A couple days after the brutal killing of George Floyd, I was watching the world news with my mother and I said to her, “If Grandma Vi was still alive today, I wonder what she would say about everything going on?”
And my mother replied, “She wouldn’t be surprised because she lived through the Jim Crow South and the Civil Rights Movement.”
My great grandmother was an extraordinary Black woman. She was the baby of 13 children, only went to third grade, and worked as a maid. She was also a homeowner, church-goer, and licensed gun carrying woman who loved to pack a lunch, go to Sea World in Cleveland, Ohio, where she lived most of her adult life, and watch the whale show. She was born in 1906 and possibly would not have been shocked to see what’s going on throughout our nation in 2020. That should terrify, shame and disappoint us all.
I wonder if she would be shocked that her great granddaughter is a dentist, and that, even though it’s 2020, Blacks make up 12.4% of the general population in the United States but 4.3% of dentists. When I attended Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, in my first year class there were 5 of us out of 157 – and this was at a school that actively sought out a diverse student body (for which I will always love and laud my alma mater).
Shouldn’t we all be shocked by this? Shouldn’t we all care? Shouldn’t we all be moved to action? As human beings when we enjoy something, we tell other people about it however we can: by word of mouth and pen and keyboard. We all hope that our patients spread the word about liking us as their oral health care providers. Shouldn’t we as dentists want to spread the word to all young people about our profession, not just the people who look like us?
I wanted to start a mentoring program, pairing underrepresented minority dental students with underrepresented minority high school students who were interested in pursuing a career in dentistry – and I didn’t have enough dental students to match with the number of interested high school students. I had NO African-American male students to be mentors. There is something gravely wrong with that.
It’s not just an issue of the students not being in the dental schools, it’s the students being weeded out of classes in undergrad. It’s the lack of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] students in higher level classes in high school. There aren’t enough of us African-American dentists to solve the problem. There aren’t enough of us. Talk to your Black and Hispanic patients who show interest on our profession, ask them what they want to do after high school. If they aren’t interested in dentistry, then introduce them to your friends who maybe own a business or whatever profession they are interested in. Find them a mentor. Give them opportunities.
If you read this and think, “This isn’t my problem.” I gently push back and ask, “Why isn’t it your problem?”
As dentists, we raised our hands and took an oath that “I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to my fellow human beings…” We have been called and swore to care about society. These are the current issues of our profession within our society. Studies show that “Black dentists care for a disproportionate share of the Black patients.” If you don’t have that many Black patients, why is that? Ask yourself the hard questions. No one likes being confronted with and then admitting their own ignorance or apathy.
We love our profession; it’s been good to us. We need to share the good news about dentistry to all people regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. We love to create beautiful smiles, and we need to create beautiful smiles of every color.
In the words of Reverend Al Sharpton at George Floyd’s funeral, “It’s time to make America great for everyone for the first time.”
Dr. Elizabeth Simpson is a New Dentist Now guest blogger. She grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from Tufts University School of Dental Medicine in 2010. Liz is a general dentist working full time for two Federally Qualified Health Centers in Anderson and Elwood, Indiana. She is a member of the American Dental Association Institute for Diversity in Leadership program and has started a toothbrushing program at an elementary school in Indianapolis. When she’s not working she enjoys reading, going to the movies, traveling and spending time with her family and friends.