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  • Writer's pictureHolly Corbett

Akilah Cadet On Power, Privilege, And How To Be An Accomplice

Updated: Nov 10, 2021

We’ve reached a point in time where companies, communities and individuals can’t ignore the racial inequality that is happening in this country. There has been a tipping point: COVID amplified existing disparities as Blacks and people of color are being disproportionately impacted. The lost lives of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and so many others have sparked worldwide protests against racial injustice.

Akilah Cadet, DHSc, MPH, founder of Change Cadet, a consulting firm which aims to drive equity and belonging in the workplace, says it’s time for white people to use their voice and that companies and individuals who remain mute are perpetuating white supremacy. Forbes spoke with Dr. Cadet about power, privilege, and the difference between being an ally and being an accomplice.

Holly Corbett: What does it mean to have privilege?

Dr. Akilah Cadet: I break it down into the difference between earned and unearned privilege. Anyone of any ethnicity can have either type or both types. White privilege is real: White people benefit from unearned privilege. A lot of white people don’t realize that something such as getting into college was not an earned privilege, but an unearned privilege, because of the inequities in education that exist to give many white children a greater chance at success than many Black children.

We all have some type of privilege. Skin color is only one of the big buckets of unearned privilege. In addition to whiteness, unearned privilege includes: being a man, U.S.-born and speaking English, heterosexual, able bodied, neurotypical, and socioeconomic class.

I have privilege. I call myself a ‘non-threatening Black person.’ I’m light skinned, and in America anything that is white or closer to white is seen as best. Hence white supremacy. I also have the advantages of having educated parents and being in the middle class.

Even with all the privilege that I have, I’m not white. There are still rooms I can’t get into. When it comes to the workplace, Black people already have to work twice as hard, often get overlooked in meetings, passed over for promotions, and many of us don’t feel valued.

I experienced discrimination for being Black and educated in the workplace, because I didn’t look like what people expected someone with the title of ‘doctor’ to look like. I was experiencing so many -isms that I was doing what I could to downplay and downgrade myself to be less of a threat. It made no sense because I had qualifications for the job. I developed depression. Becoming a business owner was essential not only for my mental health, but also for being valued for who I was. That’s why I started Change Cadet, because I never wanted underrepresented communities to feel the way I felt. I wanted them to feel valued.

Corbett: What’s the difference between being an ally and being an accomplice?

Dr. Cadet: Right now, people want to learn a lot about Black people and the Black community. There's learning and active listening, such as tuning in to a podcast or having conversations with your Black colleagues or Black friends if they are open to talking about how they’re feeling in terms of navigating what’s happening in our country. An ally is researching, and is at the entry-level stages of advocating for other women, Black people, Indigenous people of color—or whatever you are not. An ally is beginning to recognize and even call out some microaggressions. That's a great start.

⁠The goal is to become an accomplice, where there’s an understanding of how the way you show up in the world has added to values of white supremacy. It’s being mindful of all of your privileges, being vocal about stereotypes and racial injustice, and showing up personally and professionally in a way that helps dismantle systemic issues. An accomplice is essentially doing the work that Black people need from white people in order to get past where we are now, to get to the goal of humanity where Black people are actually being viewed as human beings.⁠⠀

When you become an accomplice, you’re brushing your teeth, putting on your deodorant and you’re aware of your privilege. That’s how routine it has to be. It’s really understanding your privilege and using it as a roadmap for how you show up in the world.

Corbett: How can people use their privilege for good?

Dr. Cadet: That is where it has to go beyond the anti-racist book clubs, which I think are great, to asking yourself, ‘How can I actively dismantle white supremacy?’ There are so many ways to do that: At home, parents can introduce kids to programming that portrays Black characters as multi-dimensional and doesn’t amplify stereotypes. In the workplace, people who run companies can diversify their leadership. While it’s great that CEOs are donating money to Black causes, you also need to invest in your Black employees.

The bottom line is that if you are not speaking out, you are choosing to be a card-holding member of racism, and you’re upholding white supremacy.

Corbett: How do you define racism?

Dr. Cadet: Racism is the unjust treatment of one group by another group holding ultimate power and control. Racism is inclusive of oppression, discrimination, and is the belief that one ethnicity is superior to another. This can include colorism. In my Power + Privilege workshops I teach that there are four levels of oppression: Institutional, cultural, personal, and interpersonal.

Institutional includes systemic things that are holding Black people back, such as property taxes and how Black and brown neighborhoods are being underfunded. Cultural is how whiteness is more valued in our society, from the standards of beauty to what a leader looks like. Personal comes down to how you’re displaying power and control, and interpersonal is your personal views of one and how people communicate with one another.

Corbett: Many businesses are publicly showing their support for the Black Lives Matter Movement. How do you think businesses might evolve?

Dr. Cadet: It’s important to talk about the calling out/calling in culture, where companies are forced to do something now, because of Black buying power and the conscious consumer. Look at what’s happening with Refinery29 and The Wing. Companies have been forced to shift things to keep their business and their money (some better than others as they’re still figuring it out). I call it ‘service recovery.’ It’s okay to truly not realize just how systemic and institutional racism has been holding down Black people for centuries, but now that you do know, how are you going to fix it?

Another leadership problem is saying that the Black Lives Matter Movement is a sensitive or a political issue. That’s just a scapegoat; Black Lives Matter is actually a humanity issue. Why do you want to remain neutral on Black people being treated equally in America? We spend so much time in the workplace, and it does affect our lives and the world. It’s important for leaders to be held accountable for how they show up, for being transparent, and for having board and leadership diversity. It doesn’t happen overnight. Given the current economy, some companies are unable to hire right now. However, you can put a timeline on hiring more Black candidates in, say, the next two to three years. As Black people have learned to navigate white spaces, now it’s time for white people to learn to navigate their privilege, to understand inequality and systemic and institutional racism. It takes years, so part of it is being patient with oneself and learning from mistakes. Simultaneously, it’s committing to doing the work to become so aware of white privilege that you know what to say and do over time.

*The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Article originally published in Forbes.

Photo by Emily Scott


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