The appalling death of George Floyd put a national and international spotlight on the racial injustices rampant throughout the United States. Millions of protesters all over the world have come out on the streets and online to support the Black Lives Matter movement in the months since. Protestors’ voices call for the defunding of police departments, for the end of mass incarceration and prison labor, for equity in Black communities and for so much more — all inequalities and disparities that our country needs to unpack to begin healing from centuries of oppression.
The focus of this movement is on ending police brutality and other racially motivated violence against those in the Black community, such as the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and a devastating number of others. With so much pain and violence surrounding both the current events and entire history of these topics, it’s often difficult for us to know how to respond in our everyday lives, especially when feelings of helplessness or futility arise. As dental students who are overwhelmed with the everyday stresses of exams, patient care, loan debt, etc., and as Americans living through an uncontrolled pandemic and economic recession, we often don’t see how we could possibly create an impact in a society with issues so deeply rooted and elaborately compounded.
In these times, I believe it’s imperative we widen our lens of focus to the many ways racism is prevalent in our everyday lives as students with the privilege of attaining higher education in dental school. The word “racism” here isn’t referring to Merriam Webster’s dictionary definition regarding prejudice against any race — what I mean is societal, or structural, racism. Societal racism is rooted in the historically charged societal disparities between white people and those of other races, especially Black people, and to be racist means to consciously or subconsciously uphold a system that disenfranchises and marginalizes people based on their race. In this definition, to disregard the way our society treats Black people is be complicit; thus, this inaction is racist.
Here’s a thought experiment: When you looked around your classes on the first day of dental school, did you ever notice the lack of people who look, spoke and had the same culture as you? For the majority of us, the answer is no. However, for just a handful of people at almost every dental school, this answer may feel disheartening and isolating. If you are reading this, it is more likely that you may be white or Asian than any other race, especially Black or Indigenous.
The American Dental Education Association’s 2018 Applicants and First Time Enrollees by Race and Ethnicity report states that of dental school enrollees in 2018, only 0.2% were Indigenous and 5.3% were Black. Furthermore, of all the dentists in the United States, the American Dental Association reports that in 2015, only 3.8% were Black. With Black and Indigenous people making up more than 15% of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, we can see that the underrepresentation of this group in dentistry is extraordinary.
In my own 2022 class of 150 students at University of the Pacific, there is only one black person. Recently, I posted a spotlight of her on our Pacific ASDA Instagram to help tell her story of the barriers she faced throughout her education, in her journey applying to dental school and now as the sole Black person in our class. The response was tremendous, with many people applauding her bravery for retelling her experiences, and many people realizing for the first time the true lack of diversity among our peers. While it is true that she is incredibly courageous, as the only Black person in our class, she cannot change this issue alone or with only our applause.
Though it may seem like eradicating social injustice is so out of our reach as dental students and American citizens, it is precisely these roles that grant us the opportunity to create a difference. We often say we don’t have the financial means, political status or even free time to rally for Black Lives Matter, to advocate for health care reform, to speak to our representatives and so on. However, to speak on the ways we cannot make a difference neglects the privileges and capabilities we do have.
As students of higher education, future health care providers and citizens of the world, we have a responsibility to our peers, colleagues, patients and every person or child who suffers from the historical pain and suffering that majority of us in this field are currently benefitting from. We have a responsibility to create a profession that ethically upholds the quality of care for all people. We must start by asking ourselves: What more can we do to check our privilege? How else can we educate ourselves on racism and the best way to be an ally? How can we, as non-BIPOC students, show up for those who are BIPOC?
I am an Asian woman, and though I have faced discrimination in other ways, I am writing this post because I recognize my privilege as a part of the majority in this field. I hope to amplify the voices of Black women and men who do not always have the ability to speak freely in our dental school classrooms. Moreover, I believe it should not be the responsibility of the oppressed to educate their oppressor. Part of my allyship is a commitment to speaking out for those who are BIPOC in whatever ways on whichever platforms I have the ability to.
No one individual can radicalize the racist structures on which our country was built but what we can do is join the fight. We can confront the ways we are perpetuating a structure built on racism. We can go into community health and help service BIPOC communities that are low income. We can advocate for more diverse recruiting practices. We can create safe spaces for, listen to and learn from our Black patients and colleagues to understand and help alleviate their hardships. We can share their stories. And as we fight for them, we can also facilitate the healing and reconciliation it takes to make amends for our history and the pain it still causes today.
~Winna Pham, Pacific ’22