Photo of Dr. Simpson and Grandma Vi

In response to civil unrest, ask yourself the hard questions

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?”

Photo of Dr. Simpson

Dr. Simpson

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?

Photo of Dr. Simpson and Grandma Vi

A young Dr. Simpson with her Grandma Vi.

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.

38 comments

  • Such a great article! Thank you Liz!

  • Those were awesome words. We should all be alarmed and ready to help others, not tear down.

  • This is awesome Liz!! Positive words!

  • This is awesome Liz!! Positive words!

  • I agree, mentorship and creating pipelines is crucial. Wonderfully written Liz!

  • Tanya Sue Maestas

    Great article Liz!! Love the photo!
    I hope we will all be mentors to help diversify our profession!

  • Thank you Liz that was a very moving article.
    Sadly as far back as 2000 we discussed this at the ADA President/President Elects conference. Sadly at the time statistics showed the number of Black men going to college was in decline from 1970s. A very sad statistic. ADEA’s Dean Jeanne Sinkford
    Worked tirelessly as head of the Center for Equality and Diversity Which she started in 1998 to help make a difference. With all that said we must continue to come up with meaningful solutions to combat these unacceptable statistics.

  • Great article about mentor ship and the need for more minority dentist. The opportunities are there they just need to be activated upon by more male minorities.
    What happened in Minneapolis should have never happened but there will always be rotten eggs in every profession, it’s the profession obligation to get rid of them as what should have been done in Minneapolis.
    What’s even more disturbing is what happened in Chicago the same weekend and very little was said or done about it in Chicago by the news media nation wide and the government entities in Chicago.

  • Fabulous writing, thank you!

  • Dr. Simpson: It would be great to get more people of color into the dental field, but that’s difficult when too many kids are trapped in failing schools that do not educate them. I’ve been heavily involved in school issues. Look at NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) results: https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/ The scores are low across the board, but particularly for minority kids. You have to catch these kids early. Pay attention to school board races. Do NOT go support candidates who support unions, which routinely fight any effort at school reform. Support school choice. So many parents have kids wait listed to get out of poor performing public schools and into charter schools where they can learn and succeed. Mentor these kids. They cannot get into dental school without being able to handle math and science classes. Quality education – starting in kindergarten – is critical if we’re going to help students into underrepresented occupations. Knowledge is power.

    • Elizabeth Simpson

      Hi Carla
      I actually did a podcast last week and discussed that very issue of catching kids early. I didn’t have enough room here to address everything that needs to be done. As a child of two educator parents, I have been raised with a true value of education and educators. The unions were very supportive to both my parents in different matters as educators, and my mother’s best friend is the current president of the union in my former township so on that I am afraid I have to disagree.

  • Howard M. Elson

    I’m not a “New Dentist.” I’m an “Old Dentist,” and I thank and commend you, Dr. Simpson, for this piece, as well as the ADA for making it available to all ADA members through its emailed “Morning Huddle.”
    In addition to your suggestions I would add actively seeking and hiring minority employees and associates. People of good will don’t need government regulations or “NFL Rooney rules” to give deserving people opportunity. My pediatric dental practice has hired and employed Black dental assistants and hygienists, as well as Pediatric Dentists OC. The Pediatric Dentist who will be associating with me and taking over my “Comprehensive Pediatric Dentistry under general anesthesia” practice is a Black woman.
    I don’t write this to “pat myself on the back” but to illustrate to my colleagues that this can and should be done!
    My practice, of over 43 years, sees many Black children. It is most gratifying to see their eyes widen and their faces “light up” when they see that they are being taken care of by someone who looks like them…and realize “I can do that…” That’s also when some of what Dr. Simpson suggests can also start…
    Reverend Al is right. It’s time to make America great for everyone for the first time.

  • Thank you Liz. I have been involved with our local community dental clinic for 10 years and I am pleased to tell you we have many, mostly young women of color interested in dentistry as a result of being patients All the Team members provide love, hope and encouragement to them in hopes they all continue their dreams of entering our wonderful profession.

  • Thank you for your enlightening article. I am a black female Pediatric dentist in Florida. I am willing to mentor minorities in the field of medicine and Dentistry. As a matter of fact, I often have talks with my patients about future plans, education and the like. I am here to be the example and mentor to all who are willing to call me.
    -Dr. Kera Young
    Kyoung@youngsmilesdental.net
    http://Www.youngsmilesdental.net
    Class of ’92
    Meharry Medical College
    School of Dentistry

  • Briana Chavez

    Thank you Liz for this powerful article.

  • James Moreau. Jr. DDS

    Interesting points As an EMT I worked with white, black, Indian, Latino, and Asian, Nurses, residents, and physicians. I never saw their color. I would discern their passion and competency was independent of color. Patient’s race were listed for propensity if disease and for epidemiological reasons. At 18 years old. I DID notice, as apparently the ONLY White EMT at CHNO, many patients assumed I was a physician. That was my first awareness of the discrepancy in the race of different levels of health card providers. We even saw a black patient ask to have another doctor then the kind and compassionate black resident. She wanted a white one. We were all angry about the incident. This was New Orleans 1973. From this point, through College, Dental School, being an Associate Professor, and a State Board Member, I did contribute this lack of numbers of diversity To these factors in all regions of the USA. : Poor public education ( not funding, but focus on math and sciences), sons lack of scholarships and the burden of Student loans. Subjectively, , I wondered if lack of confidence in where and how they would practice and who would accept them as providers was not self-limiting. Was racism in admissions a problem? I assure you not at my times at LSUSD during the seventies to now. Do I wonder if some where a race from a particular college pre-judged due to past performances from that school or this one? Of course. But probably more from previous observation than racism but still unfair. In my culturally diverse, , family atmosphere, practice, we did not pick or keep people by who they were or some aspect of their history but by their training, experience and character. However, if someone had not encouraged of in some way enabled them, they would not be the person we need. EVERY child, young adult, or even older person person who we are blessed to serve needs us, as their dental practice, to be encouragers, enablers, teachers, listeners, and yes, if appropriate, mentors. In 40 years of practice and teaching, I have built this into our culture. We are unabashedly, yet not overtly, a Christian practice ( with at least two other faiths represented ) that treats all equally. We invite kids, at appropriate ages, to visit with any one of us. Our local High School has asked us to allow interns to work in our practice and we have turned out several dentists, hygienists, physicians, and at least one chiropractor and a pharmacology researcher through this alone. Our community has possibly the same demographics of the nation but is not at all similar to my hometown 39 miles away. Poor white, Hispanic, and black live in our suburban/ semi-rural area. Many of those poor have only some to not much hope of acquiring professional degrees. The best I can do is mentor but lack resources to give hope by providing more than small scholarships by local clubs and our dental association. It is hard to give “a hope and a future” when I lack resources. Time and time again my wife helps steer applicants toward academic scholarships to a certain university. But need-based scholarships seem fewer. I never rubber stamp quotas based on gender, race, or anything else. I only look for passion and character. There is a lot of that out there. Kids telling me they want to go back to their small town, Rural neighborhood ( or in one case, his African nation ) because of recognition If it being underserved has nothing to do with race, but love, and of course, opportunities. But it is not about wealth, but being successful in serving and viability of a business. It is our MISSION, with out prejudging, to replace ourselves. Creating awareness of our importance to fellow humans will inspire a drive to serve. A successful dentist can not only be viable to continue their business, but will have margins of time and money to not only give away treatment, but to have that time and money to lift others up to do likewise. See potential, not limitations, in all. Do what you, with balance, can to support a prospect. I have , unfortunately but with some pride, even lost former employees to being at least one hygienist, one a dentist, one a school principle, and a couple of other professions, all because I would sit, listen, and inform the next move. We have thd most unique face-to-face, literally, opportunity to improve our nation by showing no judgement and enabling.

    • Robert F Beyer III DDS PLLC

      Very interesting Ole james Moreau!
      Hope you and your family are doing well!
      Rfbiiidds
      Rob Beyer III

  • Fredrick M. Matvias DMD,MS

    Very interesting article . Thank you for your thoughts. My grandmother was a strong positive influence on my life also. Maybe dentists should reach out to parents/grandparents some how.

  • Olga Lombo-Sguerra

    Thank you for your article, I agree we should definitely do more. I am a Latin American woman dentist, very proud of my origins and our profession.
    Change has come very slowly, (I remember being the only one woman dentist at a seminar), but we have to do more. Working with high school students should be on our priority list.

    The current situation certainly is prompting as to think about many things and look for more change. During April, while making good use of my time, I had a talk with a class of high school students over a Zoom meeting, trying to introduce them to dentistry, that was just a brush.
    We definitely should do more. I am very happy to hear that some else is thinking about this as well.

  • Such an excellent article and very heart felt and very moving. I’m very grateful for your remarks. You are who we all need in our dental community and beyond. I’m grateful for your presence in the profession. Your grandmother might not have been surprised by the lack of progress in our nation, but she would certainly be proud of her granddaughter and who you are and what you’ve accomplished and your vision. And in that way, she can live through you.

  • I jumped at the chance to comment on Dr. Simpson’s great thought provoking article, but after reading other’s comments I’ll just add that, practicing in a poorer community, I’ve found that support of community colleges (CC)where minority students can get a foot hold into college without breaking the bank is a valuable helping hand. Most CC’s now have foundations that provide financial assistance to students who would otherwise have to drop out. Supporting them, or even starting one for your CC can bring a student from an underperforming high school into a college level performance and open doors to post grad choices.
    One other tip for those who ask what’s in it for them, talking to children about considering a career in Dentistry at all levels is a real practice builder with the parents! They are desperate for ways to motivate their children and your assistance goes a long way toward helping them. And they really appreciate it and you!
    Let’s keep up the good pressure!

  • Peter Gershenson

    I have attended several diversity meetings at the ADEA national and fall conferences. The thoughts are good, but it is up to the schools to put forth an effort to RECRUIT qualified applicants. The schools certainly know how to do this, they find ball players for their teams. Yet finding students of color to attend dental school is beyond their capabilities. Let’s face facts. The schools are not interested, with the notable exceptions of the HBSU’s. Until the dental schools make this a priority, nothing will change.

  • Very good article. The older I get, the more things stay the same. Except in this case the quality of education in the black inner city public schools is declining, not improving. Those neighborhoods deserve good schools and they desrve choice in the education of their children. The economic situation of a black family in these places doesn’t allow them the flexibility to move to a better school.
    A village doesn’t raise a child, a mother and father do that and they do a better job. But 75% of the babies born in our inner cities are born out of wedlock. That’s a lot of children being raised without the input of a father. This leads to several disasters. One is the substitution of gangs for fathers. Our prisons are full of young black men who went this route. The other disaster are the number of abortions of black babies. It’s much higher than any other race.
    We all need to look at the spiritual side of our lives. If we look for solutions from the government that can lead to hopelessness. Dr. King knew that his hope was in the grace of God. And that is why he articulated so well that people should be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. That’s where we need to be not this endless game of identity politics, labeling each other, or our institutions as bad or good based on an arbitrary definition given by a fanatical group.
    One last thing. Politics has played an enormous part in the problems of the inner city. The Democratic Party has controlled our cities for half a century. Many mayors are Democrats as are the council members. Most of our big cities are in states under Democratic Party rule. It may be time for citizens in these cities to re-evaluate who they vote for.
    Remember your history- the Democratic Party was the Party of slavery. They started the Civil War that cost over 500,000 casualties. When they took over the U.S. House in the 1870’s, all reconstruction efforts stopped. The Democrats brought in segregation and Jim Crow laws. The KKK was the militant arm of the Democratic Party and it controlled their conventions into the 1920’s. The Civil Rights Act in the 1960’s passed in spite of the Democratic Party’s attempt to derail it. We live in a great nation. The black community needs to reclaim its right to liberty. Then we’ll start to see more minority dentists.

    • Dr. Sue Keller

      “A village doesn’t raise a child, a mother and father do that and they do a better job. But 75% of the babies born in our inner cities are born out of wedlock. That’s a lot of children being raised without the input of a father. This leads to several disasters. One is the substitution of gangs for fathers. Our prisons are full of young black men who went this route. The other disaster are the number of abortions of black babies. It’s much higher than any other race.”

      “One last thing. Politics has played an enormous part in the problems of the inner city. The Democratic Party has controlled our cities for half a century. Many mayors are Democrats as are the council members. Most of our big cities are in states under Democratic Party rule. It may be time for citizens in these cities to re-evaluate who they vote for.
      Remember your history- the Democratic Party was the Party of slavery. They started the Civil War that cost over 500,000 casualties. ”

      This comment does not meet my need for awareness, understanding, or honesty. Ignorance of reality is no longer an excuse. You have a responsibility to educate yourself beyond the paternalist authoritarian teachings of your religion. Here’s a history of the Democratic Party you can use to educate yourself: https://www.history.com/topics/us-politics/democratic-party. Look and listen to the stories of BIPOC to know what is happening today. Watch the movie, 13th. Listen to the actual history in the podcast “1619” https://open.spotify.com/show/7j5MhJCMBvOjF1Asi9LPLX?si=znbRoTuNS9Sq4wz9pLMu_A

      The white community needs to literally and figuratively get its knee off the airway of BIPOC. Equity must precede equality. There is no “right to liberty” to “reclaim”. It has been systematically and institutionally denied since 1619 in North America.

  • Amy Liao, Michigan '05, '09 - Philadelphia, PA

    Thank you for this thoughtful reflection.
    The University of Michigan School of Dentistry has a summer program for college students/recent grads from underrepresented groups to receive support for careers in dentistry. https://dent.umich.edu/education/profile-success#pfs-description
    I’m thankful it existed when I was in school because I learned so much from my classmates who participated in PFS. The program lapsed for a few years due to lack of funding and was subsequently brought back. Schools and organizations will need to put money where their mouth is to show that they really value diversity.

  • When I attended Tufts (Class of 1988), There was one black woman in the class. Definitely room for improvement.

  • Peter Gershenson

    You could be the poster person for white privilege and systemic racism. I come from a military family, one that was segregated in WW2, not that long ago. Having never been the subject of systemic racism, and being from Iowa, I imagine you have not had the same experiences as those of us who have lived in a large urban area. You operate under the misguided assumption that everyone starts out with the same opportunity. There in lies your mistake. It’s not about single mothers or grandparents raising kids. It’s about starting out with a deficit that is inflicted by others simply because you are not the same, and assumptions are made. Asian Americans are not all doctors and dentists by the way. Some run some of the most deadly street gangs in urban centers. There are good people and bad people everywhere. No group is immune. Ask Jeffrey Dahmer.

    • First, I want to congratulate Dr. Simpson for writing an eloquent article drawing reference from her personal story. We all have our internal frame based on our upbringing and therefore these experiences shape and form how we see things. Dr. Simpson had used objective data to point out a mismatch, or rather healthcare disparity of blacks within dental profession. Blacks are historically underrepresented in the dental and medical profession, and that is a fact. I did not gather that Dr. Simpson was seeking for apology, for those who might feel offended after reading the article. Much like peeling the onions, each race might face challenges when it comes to equity for opportunities. Whether you are a rich or poor whatever race you might be, there are challenges on different levels. You and I and another person may not have the same experience and therefore don’t necessarily see eye to eye or agree. But I do feel that as professionals we can agree to disagree and perhaps see from another person’s perspective why he or she feels the way they do. Asian American have many different subgroups and not all are boat people and not all come to the country at the same time. Asian Americans also have different issues than black Americans, and that would be a different discussion, a different day or time. For what is worth, taking from George Floyd’s death, I think this incident should make us realize that there are still injustice and that we have work to do.

  • Your article deserves merit. However, there is a flaw in thinking that only black students or dentists can or should mentor underprivileged, black high school or college students. We are all part of the human race and too many times many of us forget that. Every dentist should consider mentoring white, black, asian, Native, and latin students. Sometimes society that is against racism, whether systemic or overt, creates the racism they are trying to prevent.

    • Elizabeth Simpson

      That’s why I said we should all be alarmed by these statistics and I said there aren’t enough of us as Blacks to solve the problem.

    • Dr. Sue Keller

      Dr. Cohen–I am responding to your posting of this video, (which doesn’t seem to correlate with your comment–but I could only make it through the first 1/3, so maybe it became relevant later) in light of the repeated murders, violent beatings, jailing, and traffic stops of Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color, based solely on the basis of the color of their skin–not “white”–does not meet my need for respect, collaboration, or community. I do agree that we are all part of the human race. We, as white people, need to LISTEN, to the stories of what BIPOC experience in their DAILY lives, let alone a lifetime.
      If you hear the stories, (try watching 13th, Just Mercy, and Selma, for starters, and look for the stories people are willing to share, like this one from my Harvard College classmate brutally attacked in his senior year at Harvard in 1989: https://youtu.be/mAOr65b8GDw
      He shared this publicly this June, 30 years later. My teammate on the local rowing club fears for her life every time she gets into a car or walks down the street, in liberal MA–she shared her story on FaceBook. My dental colleagues at the ADA’s Institute of Diversity in Leadership shared stories of fear, verbal assault in the clinics, and the most poignant story from two of our mentors. Our white mentor said, “When I am driving and I see the blue lights behind me, I wonder how much this is going to cost me tonight.” Our Black mentor said, “When I am driving and I see the blue lights behind me, I wonder if this stop is going to cost me my life tonight.”
      Let that sink in, and then join me and other white people in educating ourselves to become actively anti-racist, instead of “nice” to BIPOC.. Equality, which I believe you believe in, cannot happen without equity first: the playing field is not only uneven, it is filled with toxic waste, landmines, and terrorists-white terrorists. Seek out the stories, listen, and then help create a world where all people are free and equal.
      White men created these systems, and it up to those of us with privilege to move them aside so that new systems, developed through collaboration of all people, can serve the greatest good of all people, all over this world. Join me-we can make a difference now. And, yes, it would be awesome if you could mentor some young dentists, especially if they are comfortable enough with you to know that they won’t be patronized or have the experiences that have shaped their lives minimized.

      • Peter Gershenson

        Well put. It is a troubling and all too familiar story. I will chime in once again, that if Dentistry was truly interested in equity, diversity, and equality, it would have already done something. We are highly educated, high achieving professionals. The fact that we have done little demonstrates that those in the upper offices are not really interested. If we want high achieving students of color to become dentists, we must go out and get them….recruit them and make sure they are given the opportunity to succeed. The schools are full of Unconscious Bias (JDE), and it is too often the faculty.

  • Bartolo Espana

    Great article thanks!

    At one point I was the only black student in the whole school ~450 people at UoP!

    I graduated 2014

  • Fran Clairmont DMD

    Congratulations on choosing the profession of dentistry! You and your family should be very proud of your accomplishments. Help us change the world.

  • Dr. Sue Keller

    Well said, Dr. Simpson. A lot of white people are finally starting to pay attention and see how systemic and institutional racism have created the world we live in today. We are starting to understand that racism is EVERYONE’s problem, and that we must be more than “nice”, we must be actively “anti-racist.” Living in predominantly white areas, I just didn’t get it until the most recent violence happened and opened my eyes, until the few people of color and Black people I knew shared THEIR stories, THEIR experiences some of which happened right where I live. I have been actively learning these past weeks, and have made the commitment to be anti-racist for the rest of my life, until everyone is free.

    I understand as a woman how important it is for girls to see women as dentists; so intersectionally, it makes perfect sense that it is so important for Black kids to see Black men and women as dentists. I also am finally grasping the meaning of equity, vs. equality. I am sorry I have been on the sidelines so long, thinking that the problem was elsewhere. I see now that the problem begins with me. I must educate and change myself first, and then I can contribute to helping create a new world that is based on equity and love. Here for the long haul! Thanks for the wakeup call!

  • Great facts and words of wisdom Liz. Words to reflect on and am cause for action. Thank you for bringing your thoughts to life. Now let’s continue to live by them Thank you for sharing.

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