I’m a white man and, as far as I’m aware, I’ve never been subject to discrimination based on my race or gender. But I also understand that just because I have not experienced it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
That’s why, we recently conducted a significant piece of research into dentists’ experiences of racism, as a joint project with the Faculty of General Dental Practice. Informed by the racism focus group led by BDA President Russ Ladwa last September, this survey received just under a thousand respondents and provided us with a rich vein of data on the reality of racism in dentistry.
We are still in the process of in-depth analysis and will report widely on the results. But I have had the chance to look at some of the data and troubling accounts of personal experiences of discrimination faced by our colleagues stand out.
It’s clear that we still face a significant problem with racism within dentistry.
Denial and discrimination
Proof of ongoing discrimination was not all this survey turned up. There were also comments from other respondents, who had not personally seen or experienced discrimination and therefore insisted that it did not exist.
Comments such as ‘stop wasting time, money and effort on problems that don't exist’; ‘stop being woke and ramming it down our throats’; and ‘stop trying to stir up trouble where it doesn't exist'; along with ‘many UK dentists if not a majority are from a non-British ethnic background and they are doing fine’ are disappointing. These comments seek to silence minority voices and efforts to support diversity within the profession.
[Some] seek to silence minority voices and efforts to support diversity within the profession.
I know I haven’t lived the same life as other people, or been subject to the same struggles, so I can’t possibly know what it feels like to walk in their shoes. But I can still accept and acknowledge their reality and I would encourage all of my colleagues to do the same. Denying that there is a problem really doesn’t help.
What can be done?
Whilst a lack of direct experience can make it difficult to properly understand racism or to be fully supportive of those who endure its impacts, there are things we can all do to show support for our colleagues. We can genuinely listen to concerns; boost the voice of dentists from minority groups for example across social media; educate ourselves; and speak up and challenge racism where we see it.
The term ‘white ally’ is often used these days and perhaps sounds a little too ‘woke’ to some. It seems to me to simply be the right thing to do as a caring professional to seek to understand and sympathise with colleagues who face consistent barriers in their working lives.
I’m proud that we have made equality, diversity and inclusion a priority area currently for the BDA. We have started a programme of work under our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, led by Shareena Ilyas and Laura Cross. The racism survey is just the start of that.
As a caring profession [we should] seek to understand and sympathise with colleagues.
Later this year, we will have our triennial elections. Almost all of the BDA committees will have vacancies for the profession to elect their representatives. This is a perfect opportunity for more members to stand and ensure that all voices from across dentistry are heard.
Last weekend, I spoke about the issue to the Annual LDC Conference and was pleased to see a special motion passed making clear that there is no place for discrimination in dentistry. Our work continues and my commitment, as BDA chair, is to make sure that we devote the time and energy to this work that it warrants. In that sense, I hope I am doing what I can to be the best possible ally to my colleagues across the profession.