradoxically, paying a non-marginalized person, someone with ample economic power, doesn’t cross any boundaries of justice. Even weirder, the more economic power the person has (or the more dominant group identities they hold), the more certain one can be that they have the agency to say “No” to work they aren’t comfortable with, or don’t believe is helpful, and consent only when they truly want to say “Yes.”

In short, the litmus test of “if you’re paying a marginalized person to do social justice work, you’re doing social justice right” is wrong. Right?

Whew – that was a long trip!

Now that our seat backs and tray tables are returned to their upright position, you might be wondering, “Where the hell did we just land and what just happened and what does any of this mean?”

I know I am.

Here’s what I’m not saying: I do not think this means that we should only be paying dominant group members to do social justice work (nor am I saying we should mostly do that, or even do that at all, ever – I’m saying nothing about any of this, at least right now).

Actually, I still believe that our (dogmatically-reinforced) instinct to view that idea through a critical lens has been for the best.

It’s good that when a dominant group member is being paid to do social justice we consider the ways power is showing up, how that practice can perpetuate injustice, reinforce systemic power, and get in the way of living justice; and we put a lot of effort and attention into all the things we can do as a community to prevent harm being done in that way.

What I am saying is that in the pursuit of living social justice, that same lens will benefit us in all situations involving money, particularly those where there’s a clear imbalance of economic power. And if we’re buying what we’re selling, nobody is more vulnerable to being exploited by economic power than the most societally-marginalized people.

Even if we ignored the ways “pay marginalized people to do social justice” pushes up against other social justice truisms (e.g., it shouldn’t rest on the shoulders of the oppressed person to undo their own oppression), and we believed that social justice trickled down – and I’m not advocating we do either of those things – we’re still on shaky ground.

To sum it up crudely: We’re trusting those with power to not exploit those without it. Worse: we’re cheering them on.

We’re lumping the outcome of economic justice in with doing the work of social justice. What might be gained if we kept those separate?

Or what would it look like if we worked to guarantee economic justice as a project of social justice?

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