A couple of months ago I wrote a blog after the death of George Floyd.
In it I talked about wondering what my great grandmother, who lived to be 92 and died in 1997 would have thought of what has come to be generally accepted as his killing by the police, and I extrapolated that to how she would have felt knowing that only 4.3% of dentists are Black/African American in the U.S.
Most of the comments to the blog were very positive. There was one comment that, among numerous other things, insinuated that I had made up the statistic and that Black people needed to work harder. I’ll never forget it. Reading it, I was shocked and actually a little scared that someone, especially someone from the health care field who should have compassion for others would be so callous with their remarks about something that is a countable fact.
Whether they want to believe it or not, the statistic remains. In my first year at Tufts there were FIVE black students out of 157, and this a school that sought out diversity. We make up a tiny percentage of dentists. There are also statistics that state that Black practitioners see the majority of Black patients. This in turn could explain why, if there aren’t enough of us, there are huge gaps in access to care for Black/minority patients.
When I was growing up, my mother made sure that almost everyone my family used for services we needed was Black, especially our medical providers. If she couldn’t find a Black woman, she found a woman. Our realtor when my parents bought their first home in Indianapolis was a Black woman, my pediatrician was a Black woman, my first pediatric dentist was a woman, and then she found a Black woman when I was a little older who we all went to. Our family optometrist was a Black woman.
I think about the quote: “You can’t be what you don’t see.” On the flip side, conversing with a Black male friend recently, he said that growing up he thought the best thing he could be was a mailman. This is not to disparage our postal workers, but simply to shine a light on the fact that for some children there are only certain professions they see available to them because it’s all they see.
My mother made it a practice to surround her Black daughter with strong, intelligent, independent women. Her daughter became a strong, intelligent, independent Black woman. I grew up going to my dentist, Dr. Jeanette Holloway, who changed office locations two times in the course of us being her patients, each office being larger and more impressive than the last.
Dr. Holloway did my orthodontia and pulled my wisdom teeth. She even let me shadow her on Take Your Daughter to Work Day. I listened to her talk about places she went to on vacation, looked at how she dressed, saw the respect she received and it became in grained in me that she was someone I could be someday.
We ended up changing dentists when I was in high school to another Black woman, Dr. Kathlene Beache. The summer after my freshman year in college, I ran into Dr. Beache at church and asked her if she knew of any doctors who might need summer help in their office. She said, “You will work in my office.” Never mind that I was pre-med and wanted to be a physician. That summer working with her changed my life and I didn’t know it at the time. All I remember thinking at the time was looking at mouths all day was gross, and dentistry looked easy. And almost every day I thought: “I could do this…” Ha!
I looked at each of those women and thought: she’s no smarter than me. But what about all the kids who DON’T have that person to look to as inspiration? What about the kids whose mothers don’t have the foresight/wherewithal/resources to inundate their child with role models? I have about six young women that I mentor and five of them are Black. They only have me to look to as the Black female dentist that they know. One of them is from Chicago. I was shocked when her brother told me she didn’t know any female Black dentists there to shadow.
This Black History Month, I charge you with a couple of considerations.
First, I implore you not to balk at statistics. We have just come through a time when factual news has been challenged. Look at your dental school and your dental societies, how many Black dentists do you see? Ask your kids if they are in college prep classes at school, how many Black students are in their classes? Being a minority in a sea of white classmates and/or colleagues can be daunting.
A colleague of mine, who is also Black, once told me that she had a patient who told her that he didn’t want to be treated by a Black dentist. In 2020. Personally, I work in a small, rural town in Indiana, and being Black in this town is scary to me at times. I hesitate sometimes to go in small, local restaurants or gas stations, wondering if people will be rude to me. So my second charge is to believe us when we tell you these things. These occurrences are real. The feelings we have are real.
My third charge: make something of this Black History Month. In my humble opinion,Black History Month is no longer just about learning about Black people who have done world changing things in our history. Use this Black History Month to learn about the current state of being Black in America. As a practitioner, learn about health disparities for minorities and figure out how you can help.
In closing, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people say something along the lines of “You’re the dentist?!” because someone who looks like me is not what they are expecting.
And when there are only less than a handful of Black students in a dental class, then sadly, it almost makes sense that I am not what is expected.
If it wasn’t for Drs. Beache, Holloway, and of course, my mother, I wouldn’t be here. I was lucky. Think about all the kids who feel like their options are limited to certain professions just because they aren’t exposed to others? Think about all the kids who aren’t receiving care or who are suffering from dental pain because of health disparities.
Black dentists can’t do it alone. We need all of our colleagues to be on board with us.
*Dr. Jeanette Holloway is now the director of outreach, recruitment and admissions at Tufts.
Editor’s note: For more information on the ADA’s Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion, visit ADA.org.
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.