Confronting the Lack of Diversity in Dentistry
TCDM's Alexander Hall, D.D.S., and Student Christine Bereth Discuss Black and African-American Representation
The story of Black History Month begins in 1915, half a century after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States. Still, more than 100 years later, we see disparities in representation in the medical field at large, as well as in healthcare treatment across the country. The field of dentistry is not immune to this unfortunate issue; as of 2020, only 3.8% of U.S. dentists are Black.
According to the American Dental Education Association (ADEA), dental schools in the United States have failed to attract, and therefore enroll, Black and African American students which may be contributing to persistent oral health disparities among Black and African American people. The current completed applicant pool for U.S. dental school, which numbered 10,585, only contained 719 Black/African American applicants, 6.7%. Although greater than the 3.8% of Black U.S. dentists, it is a 16% decrease from last year's applicant pool. The 2020 US Census counted 14.2% of the population as “Black Only” and as “Black in combination with another race.” There is much to be done in dental education to meet this challenge.
To get a more intimate perspective, and to bring forth awareness on the issue of representation in the dental community, second-year TCDM student, Christine Bereth (CB), and Dr. Alexander Hall (AH), Director of Diversity & Inclusion, Co-Director of Professional Licensure Examinations, and Associate Professor of Dental Medicine at TCDM, agreed to participate in the Q&A below.
Q: What made you choose dentistry? Did you have any inspirations in your life in the dental or medical field?
CB: My dad is a pharmacist and my mother is a nurse so I've always had a lot of exposure to the medical field. This piqued my interest in health and medicine at a very young age. For most of my life, however, my understanding of oral health was limited to the aesthetics of a beautiful smile. It was not until I was in college that I learned of the implications that oral health can have on systemic health. I was working in a cardiologist’s office when I noticed that many of the people who suffered from advanced cases of heart disease and atherosclerosis also suffered from advanced gum disease and tooth decay. After discussing this with some of the cardiologists and conducting self-led research I began to gain a deeper understanding of how oral health impacts systemic health, and vice versa. At that point, my appreciation for dentistry blossomed, and I began to love the field.
Q: What does Black History Month mean to you?
AH: Black History Month enables an opportunity to recognize certain accomplishments of Black and African Americans that many times have been overlooked or intentionally muted in American history throughout the years. Black and African Americans have contributed to American society and Black History Month gives an opportunity to highlight their contributions to mankind.
CB: Growing up, Black History Month was one of my favorite times of the year. It was a time when the achievements of black people were acknowledged and celebrated. I've always felt a great sense of pride and honor to learn about the people who innovated, educated, and fought so hard for me to be able to live the life that I live. However, more recently, Black History Month has become a reminder of the shortcomings in our society as a whole. To regard black history as a subset of American history that is only acknowledged for a short 28 days is not conducive to justice and equality for black people. While I jump at the opportunity to share with everyone the pride that I have in my culture, black history should be acknowledged, taught, and celebrated on a regular basis because Black history is American history.
Q: When you were entering dental school, what did representation look like and did that deter you at all from this path?
AH: Upon entering dental school in the early 1980s, I was the only member of color in my class. Being strikingly different in appearance drew attention to my presence. It made me unique and many were driven to be sure that I never felt uncomfortable. Guided along this path were strong mentors that constantly coached me as I challenged the rigors of Dental School. In reflection, I highly respected my mentors and envisioned being like them once completing my training.
Q: What can be done to encourage Black and African American students to join the path to the profession of dentistry?
AH: Young students need to be exposed to, and encouraged to consider science as being interesting and fun. Mentors should identify high school students that perform well in the sciences and inspire them to look towards dentistry as a profession. These role models are critical in motivating young students to consider dentistry as a pathway to achieve success.
Q: What would you say to the young Black and African American students who have dreams of entering dentistry, or other fields with little representation?
CB: Don't let anything get in the way of what you want. As a minority in this field, your experience will be different than that of your peers. Embrace the good that comes with it. Try your best to show that what some may view as a weakness is actually a strength. Stay true to yourself and do what will make you happy regardless of the opinions of others.
Q: What do you want Black and African-American students who are applying to TCDM to know?
AH: TCDM is a dental school that welcomes students from diverse backgrounds creating an atmosphere that fully embraces the profession of dentistry. I strongly encourage African American pre-dental applicants to consider TCDM because it fosters the advancement of dental science in a multicultural environment.