June 19, 1865. This date commemorates General Gordon Granger arriving with Union soldiers in Galveston, Texas, revealing the end of the Civil War and declaring the emancipation of those who were still enslaved two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. This day is now commonly known and celebrated as Juneteenth, Emancipation Day or Juneteenth Independence Day, and it serves as a time to not only celebrate African American freedom, but it provides an opportunity to learn and appreciate African American history, culture and achievements. This year will mark the 156th year since the news of emancipation reached the slaves.
Juneteenth is celebrated in a number of cities and states across the country. These celebrations involve traditional festivities including rodeos, picnics, barbecues, educational and historical services, and church ceremonies, just to name a few. Despite the various advancements African Americans continue to make in society, they remain an underrepresented minority in the dental workforce.
According to the American Dental Association, Black Americans only make up 3.8% of the dental workforce. Dr. Jeanne Sinkford of Howard University College of Dentistry, the first woman dean of any dental school, said dental schools are only graduating 300 Black dentists out of 5,000 graduates per year. A few of my dental colleagues have made statements, such as, “I never saw anyone who looked like me” and have stressed the importance of representation within dentistry. Some have expressed that their motivating factors for pursuing dental school involved bringing comfort to others who look like them.
The disproportionate growth in the dental profession, compared to other minority populations, could be the result of historical systemic barriers Black people have faced and continue to face to this day. A poll conducted by National Public Radio (NPR) in 2017 reported 32% of Black Americans who participated said they experienced racial discrimination when seeking medical care; 22% avoided seeking care due to the fear of being discriminated against. A 2016 Pew Charitable Trusts analysis reported that Black American adults and children experience untreated tooth decay at twice the rate of their white counterparts. Untreated tooth decay can eventually lead to a higher rate of tooth loss.
Determinants such as socioeconomic status, access to care and access to affordable nutritious foods disproportionately affect communities of color, especially Black communities, and can influence oral health and overall health outcomes. Racial discrimination and challenges due to health disparities can oftentimes result in health conditions worsening for individuals, leading to shorter lifespans. Lack of oral health care can negatively influence people with diabetes or heart disease and can even affect women during pregnancy. As future providers, it is important to study and be aware of racial disparities individuals face in health care in order to dismantle these structures that create imbalance and distrust.
As I reflect on my journey from a predental to a dental student, I give credit to my mentors and advice from people who looked like me. Social media has become a great method of networking and mentorship, and I have seen numerous individuals share their experiences and journey to guide and inspire people like them who are underrepresented in health care. It’s exciting to witness the increase in diversity, especially underrepresented people of color and women, in healthcare and how communities are being built with great leadership and mentorship for future health professionals.
So, how can we as dental students celebrate Juneteenth? We can use this holiday as a time to educate ourselves and others about Black history and culture, and the inequities many in this community face in obtaining (and maintaining) health care. We can support and empower the efforts of Black dental students by participating in their campus-led or local events, in addition to supporting Black-owned businesses, artists and organizations. More importantly, we can amplify Black voices by creating meaningful conversations through listening, learning and teaching. Diversity and inclusion in the dental profession is important to show that it is a career that can be available to people of all backgrounds. This enhances the cultural competency amongst dental professionals and provides greater health outcomes. Patients in diverse communities may be more willing to seek dental care if they see dental providers who look like them. Representation matters.
~Karishma Ghadia, Arizona ’24, Chapter Lingual Groove/Gold Crown Chair for ASDOH ASDA Magazine