The month of February is a confluence of so many of the things I love in life: showing love to those in our lives on Valentine’s Day, discount candy and chocolate the day after Valentine’s Day (haha), and the whole month being both Black History and Children’s Oral Health Month.
As a Black female, it is exciting to see how Black History Month has broadened to so much more than what it felt like in my youth: the 28 days (20 if you only count school days when most of the learning occurred) when all the history of the United States that involved Black people was crammed into a month of study, to now: when non-Black-owned businesses showcase their commitment to promoting inclusion and diversity, and when we learn of the lesser known Black people who have changed and who are changing history, and when people seem to be more willing to support Black people and our causes.
I pay attention during Black History Month to see how non-Black-owned businesses that I already patronize celebrate this month, and if they don’t, I look for businesses that made a point to celebrate Black History Month.
I tend to joke with others who are Black in earnest that “we got the shortest month” and “Black History Month should be every day.” I wholeheartedly agree because as long as we have statistics like 18.8% of Black people in the U.S. are living in poverty (census.gov), or 40.6% of Black adults being homeowners compared to 74% of White adults (marketwatch.com), or a national maternal mortality rate for Black women of 43 per 100,000 live births compared to 17 for White women, we need to keep making our voices heard and letting people know that Black Lives Matter.
We need our month to have undisturbed time to let our history and our current status be heard. There are still many people who get incensed at the phrase Black Lives Matter. We have to remind you because at face value, even in 2022, it often feels like they don’t.
I have done several outreach/enrichment programs to schools in the Indianapolis Public Schools district in my hometown. It probably goes without saying that the majority of the students that make up IPS are our Black and Brown children.
When I think about Children’s Oral Health Month, I think about more than oral health education to these underrepresented children, I think about their futures as members of society in the world that we are creating for them now. While they aren’t aware, because of their ages and lack of experience, at some point they will become aware and won’t be able to help feeling like their Black lives don’t matter.
How can we present dentistry as a career to them? How can we ensure that more of these children have access to high quality health care beyond just the dental office?
During one of my outreach activities, I took one of my mentees, a Black young lady, with me. I made her dress up as the Tooth Fairy. We were in a second-grade classroom and the girls, all Black, were SO excited to see a Black woman. To them, she was the actual Tooth Fairy who had spare time to stop by their class. Have any of you ever considered the race of the Tooth Fairy? To be honest, I realized, as I watched girls of my own race, captivated by my mentee, I always pictured the Tooth Fairy as White.
Last year when I did a blog about Black History Month, someone commented, to paraphrase, saying that it was Black peoples’ fault that we are where we are in the U.S. because culturally we didn’t have the same values as some other groups who are doing better than us.
This month as Valentine’s Day comes and goes, and we still have two more weeks of Black History and Children’s Oral Health Month, I ask you to consider the profession that you love, and how children’s oral health for our Black children is so vastly different than their peers.
I ask that you just be open. If you feel the same as the gentleman did who commented on my blog last year, I ask you: just be open.
When you take a CE course, you are open to a new way of practicing some procedure. We take hours and hours of CE to continually improve our practice and understanding of our career. When you read a book or article or follow a social media page about racism or critical race theory or an autobiography by a Black author, you are being open to expanding your way of thinking, and therefore your world view, and I would even go so far as to say having an expanded worldview will make you a better provider, even if you don’t have a very diverse group of patients.
What do you think would be our ulterior motive if we are lying about these statistics? What do we, as Black people, have to gain by lying if there are, instead of 3.8% of all practicing dentists being Black (in 2020, from the ADA Health Policy Institute), there are actually 10%? Would we stop trying to promote dentistry as a career to Black kids because the numbers increased? Even if the statistics are better than stated, they are still abysmal in most cases. Improving health care for Black people doesn’t mean less care for all the other groups.
Be open to these statistics, like how many Black students go into dentistry, the higher level of student loans that Black graduates have when they exit dental school, or statistics about Black children having higher caries rate than their White counterparts.
Be open to what it must feel like to be the lone Black student in a class. Be open to being uncomfortable as we often are when we are the only one in a room and have to be the spokesperson for our entire race.
If you’ve ever been in a situation where you’ve been the only one of your gender or race in a room, you know how that feels. Now imagine feeling that every single day and the perseverance and resilience it takes to succeed in it.
Just be open.
Happy Black History and Children’s Oral Health Month.
Dr Elizabeth Simpson is a general dentist from Indianapolis, Indiana. She attended Tufts University School of Dentistry for her dental education. After graduation, she did a one-year General Practice Residency at Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry. She is now a clinical assistant Professor at Indiana University School of Dentistry. She is a member of the American Dental Association Council on Advocacy for Access and Prevention, on a diversity task force with the Indiana Dental Association, and a guest blogger with the ADA New Dentist Now Blog.