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The Chronic Pain Of White Supremacy

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Dr. Akilah Cadet poses while sitting at KQED studios and holding a copy of her book, 'White Supremacy Is All Around: Notes from a Black Disabled Woman in a White World'.
Dr. Akilah Cadet at KQED holding her book, 'White Supremacy Is All Around: Notes from a Black Disabled Woman in a White World'. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

View the full episode transcript.

In her book White Supremacy Is All Around: Notes from a Black Disabled Woman in a White World, Dr. Akilah Cadet brings the reader into her life as a Black woman living with a disability who recognizes that oppressive forces are as constant as her chronic pain.

With witty anecdotes and painful personal tales, Cadet, founder of the diversity consulting firm Change Consulting, addresses glaring issues like police brutality and racist microaggressions, and identifies the people who play a hand in maintaining them. Simultaneously, she’s extremely clear: although her last name roughly translates to “soldier” in French, this is not her battle to fight.

“I’m pissed and proud of writing a book while juggling multiple jobs and health conditions,” says Dr. Cadet, whose work is multilayered. She encounters oppression in her writing, consulting, and personal life — and, with her Haitian and Louisianan roots, in her ancestry.

Despite all of this, Dr. Cadet still finds time to enjoy the finer things in life. She has a thing for fly accoutrements and fancies herself a wine aficionado. It makes sense: there has to be some balance to doing this work.

Dr. Cadet talked with the Rightnowish team about racism, ableism and ways one can go about fixing a broken system. Listen below.


Episode Transcript

[Music]

Dr. Akilah Cadet, Guest: My name Cadet, it means soldier, so when I started marketing and branding my business, we are soldiers of change. But I had to realize, like, this military language is only adding into upholding values of white supremacy. Because white people don’t have to fight for their existence, but as Black people, we have to constantly do that. 

[Music]

Pendarvis Harshaw, Host: What’s up everyone, I’m your host Pendarvis Harshaw. Welcome to Rightnowish. Today our team is talking to Dr. Akilah Cadet. 

She’s one of those people who wears a bunch of hats: she’s the founder and CEO of the diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting firm, Change Cadet. She’s also an author, an advocate for people living with disabilities, and in her free time she’s also a sommelier. 

Her book, White Supremacy is All Around: Notes from a Black Disabled Woman in a White World, tackles what happened– and what didn’t happen– after “the summer of 2020”. So hang out as we jump into a colorful discussion about her book and what it’s like living with an invisible disability.

All of that, after this.   

Pendarvis Harshaw: Dr. Akilah Cadet thank you for joining us. How are you doing? 

Dr. Akilah Cadet: Great, because I’m here with you. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: Yeah, yeah. In the building finally.

Dr. Akilah Cadet:  I’m so excited. I have been a fan of you for a while. 

Pen: Thank you

Dr. Akilah Cadet: And so now we get to have this, our time together.

Pen: It’s mutual. 

Dr. Akilah Cadet: I understand people are going to listen. But this is for us and so anytime I get to be in the space with another boss Black person, it’s a FUBU moment and I’m happy to have it. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: I appreciate that. It resonates. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. Congratulations. 

Dr. Akilah Cadet: Thank you. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: You’re coming into the studio just days after your book launch. How does it feel to have your personal, intimate, witty, comical stories packaged and shared with the world? 

Dr. Akilah Cadet: You know, I am pissed and I’m proud. And the reason why I say I’m proud is because I wrote a whole ass book and there’s no ghostwriter. There’s no co-writer. I wrote this while working full time with my CEO job and then the other million hats I have because I am Caribbean when it comes down to it. And there’s two years of my life that I put in here in talking about stories from, you know, different parts of my life. Like, I had to go find old phones to get receipts because I’m a Virgo, like, do that whole thing. So I’m very proud of myself for doing that while navigating a lot of health stuff. There’s a few ER visits, there’s a lot of other health things that happened while I was writing this book, and some of that is in the book, so I’m very proud of myself. 

I’m proud to have a book deal with Hachette, like a top five publisher. I’m proud to have received a six figure advance to write this book, as a debut author. That’s not an easy thing to do, so I have a lot to celebrate there. But I’m also pissed because the title of my book is White Supremacy Is All Around, which is a great title. I love it. Go me! But I’m dealing with that with how this book is going out into the world and so that’s the part that’s really frustrating. I believe in the liberation of oppressed people, and some people do not, and they don’t want to support the book or, you know, white people aren’t necessarily ready to be comfortable being uncomfortable. And we have to remember that a lot of these folks are in positions of power, and they can determine where my book goes, how it’s seen, how it’s celebrated, and what list it’s on. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: It’s meta. It’s you’re writing about something while living it and yeah, navigating it while talking about how to navigate it. 

Dr. Akilah Cadet:Yeah, yeah. And then I have to talk about it all the time. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: In your first answer, you mentioned and it’s all throughout your book, identity. Identity plays a huge role, your Caribbean ancestry as well as you being a soft Black woman, learning that you can’t always be a soft Black woman, your father’s ancestry with Haitian roots, your mother in Sacramento, with roots back to the south. What has your heritage taught you? 

Dr. Akilah Cadet: So I’d like to say that I am the transatlantic slave trade, and I think I’m the wonderful, perfect example of how white supremacy is all around with my ancestry, with my culture, with my identity. I am Haitian, French and Black. Being a first generation kid, I sometimes forget I’m like, I’m an American, and I will be disgusted by Americans [laughs] because I’m like, ‘What are you doing? Why would you do any of this?,’ and that’s because of my first generation upbringing, I was raised like an immigrant. I also know that being first generation Haitian, it’s why I’m this person who has an endless amount of perseverance. I don’t use the word fight because I don’t time for that, but I have that energy and I have that tenacity to show up and speak up and use my voice. That definitely comes from my Haitian heritage. On my mom’s side, my mom, her family is from a tiny town in Louisiana called Donaldsonville. And like, my grandmother could pass and get away with stuff, and, you know, the Great Migration came this way out to California, but my mom was on the COINTELPRO list. So [chuckles] I get it from my mama, you know what I mean, like legit. And so, the ways in which I show up are directly tied to, you know, my, my ancestry. 

In fact, Sacramento being our hometown, my grandfather had the first, Black history museum in Sacramento. But he, prior to that, he had a shoe store and above the shoe store was the Sacramento office for the Black Panthers. My mom was an award winning seamstress, and she would make dashikis and then the Black Panthers would wear her dashikis. They were just like the hot things, right, coming all around. So all of that comes through me. And even though I didn’t start my career, like, dismantling white supremacy, it eventually showed up.

Pendarvis Harshaw:  It’s in you. 

Dr. Akilah Cadet: Yeah. 

[Music]

Pendarvis Harshaw: Your book is full of just like, the parenthetical thoughts that you have, are just exemplify how your brain works, where language is a thing through and through. And you’re very aware of the evolution of language. You sit at the intersection of culture, diversity, technology and you start the book with a note about how language evolves, almost like apologetically saying like, ay I know some years from now some of these words that I’m using might be outdated. Like why is that important to you?

Dr. Akilah Cadet: So a lot of people don’t know that I’ve been a sensitivity editor for years. So I’ve been editing books for publishers and authors, and I look at the book to be able to make sure that story comes through. So if it’s a BIPOC, Black indigenous person of color author, white people may not understand some of the terminology or the cultural things that are coming up, So how are you breaking that down?  If you are a white author, please don’t be racist, homophobic, transphobic or any of those things. So that’s why language is really important. And the more we dismantle white supremacy, and the more we are liberating ourselves from oppression, we’re going to be called something different. Right? Ultimately. So if you just look at the history of the language of Black people, there’s, there’s a lot of to getting to Black people. Like right now, still to this day, it’s like ‘African Amer-African-Ameri-African-American? or can I say Black? 

Dr. Akilah Cadet: People don’t know what to do. “Black” a couple of years ago was capitalized, right. Because it’s a culture. “White” is still not capitalized. I don’t know why other people are…I do, White supremacy is all around. But, you know, it’s that type of thing. And so that’s why it’s important to be inclusive. But it also role models behavior people should have with constant learning and unlearning. And so where this book was finished in October of 2023, we’re going to have different language in October 2024, 2632. You know what I mean? And that plants a seed that, it’s like, yeah, I’m aware. And so whatever that is, do the math, and that’s what I’m calling them. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: Yeah, I love it. And again, it’s throughout, you know, you talk about like, other-abled.

Dr. Akilah Cadet: Non-disabled.

Pendarvis Harshaw: Non-disabled.

Dr. Akilah Cadet: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. So again, I have so many layers of intersectionality. I have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, so if anyone’s listening, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome is a connective tissue disorder. My body doesn’t know what to do with collagen. My joints subluxate, go in and out or dislocate all the time from my fingers down to my toes. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: Your language around your disabilities… 

Dr. Akilah Cadet: Yeah. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: How has that evolved? 

Dr. Akilah Cadet: The Ehlers- Danlos syndrome, I was born this way, in the words of Lady Gaga, but I wasn’t diagnosed until May 2021. And so learning how to understand another complex ableist system, a structure of white supremacy, which is the American Disabilities Act, has been infuriating on so many levels. 

So, for example, some airlines will say, “But how are you disabled?” That’s illegal. If I’m informing you I’m disabled, you have to accommodate me by law, no matter what I look like, what assisted device I’m doing. But again, people have to be deemed worthy of that. And for some people, they may feel overwhelmed with what I’m telling in the book, but guess the fuck what? I lived that life, and I have to live through all those different parts of intersectionality. So go on the journey [chuckles] right with me. 

And so that’s why you see those teaching moments through language and through my experiences of, you can say, non-disabled, because disabled is not a bad word when people are saying they’re able bodied. I have the ability to do the same thing just like you, or maybe differently, but I’m gonna get the shit done. I have the ability, right? And so when people say non-disabled, it brings this word that people are challenged by into the zeitgeist, into the conversation. And it’s a way to create more awareness and also celebration of disability and the dynamic range that disability has. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: I’m learning here, these teaching moments. 

Dr. Akilah Cadet:  [laughs] It’s what I do. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: These teaching moments haven’t stopped. The first essay in the book, it centers around a huge teaching moment. The opening starts with a meeting in Bordeaux in France. And it revolves around an interaction that you have with a white woman who essentially wants to have a presentation that uses the words “n-ggas beefin” in the presentation. And you have to explicitly demand that that word no longer be used and it takes a while for that to click. And thereafter, it doesn’t even fully register as to who to central character being impacted by this discussion is. Whereas days after this white woman follows up in an email in saying that she is hurt. And you have to explain that again, this is the issue where you being the person hurt, are not even focused on in this discussion. 

Dr. Akilah Cadet: Yeah. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: And I’m like, in reading this, right? I’m like, how did you get to this emotional, intellectual point? Because me, I would have been like, ‘man, let’s just step outside.’ So how did you get to that point where you could really break it down like that? 

Dr. Akilah Cadet: Yeah. So the first chapter of my book is called “White Women Are Exhausting.” It’s dramatic pause because they are. They pick and choose with their intersectionality. They pick and choose with how they want to show up. So in this case, I’ll give you a little bit of the backstory, I was asked to speak at a wine conference for women in Napa, like in May. And I went up there and, you know, magic, did my thing. All of a sudden everybody was like, “Who are you? We want you to do all the things for wine.” And so I was invited to be part of, and I’m still to this day part of this think tank where people determine the future state of fine wine. 

They flew me out to Bordeaux. This is the first time in my entire existence of having this company that it was like the private driver and then the sign. It was like, ‘Oh, I, that’s, I’m the white person. I did it!” Right? And so I’m there specifically to bring in more language about diversity and thinking about how diversity is part of wine and fine wine. We have seen the wine landscape change, particularly with athletes, artists who like to buy wine and collect wine. And so younger people are into wine and the consumer is changing of who has wine. Like, the older folks who buy expensive wine, they’re dying. So they have to, it’s what happens, it’s just the natural thing, right? So they have to figure out who’s going to want to keep a sommelier in business, right, and drink this wine. So I go to a chateau. Naturally.

Pendarvis Harshaw: Naturally. 

Dr. Akilah Cadet: Naturally, you have to go to a chateau in Bordeaux. And there are only two Black people in this group of 60 plus individuals. And it was me and Julia Coney, who is, I’ve dubbed the Beyoncé of wine because she is, and wonderful and great. And and I was just like, ‘This is really white. This is really white.’ And so to go into the situation and be in a room, and I described it in the book, of like in a conversation about diversity, I literally was the only diversity. Everyone else was white. We didn’t even have an AAPI person, Asian American Pacific Islander, no one else. It was just me to represent diversity in a conversation about diversity and then to have her pull up her laptop and have those words so big. I was like, ‘Where are the cameras? Is this, is this like a, this is like a hazing thing, right?’ [laughs] For me to, like, get into this whole thing. I was like, I can’t believe it. And I distinctly remember and I also talked about in the book, I had to keep pinching myself because I was like, ‘oh, no, I’m triggered.’ But I’m also not in a supportive space because I don’t know these folks. I’m new. I’m new into this whole environment. And there’s bigwigs around the table, including Eric Asimov, who’s the New York Times wine critic, who I was like, oh shit, I did- what?  I didn’t fully know what I was getting into. I’m like, this is a big deal, right? 

And so for all of that to happen, including a white person saying, “Is wiggers better?” I had to pick and choose how I wanted to show up there. I was like, ‘I cannot get into that with you,’ definitely racist, but I don’t have time for that. But I had to use my voice as much as possible so she would stop perpetuating negative stereotypes because it was all about a conversation around Black people and chilled red wine. 

So if you don’t know, Lambrusco is a fantastic chilled red wine, I highly recommend. It’s fizzy, it’s bubbly, it’s delicious. But there’s a movement around chilling red wines. And so this consumer wanted to know specifically how Black people thought and we have a culture and they’re looking at hashtags. And those hashtags brought that up. It wasn’t anything for her to do. And so I’m like you can truncate, you can blah, nope nope nope, nothing. But the most important thing is that the white guy had to say something and she’d listen to the white guy, which was Eric Asimov. And he knows, I talk about it all the time. He’s in the book. And that part was infuriating. 

But it was the 4th of July. Like, it was 4th of July weekend. So I was thrilled when I didn’t have to be in America. It was 2019. I was thrilled that I didn’t have to be in America and here I am, here I am, the country we bought our freedom from as a Haitian, you know, like here I am and I’m dealing with that. And I had to wait before I could see the one other Black person to feel validated, seen and heard, and then constantly be attacked for the rest of the time there by this white woman.

Pendarvis Harshaw: I’m like, navigating that, all of that, all those elements, all those different…

Dr. Akilah Cadet: All of those things, yeah. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: And then to have the composure, to say you need to go and learn something on your own as opposed to, you know, being vengeful or having some type of big reaction. How do you, how do you reach that point of composure? 

Dr. Akilah Cadet: Listen, there was a gala later that night and my outfit was f-cking fire, and I needed to focus on people liking my outfit. And I needed to choose myself, quite frankly, because I was already traumatized and triggered. Because anytime someone’s using the N-word, there’s ancestral trauma that comes up. I know, I have enslaved family members, but I also know because of white ancestry, where some of them went. Right, I can, I can figure out my entire life. My parents have done this work. My mom, COINTELPRO, I carry a lot of stuff. But more importantly, there’s so many people in this country, the United States of America, that was the last word they heard before they were lynched, burned alive. These are real things. And so it’s not a word to be played with. There’s too much out there to let you know, to not say the f-cking word. It’s not hard to do it. 

And this particular woman, who I named Karen. She lives in Atlanta, the land of the A-town stomp. There’s so many things that are happening there, “Real Housewives of Atlanta,” you see all the Black people. You have all the layers of it. You have all the experience and exposure to know what to say and what not to say. And so it was a choice. She chose to harm me because she also called me out, said “Akilah, I would like your feedback on this.” Do you know what I mean? So it’s just like it’s that type of stuff. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: Yeah. 

Dr. Akilah Cadet: But I will teach someone a lesson because I don’t have the privilege of sitting in that position of harm, she does. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: Yeah. 

Dr. Akilah Cadet: I don’t have that privilege. So I had to keep moving forward. 

[Music]

Pendarvis Harshaw: What I’m gathering is like, choose your battles because you’re fighting a bigger war, or you are involved in a bigger war. 

Dr. Akilah Cadet:Yeah, but also like my name Cadet, it means soldier. And so when I started marketing and branding my business, we’re soldiers of change, right? Which I love. So great, right, fantastic. But then I was like, I’m no one’s soldier. Am I a survivor like Destiny’s Child? Yes. But I had to realize, like, this military language is only adding into upholding values of white supremacy because white people don’t have to fight for their existence. White people don’t have to go to the battlefield to prove their existence, to get a job or, I don’t know, check in at a hotel or drive their car or whatever. You know, they don’t have to do that. They don’t have to go out into the streets and be like “We need people to stop killing us.” They don’t have to do that. But as Black people, we have to constantly do that. As, as BIPOC people we have to constantly do that. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: But given that given that constant like pressure, that’s part of the reason I don’t fully believe in DEI. 

Dr. Akilah Cadet: I don’t either.

Pendarvis Harshaw: But you do the work. 

Dr. Akilah Cadet: I believe in belonging.

Pendarvis Harshaw:  Belonging. 

Dr. Akilah Cadet: I believe in belonging. Diversity, equity, inclusion, accountability or accessibility or action, there’s so many acronym soups when it comes to DEI. DEI is just straight up performative. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: Yeah 

Dr. Akilah Cadet: It is. You know how I know? Because May 25th, 2020 happened, it was the murder of George Floyd. And it was a holiday, it’s also my mom’s birthday, and then May 26th, all of a sudden, endless amount of emails. All of a sudden people want to hear what I have to say. And I will always do my work as a doctor of leadership and organizational behavior for oppressed people because they’re the ones that have the hardest time in workplaces and spaces for sure. But I don’t just do diversity.

 Restructuring? Got you. Executive coaching for the white guy? Umm hmm I can do that. Strategic planning? Absolutely. But DEI and that performative nature of what I call the “summer of allyship” and there’s a chapter in the book, is a direct response to people not wanting to be viewed as racist. And so we’re seeing that performative behavior that has happened. 

“The Summer of Allyship” chapter breaks it down very beautifully, so I highly recommend everyone reads it. But where we are right now with diversity is it’s being attacked. Right? So we’re seeing states and counties removed DEI  funding and all this other stuff, which shows you it doesn’t matter, which is why I talk about belonging. 

As a Black disabled woman, the only place I feel like I belong is my home because I carry so much intersectionality. Once I go out the door, you know, it’s like, okay, where’s a parking spot? Will I be able to make it further or not? Can I park in ADA? Will there be an ADA parking spot? Is someone not going to help me do the thing, or am I just going to get good old fashioned sexism or racism, right, as a result of that. That happens all the time. 

[Music]

Pendarvis Harshaw: What does success look like for you? 

Dr. Akilah Cadet: Thank you for asking. So, right now, success looks like the book coming out on February 6th. Checked that off, success, that happened. And then it looks like me making it through 12 stops between February 6th and February 29th. And I had to have really small, little benchmarks of success, because a lot of my time in interviews, on this book, centered around this book. But if I can get that person who feels valued and seen in the book, that’s also the third part of success for me that they have that. If I can get that white person who’s like, “I’ve learned so much and I’m showing up differently because of your book,” that is success for me. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: You have a big event coming up at the de Young this spring?

Dr. Akilah Cadet: I do.

Pendarvis Harshaw: Tell me more about it. 

Dr. Akilah Cadet: Yeah. So, because I have nothing else to do, I have been filmed for the past five months to have a documentary done on me. And so the interesting thing, I was like, ‘why? I am not interesting,’ but apparently I am, which I still don’t fully understand, but “Represent Collaborative” approached me to do a documentary. I’m also their chief creative officer, but they approached me because they received some funding, and they wanted to tell the story of me in this book. And so, in April, we will be having the California premiere of my documentary called “Sounds About White: The Untold Story of the DEI Expert”. 

So it starts with the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, and we’re following what my life has been like since then, how I’ve given my heart and soul, the ups and downs, the highs, the lows, the Forbes, the magazines, you know, the amounts of money that’s coming in. And you’re seeing how much money I’ve made, how much money I’ve lost. You’re seeing everything. You’re seeing how it affects my mind, body, spirit and soul, because there are stories about DEI consultants, experts, leaders that are written, but we haven’t had a visual display of what it’s been like. You see me in the hospital. You see me on these planes dealing with shit. You see me everywhere of how I, with every right to not have to show up to do this work as a Black disabled woman, still show up to do this work. I get hate from everyone and everywhere. And I would just love to be loved. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: Thank you.

Dr. Akilah Cadet: You’re welcome. 

[Music]

Pendarvis Harshaw: Big, big thank you to Dr. Akilah Cadet. Doing the work isn’t easy and I know it takes a toll on you. So thank you. Thank you for your efforts, and hats off for being fly while doing it all.  

If you would like to learn more about Dr. Akilah Cadet and her book, I’d suggest checking out her site: changecadet.com. That’s spelled change C-H-A-N-G-E,Cadet C-A-D-E-T

She can also be found on social media, her Instagram handle is also: ChangeCadet. 

This episode was hosted by me, Pendarvis Harshaw.  It was produced by Marisol Medina-Cadena and Maya Cueva. Chris Hambrick held it down for  the edits on this one. Our engineer is Christopher Beale and Sheree Bishop is the Rightnowish intern. 

The Rightnowish team is also supported by Jen Chien, Ugur Dursun , Holly Kernan, Xorje Olivares,  Cesar Saldaña, and Katie Sprenger. 

 

Thank you all for listening!

 

And a quick reminder, KQED is a listener supported station, and getting further support from you would be much appreciated. If you’re financially able, make a donation at donate.kqed.org.

‘Sounds About White: The Untold Story of the DEI Expert’, a documentary on Dr. Akilah “Change” Cadet’s life and work, screens at the de Young Museum in San Francisco on Saturday, April 13, from 2 p.m.–3:30 p.m. Details here.

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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